John (13 years old) looks broken on the outside and feels whole on the inside.
It was February 1971, my first day as a speech therapist in an inner city Junior High School of the Bronx. I had taken a few speech courses in college but had never read about or met a person who stutters. I walked into a classroom and told the teacher I was here to take John out for his speech therapy. The record card said that he stuttered. The teacher called out, “John – speech”.
I was mortified to think how humiliating this must have been for him. Little did I know what would transpire. The room became silent as John slowly walked to the front of the room and stuck his finger up at my face and said, “Get out of here – I don’t need you”… He struggled to produce each word as his face contorted. Then he turned and walked back to his seat as the entire class applauded.
I walked out of the room and stopped to process the power of that encounter. A thirteen-year-old boy, half my size stuttering profoundly, took control of the situation, with great strength, dignity and effectiveness. It occurred to me that I had no idea what I would have done if he came with me. I knew nothing of his needs, abilities, challenges, feelings, desires or destiny. I also had no insight into the perplexing condition that caused his speech interruptions. Then I began to think that this young boy had something we all yearn for.
He had a sense of freedom to express himself regardless of what others might think. He was already a free man.
Standing outside the classroom, I wrote the following note: “Dear John, I apologize for interrupting your class. I know nothing about stuttering. If you will teach me, I will pay you. Please call.” I left my phone number. That night I got a call which began with “h,h,h,h,h, how much”? I offered three dollars per hour for his tutoring and he insisted on $5. I agreed.
At the beginning of my first lesson he took charge immediately.
“What do you want to know?” he asked. I asked how he became so strong and did not allow stuttering to stop him from speaking with such strength. He told me that his parents taught him three principles: #1 – Listen for people’s truth. #2 – Speak your own truth. #3 – Work to change the world for the better. “So that is what I do”. I was stunned. I would have been stunned even if this was a mature man speaking. He had a sense of wisdom, dignity, inner pride and perhaps most valuable, a feeling that he was here for a reason that was larger than himself.
As the months unfolded, I watched him run for student council president, speaking in front of hundreds of peers in the auditorium. Stuttering on more than 50% of words while telling them that he would work hard to meet their needs. I watched him confront the school principle with perseverance until policies were modified. Over the years, he matured into a husband, father and criminal defense attorney. He continued to stutter although a bit less intensely as the years passed. He had what it takes in this world to have a meaningful life. He accepted being perfectly imperfect like all others. He also accepted his unique responsibility to be of service to others.
Harry (63 years old) was the first person to come to my new private practice in 1976. He was a self made businessman and philanthropist.
When we met, he took the lead in the conversation, chatting rapidly about many topics. He said nothing about himself. When I attempted to join the conversation he changed the topic. I could not figure out why he had come and what he wanted. His voice sounded normal and his articulation was crisp. There was, however, a distant quality to our encounter that I could not describe in clinical terms. After about 15 minutes, I asked him why he had come to see me. After a long silence as his eyes turned red and watery, slowly over the next hour he shared a story which he had not told before. He told me of his childhood as a boy being mocked for his stuttering by schoolmates and teachers and how his parents often told him to speak slowly. As he grew he began to avoid “hard” sounds, words and situations so others wouldn’t know his “dirty” secret.
Hiding his stuttering became a principle that governed every aspect of his life.
I asked Harry why he decided to seek help at this time in his life and he told me two things. First, he said that his friends were retiring and he had not yet begun to live his “real” life and that he wanted to be a teacher. His second reason shocked me. He said he was going to go to prison because of hiding his stuttering. He explained that he was undergoing an Internal Revenue Service tax audit of his business. Every day he needed to answer dozens of questions involving numbers. Whenever he felt he would stutter on a number he immediately changed it to another number that he could say without stuttering. He was so good at this that no one noticed his stuttering. What they did notice, however, was that his numbers did not match up with what he reported on his tax return. He was indicted for tax evasion. He had less fear of jail time than of someone knowing that he stuttered.
I asked Harry what he really wanted as the outcome of therapy. He responded that he wanted to become a teacher, so, I invited him to give a lecture about stuttering to my graduate students. He accepted without hesitation and gave an animated, humorous, captivating lecture. Shortly after giving that class, he sold his business and began a career as a consultant in an industry providing motivational seminars while stuttering openly.
Harry taught me that it is never too late to change and see the world differently. All you need to do is turn around.
Moses feels inadequate but he says what he has to say – anyway.
As I am writing these stories, I am experiencing the Holiday of Passover. The tradition tells of the Jewish people being freed from slavery by divine intervention. There is a significant but often overlooked detail in the story. Moses is directed, by G’d, to use his power of speech to help bring about this exodus from slavery to freedom. He is to tell the Pharaoh to free the Jews and to tell the Jews to get up and go. Moses replied that he could not do it because speaking was hard for him (“kvad peh”, “kvad lashon”). His assumption was that his speech challenge disqualified him for the job. In response to his expression of limitation, he is told to do it anyway. At first he brought his brother to speak for him, but as the story progresses he becomes his own spokesperson. Moses gradually matures into the most influential speaker of all time. We are never told, however, that he no longer experienced difficulty speaking. He simply did what he had to do anyway.
The lesson of these stories is to realize that what we have to say can change the world for the better. Every kind, thoughtful, meaningful, truthful word has powerful potential. Do not wait for challenges to go away. Say what you are here to say anyway.
Phil Schneider, EdD CCC-SLP