You Want Me To Do What?

James Sclater

© Copyright 2014 by  James Sclater


Boy with alphabet letters coming from his mouth.

This is a story about the impact of stuttering on the life of a young person and how one adjusts to it as one ages. Speech therapy is much different now than it was when I was in grammar school and high school. So much more is known about the physical aspects of it. I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had not had a speech impediment. I am certain that attempting to deal with it has impacted my life in ways I don't realize even now.

It started about the age of six. Up until then I had been a typical little boy with a typical life story growing up in a middle-class family. I didn’t think much of the fact that several members of my family stuttered to one degree or another and didn’t give much thought to it happening to me. Then one day I realized I was having more and more difficulty getting my words to come out in nice flowing patterns like so many of my acquaintances. I began to be very hesitant to speak in any public situation, and some of my friends started to give me a hard time about it. Pretty soon I was doing all the tricks stutterers do to avoid speaking and problem words – “Yes, could I please have a ch–ch-ch-ch- - - vanilla ice cream cone?” My vocabulary soared as I looked for new words that were easier to say. Cuss words were about the only thing I could say fluently with any consistency, a fact that didn’t go over well at all with the elder members of the family. If you said a four-letter word around my mother, it had better be something like “love” or “work” or “home.” “Damn!” and “son of a bitch” would buy me a trip to the back yard to pick out a switch that she would then use to whip my butt, but these words just came rolling off my tongue like water over the falls. Since I couldn’t say these words in school or church or polite company without having dire repercussions on the seat of my pants, I tended to just avoid having to say much of anything.

Stuttering seemed to leave a bad first impression so I just did a lot of nodding in agreement. The coup de grace for my youthful confidence came when my mother took me to a speech therapist when I was about nine years old. First trick out of the bag was her pulling out the tape recorder and making a recording of my reading a passage from a book. She played it back for me and asked me what I thought of it. My first thought was “Shit, lady, you’ve gotta be kidding me.” Since my mother was sitting there, too, I just kept that to myself, though. The truth is I didn’t believe it was my voice on the tape and I told her so. When it became clear that I was hearing my own voice, any thoughts of ever speaking to anyone again seemed to be headed down the crapper. I dutifully went to a series of lessons with the therapist but to no avail. My mother’s answer to all this was unbridled optimism. Her mantra to me was “Every day in every way you’re getting better and better.” I’m convinced that she believed this and said it out of love for me, however every time I heard her say this I thought “Shit, lady, you’ve gotta be kidding me.” Things weren’t getting better and better every day. If anything they were getting worse.

Elementary school was an abysmal enterprise for me. Even answering the roll was a chore. “Here and “present” were both minefields of disfluency. Since my last name starts with “S,” the tension of sitting there and waiting throughout the alphabet was excruciating. Anytime the teacher went down the row asking students to recite or answer a question there was tension. Being called upon to speak in front of the class was the worst, however, because of the audible snickers and grins from some of the classmates. Recess and things like that weren’t so bad because I could dip into my expanding vocabulary of fluent words. . My friends didn’t seem to care all that much about my stuttering although I received a goodly amount of grief about it from them, too..

In high school the patterns of avoidance I had concocted were all still in place. I plodded along from day to day. Stuttering had become something I couldn’t banish from my consciousness. It was omnipresent. The darkest day came in a high school English class when a well-meaning teacher made me come to the front and read an interminable passage from some short story. By the time it was over, everyone was exhausted. I vowed never to speak again and was trying to find a way to go live on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean where I only spoke to animals and could cuss to my heart’s content. Some of my friends would attempt to make me feel better about the whole business, adopting a humorous approach to the problem. One fellow band member said one day “I hope you don’t ever decide to become a preacher. The services will be much too long and when you say blessings the food will get cold.” Comments such as this were usually given and taken with a good nature, but it was clear that every day in every way I was not getting better and better.

One annoying result of the whole stuttering business was the number of people who would think they were doing you a favor by finishing your sentences. The silences when I blocked on a word must have been intimidating to many folks because most would last two or three seconds before they would blurt out what they ascertained was about to be said. This was all very disruptive until I began to make a game out of it, If I started a sentence and blocked on a word, and another person finished the sentence, I would then complete the idea with something quite different, something off-the-wall. If I had just said “Let me finish my damn sentence, please,” it would have probably created more problems than it solved, but at least it would have been fluent.

When I went to college my parents thought I should apply for a vocational rehabilitation scholarship to work on my speech. They probably feared that otherwise I would end up in a job whose only qualifications involved cussing fluently and only speaking to dogs and cats. When I enrolled in the speech clinic at the university, I stepped into something that felt like the twilight zone. Much of what the instructors said about avoidance habits and hiding one’s stuttering was true enough, but some of the methods they prescribed for working on the problem seemed to be left over from the Spanish Inquisition.

The emphasis was on overcoming denial, coming clean with everyone about being a stutterer, not hiding it. This was supposed to make you more confident about doing the verbal interactions required in everyday living. Talking on the telephone was usually a problem, so I avoided it whenever I could. A typical clinical exercise went something like this:

(phone ringing)

Person On Other End – “Hello?”

Me – “Can you tell me wh-wh-wh-what time you cl-cl-cl-cl-cl-cl-…..”

Peron On Other End – (click)

Did I forget to tell you that sometimes we had to keep on stuttering until the other party hung up, no matter how long, so we prayed for people with short attention spans. We had to make 10 – 20 of these calls a day. Probably there is a chapter in some speech therapy manual on using clients to annoy the hell out of local merchants, because that was what we did.

Telephone calls were a piece of cake compared to some of the other exercises. Winner of the grand prize for self-humiliation was one in which I would go out on campus with a graduate student assigned to my case and the stutterer would be required to go up to an attractive student of the opposite sex, stop them, and stutter on a word until the listener got frustrated and walked away. The first time this process was explained to me, I thought “SHIT, YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? YOU’VE GOTTA BE KIDDING ME! YOU MUST BE FRIGGING CRAZY!” For a college student already maladroit in the social graces this was sheer hell, even worse than ROTC. I used to imagine those coeds going back to the dorm and regaling their friends with stories of their chance meeting with the campus cretin. Holy Jesus, I was miserable.

Part of therapy was based on their belief that somehow my parents had brought on my speech issues by neglecting me somehow, a fact I always thought was pure garbage. To their everlasting credit, my parents listened to the instructors’ arguments and tried to find ways to help the situation. Nothing much changed simply because they had not neglected me at all when I was growing up.

When I finally got out of graduate school and into the job market, I found someone who took a chance and hired me. I applied for and got a position to be a classroom teacher at a small private college. It would be nice to say that I grew out of the stuttering but that is not the case. Years of being in front of a classroom full of students made me less conscious of stuttering as a problem and more just as a fact of life. Most speaking situations that were problems early in my life are still problems to some degree. I am happy to say that through the years my students seemed to be very supportive of my situation.

Researchers have come to realize that the physical properties of speech play a much more important role in fluency than anyone thought when I began my therapy. I once asked a therapist when I might find out exactly why I stuttered. He laughed and said they might probably be able to ascertain that when the coroner does your autopsy! By that time I suspect it won’t be a pressing matter anymore. In my specific case, I think genetics played a large role.

It is sad to see the effect stuttering has on those who do it. Negative reactions from waiters, callers and sales people continue to hurt, but at my present age of 70, I am much more inclined to confront rudeness than I was at an early age and much more inclined to say “Please don’t finish my damn sentences.”

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