Heavy the Head that Wears
the Homemade Crown

James Sclater

© Copyright 2016 by  James Sclater


Photo of a homemade crown.
When I was growing up in the ‘50’s in Mobile Alabama, I attended an elementary school that I suppose was typical of the times. It was about five blocks from home so we could ride our bikes or walk there with no fear. We had two teachers for each of the seven grades and the classes didn’t really interact much at all. There was a time for recess every day so we could burn off some of our pent-up energies with running, games like dodge ball, and various other activities. We lined up to go outside and lined up to come in. Fire drills were generally welcomed as an antidote to the daily classroom chores. Misbehavior was rewarded with a dreaded trip to the principal’s office topped off by a note to the parents. To be made to “sit on the bench” outside the principal’s office was the equivalent of being put in the stocks in Colonial times. Everyone who came by could see that you were being punished and usually had a good laugh at your expense. Being a school in the South in the ‘50’s, it was segregated. The African-American children had their own school a few miles away. We didn’t give this aspect of our life much thought; it was simply how things were. We knew no different.

We would have school assemblies usually once a week for various reasons. The seventh graders were considered the top of the food chain; some of them were allowed to set up and operate the movie projector if one was needed. To be a member of the audio-visual crew was considered a big honor because you were allowed to miss a portion of the classes to set up the machines, the microphone and the screen, whatever was needed that day. Any excuse to get out of the classroom routine was gold. The seventh graders were looked up to by the underclassmen. After three or four years of piano lessons, I was allowed to play for the student body to march in and out of assemblies. My meager repertoire usually consisted of military marches like “Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “Marine’s Hymn,” and “Semper Paratus,” all tunes I could play by ear.

My school had two big school-wide productions every year – a tableaux vivant called the “Living Pictures” and the Coronation. The Living Pictures extravaganza was usually a theme-based program in which the children dressed up like historical or literary characters and posed stiffly when the curtains were opened and the announcer read some descriptive narrative. One of the amazing things about this type of production was that the school fully expected the parents to provide the costumes, some of which could be quite elaborate. In the second grade I was chosen to be a “gentleman who escorted his lady on Valentine’s Day”. My mother, a very good seamstress, had to make a pint-sized tuxedo for me to wear, complete with a top hat. My “lady” had to have a fancy dress, complete with hoop skirt. The pose consisted of our holding hands and looking adoringly at each other for what seemed like an interminable length of time. For a second-grade boy, this was not the most desirable of chores. It was an open invitation for snickers and jokes about kissing. So far as I know, no one asked what we were supposed to learn from all this except to persevere and to develop a thick skin. No one ever explained to us how the children were chosen for this public display. I’m sure that the prospect of making these costumes was something parents dreaded. The consequences of the parents’ opting out of such a production were never revealed, either. Thank goodness my mother could sew because we could have never afforded to have something like this made by someone else. If she minded doing it, she never let on.

These events were usually well attended by parents and grandparents. The old auditorium had no air conditioning in those days and those costumes could get rather ripe on those hot nights in the spring. The school hired a photographer to make pictures of the children. Doubtless a generation or two of adults who attended this school has been embarrassed when these photos from their childhood were pulled out by their elders for all to see. The photograph of my oldest brother dressed in his bee costume provided gales of laughter at his expense down through the years. It must be said that in the picture he didn’t look amused at all.

The other yearly production, the Coronation, was an even more elaborate affair. The students of the two sixth grade classes chose a king and queen, the election of which usually ended up being a popularity contest. The teachers then named guards, ladies-in-waiting, pages, etc. from the various grades to fill out the royal court. After all the members of the court had made their way to the stage and assumed their proper position, “visitors” came to entertain the royal court and the audience. Members of the court and the visitors had to walk up to the stage on an elevated ramp much like what one sees at a modern-day fashion show. These visitors might be individuals or groups of students. Some sang, some danced, some might do a short recitation or perhaps a magic trick. Again the costumes had to be made by the parents. Over the years my mother faithfully toiled to dress me as Peter Pan, a US Marine, and a member of a group that sang “Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Recently we found my Marine costume and gave it to a friend’s son who wore it at Halloween. My mom had done an amazing job of replicating the famous dress blue outfit.

The most elaborate costume for me came in the sixth grade. One day in class the teacher surprised us by announcing that the election for king and queen of the Coronation would be held that day. Her words were like a bolt of electricity that shot through me. I should explain that up to this point in school I had attempted to make myself as inconspicuous as possible in my classes because of my stuttering. Its onset was at about the age of six and it succeeded in turning my life on a course different from one that I would have wished. At this early age I simply wanted to fit in, to be like everyone else, but, alas, it was not to be. I felt like an outsider amidst a sea of people who didn’t have to think about how they spoke. Simply answering the roll call in class became a period of increasing tension as I sat there waiting anxiously for the teacher to get to the names that began with “S.” There must be some scientific principle which states that the longer a stutterer has to wait to respond to a roll call or some such question, the greater the likelihood that said stutterer will block on the response. At least if your name begins with “A,” you don’t have much time to sit there and get nervous. Reading aloud was an invitation for more snickers. I did my best to simply say as little as possible, at least in class. Certain letters were more difficult to initiate than others. My parents tried to help me feel better about all this, but they were probably as bewildered about it as I. My mother believed things would get better “day by day:” they didn’t.

So when our sixth grade teacher passed out the ballots for election of king and queen, I was torn between wanting to be a “king,” wanting that display of acceptance and knowing that if it indeed happened, I would be even more miserable trying to hide the stuttering in more public situations. When the initial ballots were counted, the unthinkable had occurred: I was chosen from my class and one of my best friends was chosen from the other class. We would vie for the role of king on the final ballot. To this day I do not understand why this happened. There were other boys in the class much more friendly and popular; it just didn’t make any sense to me. Part of me even wondered if it was some type of cruel joke masterminded by my buddies in class. Well, when the final election was held my best and worse case scenario had indeed come true; I had won the honor to be the “king” of the Coronation. The mixture of elation and dread I felt at this moment was almost palpable. The first thought was that I was sorry my friend had lost; he would have been a “natural.” The second thought dealt with possibly having to speak in public about all this, something I really didn’t want to do. The third thought was wondering what my mother would say when she learned about having to make another costume because she had already served her time at such duties with my two older brothers and me. After all this time she was no doubt ready to retire her sewing machine. I felt like an imposter being in a situation I knew would make me uncomfortable, but did not decline it because of what the honor meant in terms of acceptance by my friends. The elation I had hoped for never quite materialized. Too many negatives played on my senses. Sadly, I was simply incapable of really enjoying the moment and learning from it.

That spring of my sixth-grade year this big event did indeed occur without any more undue emotional stress. My mother did a masterful job with my costume. I walked up the ramp, sat in the King’s chair and crowned the lovely Queen when she came up on stage. We were surrounded with our loyal court and tried not to squirm and scratch too openly when the heat made our costumes itch. Our visitors favored us with a variety of entertainment. A myriad of photographs of the event found their way into the albums of the families of the children. Memories were made and then the costumes were put away to be used on Halloween by the participants’ children or grandchildren. Parents smiled a lot and rewarded the actors in this production with cooling ice cream and soft drinks at the local drug stores.

At least half a century later my wife and I attended the movie “The King’s Speech” and the memory of the earlier royal episode in my life came flooding back. The movie deals with King Edward VIII’s abdication of the British throne and the subsequent coronation of his brother, George VI, as King of England. George was not groomed for the throne. His older brother was a dashing public figure who was able to charm everyone and be at ease in the public eye. Everyone thought Edward would be the model of a modern English king. When Wallis Simpson came into his life, the results had monumental repercussions for the British monarchy. When Edward chose Wallis over being king, it fell to George to take up the mantle of royal leadership.

George VI was a lifelong stutterer and dealt with this handicap on a daily basis. Some reports say his father, King George V, was less than understanding and empathetic with him about his condition. George VI was not enthusiastic about the prospect of being king because he had not been prepared since birth for life as a ruler plus he knew the public demands of the job would put him under immense amounts of stress due to his stuttering. He did, however, ultimately accept this role and the movie “The King’s Speech” is a memorable tale of those struggles he encountered on the way to dealing with his handicap. It should be required viewing for anyone with a speech problem. The actor who played George VI had done his homework and was totally convincing as a stutterer.

As I sat viewing this film I reflected upon my own life and the struggles I encountered as a person with disfluent speech. I ‘m relatively sure that I was my own worst enemy. Yes, classmates could be unkind as could people in restaurants, other public places and on the telephone. Yes, attempting to hide from any such problem generally is counterproductive. Yes, most of my teachers had no knowledge of what to do to help me. Yes, some of the techniques I had to practice in speech therapy in college were not productive; some seemed almost medieval at the time. So what I had to do was to find a way to feel normal in a world where a big part of how I interacted with people was abnormal. It caused me to reflect on the importance most of us place upon fitting in with our peers and how this desire to do so can come to dominate one’s thinking and shape one’s personality. Even at age 72, introducing myself to a stranger is still one of the most difficult things I do. First impressions will never cease to be an issue. Once a high school friend told me in jest that he hoped I would never consider becoming a preacher because when I asked the blessing at dinner the food would get cold. One of my college roommates told me the first time he met me he was certain I was a cretin. Not exactly the kind of comments that make you feel good about yourself. Also not atypical of the comments heard over the years.

In college I had a teacher who, when I told him I might like to be a college music teacher, scoffed at the idea. Whether he was just being cruel or secretly hoping to make me angry enough to prove him wrong is a question I just can’t answer definitively, but I do have my suspicions. The result was that I did take the teaching career route and coped reasonably well in the classroom for 40 years or so. I was never aware of negative reactions to my speech from my students although my fluency level varied from day to day, week to week, depending on the amount of stress in my life. Just as most of the people I meet don’t know what I go through, I’m fairly sure I have no idea of what someone with deafness or blindness goes through on a daily basis. We simply have to try to make the best with what we’ve been given. I have long since come to terms with the reality that most people are uncomfortable around stuttering and don’t know how to act around someone who stutters. Ditto for other disorders that disrupt the speedy flow of social interaction. The royal garments and crown my mother made for me didn’t solve any of the difficult issues, but looking back, I guess I’m happy now that I got the chance to wear them. Perhaps it was better to have been a somewhat unwilling traveler to Camelot than never to have travelled there at all.

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