Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Th-tha-th-th-that's All Folks!

I'm a stutterer and I have been since I was little. My mom is convinced that it's because she left me at a daycare run by a woman whose live-at-home son was a drug-addled Vietnam vet when I was an infant. Honestly I haven't the slightest clue what caused my stammer, but it's been my greatest cause of social anxiety since I was old enough to be self-conscious. I was in speech therapy from Kindergarten through fifth grade (and I remember vaguely visiting the speech therapy room in the middle school, but I don't remember doing it very often. I think I may have left the program sometime during sixth grade. It never bothered me during that time. I was too young and self-confidence was never an issue for me until after I started middle school.

From seventh grade on, it was an entirely different story, however. I no longer stuttered as badly as I did when I was younger (and I was never one of those painfully bad stutterers who are always struggling to get their words out in one piece), but people can be real assholes about someone stuttering, almost as if they're offended that the person talking isn't getting the words out quickly enough. I'm still a little sensitive about it (it's pretty much the only thing I can't take as a joke), but as an adult there are people who know me fairly well who don't realize that I have that particular speech impediment until I point it out. I take that as a point of comfort knowing that I've mostly conquered the problem.

Still, as I was listening to an episode of This American Life today I was reminded of that little bit of panicky internal monologue that footnotes the conversation every time I have a little attack. One of the segments was a chronic stutterer, someone worse than I ever was, who recorded a message to the local pizza clerk who'd been a dick to him on the phone. The way he described that bit of panic at the thought of stuttering that just guaranteed that you wouldn't even be able to get a sound out fit personally into my experience. Although it's a much smaller problem now, I still have issues with stuttering, especially when I'm in a situation where I really don't want to stutter or I realize that the sentence I had planned to say starts with a letter that I struggle with. Introducing myself is the worst. "J" is one of the worst letters to lock me up. I position my lips and tongue for the sound that starts my name and all of the sudden my diaphragm locks up, my throat constricts and it's like I'm trying to force the sound through an impermeable wall. This doesn't happen in stress free situations, but for me meeting new people in a place where I don't feel at home is far from a stress free situation. Sadly, that's pretty much the only time I have to say my name. For some reason my stuttering seems to surface when K and I go anywhere with my parents. I don't know why, but my parents tend to bring the stammering back to the surface. I have a really good relationship with them and they're about the least meddlesome parents and in-laws I've ever met, so I'm not sure why they affect me that way, but they do.

Luckily, I don't have any issues in certain circumstances. My friends probably barely notice my stutter as anything other than a slight stumbling over the words when I get excited and my cadence speeds up to the point my tongue can't keep up. I also almost never stumble in front of my students. Don't ask me why standing in front of 25 strange teenagers on the first day of the year doen't make me nervous enough for the harsher consonants refuse to leave my lips. Perhaps it's because I'm in the position of authority in that situation and I'm comfortable there.

It's a good thing that I don't stutter as a teacher. I have to talk to those kids a lot and kids are assholes. I couldn't have made it a full academic year had I even had a couple of lapses a month. I've been made fun of for my shoes, my hairstyle, and the mildness of my accent, but never once for my stuttering.


Julie said...

It's true. I rarely notice your stutter and my name starts with a J, too.

Personally, I don't understand why it's a big deal. I guess you're the only one I know with a stutter and I met you at a point in life where it doesn't matter.

Kids can be jerks, though, and they may not have the patience to let you get your words out which could be the reason they make fun of it.

Naw, they're probably just jerks.

Courtney said...

I also rarely notice your stutter. It's interesting that it's worse when you're around your parents, though. I bet some psychologist could come up with a deep, dark repressed memory from your childhood that causes it.

Mickey said...

I've told you before that I didn't realize you stuttered until you mentioned it. I just always thought you were a nervous talker, like me. I stammer a lot when I'm in a self-conscious situation, which is almost always.

It sure is good you don't stutter in class. They'd crucify you.

Chris said...

As the others said, I don't notice it. But then, as you say, you're probably not uncomfortable or stressed when talking to friends you've known for a long time.

I notice myself stammering once in a while in phone interviews, which probably doesn't help my credibility with the interviewee. I think it's because I know what I want them to talk about, but I'm not sure how to ask the question to get them to talk about that specific topic.

Basically, after almost two years on this job I still have very little idea as to what the hell I'm doing.

Meaghan said...

I thought the same thing that Courtney did about the psychologist. There's some explanation for anything in their minds, and it usually goes back to parents.

But yeah, I rarely ever notice you stuttering, and I always thought it was just because you couldn't get your thoughts out fast enough, nothing more.

Maybe you don't stutter in front of your students because you think of them as nothing but a bunch of shit heads... just kidding, kind of.