As Speak Easy's executive director and editor of their monthly magazine, "Speaking Out," I have written many essays for publication. The following two essays have brought back memories and generated a great deal of positive response. They are combined under the title "Childhood: the pain of stuttering." The first, "Loss of Innocence," tells of the pain in first discovering that your stuttering makes you different. The second, "The Rage," depicts the frustration experienced by many stutterers during their adolescence. Both articles are meant to convey some of the hurt and pain felt by children who stutter.
I was seven, I believe, when I became aware that I was a "stutterer." Although I have met people who are able to remember the name of every teacher and every classmate they had since they started school, I have never been able to do so. I think that the name of my Grade two teacher was "Miss Woods," but I do remember well that she brought a tape recorder to school one morning, a morning that was to change my life.
The second grade classroom in Saint Vincent's Boys School, so many years ago, was of medium size and contained about thirty desks arranged in five rows. The students were seated in alphabetical order starting with the "A"s next to the door at the right front of the room. With a last name starting with "H," I was seated about half way up the third aisle. The hanging incandescent lights were only bright enough to illuminate the long blackboards mounted on the front and right hand side walls. Additional light came from the row of windows along the left wall.
Entering the classroom that sunny morning, we saw a new device on Miss Woods' desk. It was a large, reel-to-reel tape recorder, gray in color with a snap-down lid cover now removed to reveal the disks, dials, wires, and a fairly large microphone. Standing next to the teacher's desk was a tall microphone stand which shone bright and silvery from the reflected light. Of course, we kids all gathered round this new contraption and wondered what it was there for. Miss Woods told us that she had a "treat" for us and that we would find out what it was later in the morning. We were all disappointed at the delay because we wanted to start playing with this new toy right away.
Finally, after that morning's routine work was completed, our teacher asked us to put the rest of our books away and to get out our readers. Starting with the first seat in the first row, we were to come up to the microphone at the head of the classroom. Each of us was to recite our name and read a passage of poetry out of our texts, about four lines per student. I remember a feeling of anticipation rather than apprehension as I awaited my turn at the tape recorder. Like most of the other students, I had never used one before and I was looking forward to this new adventure.
One by one, my classmates carried their readers up to the front of the class and stood before the silver microphone stand. Miss Woods had adjusted the stand so that it was low enough to suit most of the kids and only a slight push was needed to point the microphone in the right direction to accommodate the small difference in size of seven- and eight-year old boys. Eagerly we paid close attention as our friends spoke, some stumbling slightly over unfamiliar words. Our reading skills were yet to be developed but there were those who seemed to have a natural knack for reciting poetry. As I approached the microphone, I was somewhat nervous about this new experience but was determined to speak as effectively as the best in the class. Although I did have some difficulty and my lips tended to stick together, I felt that I had done a satisfactory job and confidently went back to my seat.
Eventually, every student had completed his recital and Miss Woods rewound the tape from one reel to the other. As the tape was played back, each student flushed with embarrassment as he heard his voice for the first time. Many had difficulty recognizing their voice and claimed that: "I don't sound like that!" There was some merriment as words were mispronounced and reading mistakes became self-evident. Grins of chagrin appeared on the faces of those with the most noticeable errors, but even they seemed to enjoy their temporary moment in the spotlight.
As my turn approached, and although I thought I had done reasonably well, I prepared to receive the giggles of my friends. I knew that I had not read as well as some but I was totally unprepared for the contorted sounds regurgitated by the here-to-fore friendly tape recorder. Smacking my lips as I sucked in air in a vain effort to speak, it was virtually impossible to recognize my pronunciation of my name. From there, things went from bad to worse as I seemed to struggle with every word. The few minutes required for the other students seemed to stretch into hours as I fought to recite those simple four lines of poetry.
Just as with the other recordings, my classmates started to giggle as my voice first came back from the reels of tape. Comprehending the difficulty I was experiencing as I struggled to speak, the giggles quickly turned to nervous laughter. In an attempt to stay one of the crowd, I weakly joined with the laughter; an attempt that was interpreted by my fellow students as approved authorization to increase their laughter at the strange sounds coming from the front of the class. With every passing moment, the laughter swelled and grew until I felt that I was drowning in a sea of ridicule. Like ocean waves, the peals of laughter slammed violently into my ears. Each blow seemed like a physical force that relentlessly drove my head down onto my desk. My weak attempt at laughter quickly turned to whimpers, then tears, then to complete despair as I lost all remaining self-esteem. I felt horribly and nakedly exposed as my innocence about my speech was stripped away. My devastation was complete. When I was able to raise my head, I found that the noon-hour bell had sounded and that Miss Woods and my classmates had quietly slipped away. I was relieved not to have to face them and silently slunk out of the room and made my way home for lunch. "Nothing!" was the answer I gave my mother when she asked me what was wrong; and I spent most of the noon break slowly returning to school.
Keeping my eyes downcast as I wended my way back to my desk, I would have given anything not to return to school that day. Unfortunately, I had nowhere else to go and truancy was a crime of the highest order. Half of the class had returned from their lunch when I sat at my desk and all avoided my eyes as I cast furtive glances around me. My closest friend entered the room and softly approached my seat. Embarrassedly blurting out "Here," he shoved a small, brown paper bag filled with penny candy onto my desk. Mumbling "Thanks," I raised the hinged lid on the desk and started to put the bag of candy inside to be saved for later consumption. It took me a moment to realize that the space inside my desk was filled with other candy bags, shiny red apples, oranges, and even a small tinker toy or two. In their own way, each of my classmates had scavenged a treat for me during lunch as a "peace offering." Yes. I was seven when I lost my innocence.
The shaft of the knife vibrated as the point penetrated the solid wood panel. The teenage boy strode determinedly to the target, tracks of tears glistening down his cheeks. Viciously he grabbed the handle of the knife, jerked it free from the panel, and started back to throwing line. As he reached the marked position he wheeled and, without looking, whipped his arm through the throwing motion, releasing the point and sending the knife back towards the target.
Another splinter of wood fell from the panel as the boy retrieved the knife. He returned to the line, whirled, and released the blade again.
With a violent shake of his head, Steve swore, uttering the words more as a wail of pain than a curse of anger. Three quick steps forward put his hand within reach of the knife's haft. Grasping the handle, he pulled the point free and started back to the line....
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As Steve dialed the telephone numbers, he mentally rehearsed what he was going to say. It was almost two weeks before the special school dance and he hoped Judy would agree to go to the event with him. He had intended to invite her at the regular weekend dance three nights ago, but she was not there, perhaps kept away by some slight illness.
"Hello?" the telephone was answered.
Dropping his voice almost to a whisper as his mother walked through the living room where the phone was located, Steve recognized Judy's melodious tones and identified himself. Gently sparring with the awareness of opposite sexes, the two teenagers disposed of the opening gambits by agreeing that it had been a nice day, schoolwork was a bore, and teachers knew nothing.
Listening to Judy's voice, Steve visualized her: average in height, blue eyes, and shoulder-length blonde hair. She always seemed perky and alive, bringing smiles and good humor wherever she went. He had spoken to her several times over the pounding of the music's beat as they often danced together at the weekend dances. But this was different, he was going to ask her for their first date and he could feel his apprehension growing as they inevitably approached the purpose of the phone call.
So far, the call had gone well. He had expected trouble saying his name, but the whispered introduction as his mother swept through the room seemed to have prevented him from blocking. The attempt to deepen his voice and speak with the resonance of a grown man also seemed to be working. Judy didn't know he stuttered and, except for a few minor bobbles which he was sure she had not noticed, he had spoken in short phrases without stuttering. Now, as he approached the important moment, Steve could feel his fluency leaving him. Hoping to complete his task before his stuttering returned in full force, he leapt into a momentary void in the conversation.
"J-J-Judy," he started, "I wa-was wondering if y-y-you'd like to go to the Fuh-Fuh-Fuh, go to the Fuh-Fuh-Fuh, go to the F-F-Fall F-F-Formal with me?"
There was a lengthy pause, then Judy asked:
"What was that? I didn't quite catch that, Steve."
Groaning inwardly, Steve knew that he was caught. He would make himself complete the call, but he knew that for the rest of the conversation he would be fighting for every word. Using the telephone always made his stuttering worse and now he was truly caught with no way to escape. Gamely he repeated the dance invitation, noticing that he now stuttered on those words on which he didn't block.
Steve could physically feel himself cringe as the telephone brought him the sound of Judy bursting into laughter.
"Are you playing some kind of a game, Steve?" she tittered. "Who's there with you?"
"N-No one," he replied resolutely. "Will y-y-you go wa-wa-with me?"
Gaily Judy giggled into the phone. "What's going on, Steve. Are you drunk or something? Is this a joke?"
The questions cut to his heart like a knife. Steve struggled to speak, to tell her that he was all right, that he was just stuttering; but now nothing would come out.
"Perhaps you'd better call back later," he heard Judy admonish as she firmly broke the telephone connection.
Steve stared at the receiver in his hand, then forced himself to gently place it in its cradle. He knew he was going to explode. He was angrier than he had ever been in his life, and the pain was just beginning to build. Quickly he hurried from the living room, out through the kitchen, down the back stairwell, and into the basement.
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The knife gave off a twang as it struck slightly off centre. With tears flowing freely now, Steve wrenched the knife out of the panel and returned to the throwing line. His mind was now focused entirely on the mind-dulling routine: Throw - Retrieve - Throw again.
There were no thoughts of Judy or the phone call, no thoughts of the Fall Formal dance, no thoughts of throwing the knife. He felt no pain, no anger, no emotion. Just: Throw - Retrieve - Throw again.
Eerily the single bulb hanging down from the ceiling lit the scene. The chalky white presence of the asbestos-coated furnace and heating pipes stood out from the black coal-dust that coated every inch of the basement. An old wooden door was propped against the wall, an open closet to either side. The target door shuddered with each blow of the knife. An occasional muffled sound broke the silence, it was difficult to tell whether the boy had sobbed or cursed.
The hanging bulb swung in lazy circles, occasionally brushed as the boy paced between the throwing line and the old door that served as a target. Shadows silently shifted on the walls, dancing in response to the bulb's movements. The shaft of the knife gleamed as it spun through the shadows. Most throws struck the panel solidly, others hit the wood butt-first and caromed off. On some throws the wood caught the tip of the blade briefly, then flipped the knife hazardously back at the boy. Throw - Retrieve - Throw again.
Hours passed. Throw - Retrieve - Throw again.
The sharp sound brought Steve out of his trance. The last impact of the knife had split the door into two sections. The point of the knife held for a moment, then the haft slowly slid downward, pulling the blade to the floor. It took a moment for Steve to realize what had happened.
Slowly he approached the door and examined the split. The repeated thrusts of the knife had dug away at the wood, particularly down the middle of the panel where most of the throws had landed. Splinters of wood and fragments of old paint laid scattered on the floor. The assault had been too severe, too harsh for the door to withstand and it had finally split down the middle.
Steve reached up to touch the crack in the wood and winced with pain. The muscles in his right biceps and shoulder screamed in agony as he attempted to lift his arm. Absent-mindedly, he rubbed the sore muscles as he came out of his daze. Scooping up the fallen knife with his left hand, he glanced at his wrist watch and was amazed to see that more than two hours had passed since he had stormed into the basement.
Giving his head a shake to clear the remaining cobwebs, the boy slowly looked around the dirty, dusty room. His anger was spent. In truth, it was difficult to comprehend how the telephone call could have caused him to so totally lose control. It was a dark side of him that he had never before experienced, and he knew that he must prevent himself from so completely losing control ever again.
However - The rage had done its job. The anger was spent, the emotional pain was gone.
Leaving the basement, the boy turned for a final look at the damaged door, ruefully shook his head, determined to forget...
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...Thirty years later, the man read what he had written, ruefully shook his head - and remembered.