So how did I get here? It would be disingenuous not to admit to a certain amount of dissatisfaction with my previous career direction. A series of unfortunate acts of fate, bad decisions, and abominable timing, had made it eminently clear to me by the time I was about forty that I would never break into the world of academic social science, which is where my prior training had pointed me. The desirable positions were taken, and only someone with a far more ruthless and competitive nature than mine could possibly dislodge people only a year or two older than I was from their comfortable, and tenured, positions. So, with security out of the question, I decided to pursue adventure.
That is how I came to be teaching elementary school in a fishing village in Iceland. Most of my students were normal kids, but here and there among them were children who had real problems. Some of those were kids who stuttered. Their problem was unusual enough that nobody among the adults who had regular dealings with these kids really understood what was going on.
I began to reach out to these children. In doing so, I had to confront a lot of fears and demons that I had suppressed when I was their age. As an adult, I could distance myself from the fears somewhat, and begin to explore this thing that I had avoided for so long. My motivation was not to poke at my own sore places, but to learn what I needed to know to be able to give some scared, unhappy children a tool to help them become satisfied and happy adults. In doing that, I found a new path for myself.
I am happy to say that I was fairly successful in my efforts to ease my students' burdens. Sometimes just knowing that someone else understands is all a person needs to find their own courage. But I also knew that there was a lot more that could be done, and I didn't know how to do it. So after agonizing over the decision for a couple years, I applied to Temple University specifically to be able to study speech therapy with an emphasis in stuttering. So far I have been satisfied with the decision.
I believe that my long and quite varied experience allows me to bring qualities of judgment to the therapy process that most people at my level of training do not have. I already know that I can't save the world - I learned that years ago. I will make mistakes, and they probably will not kill anyone. I have encountered enough strange combinations of behavior, motivation, fear, arrogance, and love among my fellow man that almost nothing surprises me any more. Most important, I bring a lifetime of developing my observational skills, and I know how to recognize and to find out what I don't know. These are all skills that any competent therapist will develop over time, but I will not have to wait as long. I look forward to leaving school with new skills grafted onto my old ones, that will make it possible to do more than put my arm around someone's shoulder and say "been there, done that."
What advice might I offer to someone comtemplating such a career change? Sleep on it. Then sleep on it some more. It is easy to imagine yourself developing a magic touch and doing heroic, wonderful therapies that ease the burdens of stutterers across the world. If you have that fantasy, go do something else. Heroes only shoot themselves in the foot.
Be prepared to take a body blow to the pocketbook. I am incurring a debt that I may not live long enough to pay off. I won't be able to retire to the Bahamas and live a life of blue-haired luxury, but then I never expected to retire anyway.
You will have to absorb a temporary drop in status, as faculty sometimes much younger and less experienced than you are will see you first as a student and only secondarily as an individual with valuable experience to offer.
Be prepared also to develop strong, enduring friendships with wise people in the field who will respect your experience and welcome a fresh point of view. Be prepared to "youthen" a little as you find yourself hanging out with kids half your age, who are really fun to be around. Be prepared to work hard and learn a lot, and keep your eyes on the prize: knowledge to turn your own life into a tool that will benefit both yourself and others.
Click here for another essay by Lou Heite on her experiences teaching children who stutter.
submitted August 20, 1999