Loss of Innocence

by Michael Hughes, executive director Speak Easy, a Canadian organization for people who stutter, and editor of their monthly magazine, Speaking Out

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.

added with permission December 4, 1999