It is probably redundant to state that, like the large majority of the readers of this newsletter, I stutter. Mine is a pretty mild impediment as such things go, and I have good coping skills, so most of the time it does not get in the way of my doing things. In fact, I do a lot of things which most people might expect me to avoid. I dislike being embarrassed as much as anyone, but the other option is inertia, which is no option. Thus it was that a few years ago, largely in response to an emergency request from the school principal in the remote fishing village where I live, I found myself teaching elementary school art and woodshop.
I have taught on and off for years, but almost entirely to adults and older teens. This was the first time I had to face children quite so young, and I had to interest them in a subject that has a pretty bad reputation for vapor-headedness among the general population. I resolved therefore to be as no-nonsense, as well-organized, and as thoroughly prepared as I could be. That included keeping a tight rein on my wayward tongue: I did not want that to give the kids an extra excuse to devalue a wonderful but sorely misunderstood part of their learning.
At my first meeting with the fourth grade, one little redhead held herself apart from the general commotion as the class wiggled and jostled to find places at the art table for their crayons and watercolors and elbows and big sheets of paper. I know all too well how disorienting a noisy group can be, so I left her alone until the class was pretty well occupied with their assignment. Then I pulled up a chair next to her and asked if she didn't want to draw something.
She shook her head no. Through the whole ninety-minute class she sat very still, silent, hardly moving. This scene repeated for several sessions. Her supervising teacher told me she was a very difficult and stubborn child, and I shouldn't worry about her being so still and quiet. It was better than when she got angry and stormed out. This teacher suggested that I just let her go when - not if - she did that.
One day after I had passed out supplies and gotten the assignment underway, the little girl came to me. Stuttering on almost every word, she asked, "Why do we have to learn to draw?" Bingo! The flash of recognition cut like a hot knife. I felt like an idiot: I had overlooked the obvious. "Why - so you can express yourself! Show people what you're thinking about!" I answered, trying not to sound too intense. You of all people, I thought to myself. She blushed and turned away, but that day she began to draw.
The explosion came some weeks later in girls' woodshop class. Although most children are basically kind people, in any group there will always be some competition, teasing, and formless insensitivity. I did not see what set off the explosion: the teacher's constant dilemma is to keep an eye on the whole group when an individual needs some extra attention. There was a sudden shout, a clattering of tools and wood. I looked up from the project I was helping with to see the redhead stomping out of the woodshop in a blue fury. "What happened?" I asked.
"I don't know," answered several kids. "Someone teased her I guess," said one. "She just gets mad, she does that all the time," said another. "She told me that she doesn't think she's human because she stutters and has red hair."
That hot knife again! This time it cut deep, right through the bindings which held a stampede of memories: hiding under the teacher's desk in the second grade, bullies gone unanswered in the fifth, the tears of sheer frustration that didn't let up until junior high. My heart almost broke.
"Ohh, noohh, that's not so!" I said - blurted, really. "She's human, she's every bit as human as I am. You know, I stuttered too, still do. It's just, oh, so awfully hard when the words won't come!"
There. It was done. Two months of coping strategies, determination, tight rein, preparation, all gone in the breath of a few words. But the little girls were respectful, and honestly curious. For several minutes I fielded questions. Then I suggested a little role playing, that they count silently to ten before they said anything for the next few minutes. Of course the exercise soon dissolved into a mass of giggles, but at the same time, I could see understanding begin take root here and there as the children found themselves becoming impatient both with themselves and with each other.
In a town as small as this one, word travels fast. The next time art class met, my redhead was visibly more relaxed. So was I. But there's more: I found myself able and even compelled to discuss the matter with my colleagues, to suggest ways to deal with the child's problems. (In case you're wondering, therapy is virtually out of the question as the nearest specialist is about 450 miles away.) I dug up some uncirculated informational material from the "special education" file and circulated it. At first, to my surprise, the other teachers were far more embarrassed than I was. But in the end they were glad for the information as well as for "a view from the inside".
One day near Christmas I encountered the girl and her grandmother in the hardware store. When the child was out of earshot for a moment, the grandmother grabbed my arm, and with a passion driven by true emotion, she said, "I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you have done for my granddaughter! It has made such a difference in her life, you can't know!"
Not all Christmas presents come in wrapping paper.
I'm no longer teaching. I started a sign and graphics business at the end of that school year. However, my redhead is one of the more or less constant stream of former students who stop to visit, to watch me work, and to play with my dog. She's going on twelve now. She has friends, and she smiles easily. We talk together, though she still seldom speaks to adults outside of her family. Once in a while when I land in a bad block, we exchange winks.
I know that if I never have an opportunity to do another unselfish thing, I can still rest proud of that unguarded moment, and the effect it has had on a once scared, unhappy child. It would be great if she could get the help she needs, but the world isn't always fair. What I can give her is the next-best thing: the knowledge that she's not alone, and the belief that her stutter doesn't matter any more than she allows it to.