A Contrast in People's Response

by Paul "the Poundin' Piano Player" Goldstein, of Bergen, Norway

I was a very active member of quite a few NSP/NSA groups in Massachusetts for 15 years before I moved to Norway to marry. (I arrived in Norway as a 46-year-old bachelor in September 2000 and married Liv ten days after I arrived - two major life-changing events back-to-back!) My stuttering has often been very severe, although I did receive considerable help from the Hollins Institute in 1984. Since then I've had many periods of fluency lasting weeks or months when I've practiced diligently. But in Norway I've hardly practiced at all, perhaps because fluency may be somewhat less important now to my life. I've been generally very disfluent here, both in English and in Norwegian (which I've been learning through an intensive course, though nearly everyone here can also speak English) In the U.S., one of my fields was speech-language pathology, in which I earned a master's-equivalence from ASHA, and did research in stuttering - so I've been on both sides of the stuttering therapy table. [I'm also a pianist and composer when I get tired of stuttering.]

I'd like to share a rather interesting observation about recent reactions of two different people in Norway to my stuttering.

Liv and I have what is called in Norway a "helgebarn" or "weekend child". A helgebarn is a special-needs child whom couples (or single people, or families) provide care for on selected weekends on a regular basis, and are paid by the State of Norway for doing this. The helgebarn system here enables the children's parent(s) or regular caretakers to have much needed time off, and in some cases to devote some concentrated time to their other children. (To my knowledge this system isn't found in the U.S.) Our helgebarn, who comes to us one weekend each month, is a sweet 8-year-old mildly-to-moderately retarded girl named Kristin. She's very fluent in Norwegian, both in speech and oral language, but doesn't read or write - and of course, unlike most people in Norway, she speaks no English, so I have to talk to her in my doubly halting Norwegian - halting in both speech and language. Kristin is full of love and enjoys playing with me. Yet it didn't take her long to discover that I had some trouble understanding her Norwegian, and that I also had trouble in speaking Norwegian, and in just plain speaking period. To help me, she started to talk more slowly to me, and even modified her dialect to a more "standard" variety. Kristin has found some of my attempts at Norwegian pronunciation amusing, and sometimes has corrected my mistakes in language. But she has great compassion. When I explain to her "Jeg kan ikke norsk - jeg kommer fra Amerika" ("I can't speak Norwegian - I come from America"), or "Jeg forstår ikke" ("I don't understand"), her response is to always give me a kiss. She responds in a similar way to my stuttering. After a block, I'll sometimes tell her "Jeg kan ikke snakke" ("I can't talk"), and she gives me an immediate kiss. Or she'll kiss me right after a block even if I don't comment. I'm not sure if she thinks my disfluency is related to my Norwegian language deficits, but she has sometimes exclaimed, "Stakkars Paul!" ("Poor Paul!").

Now I'd like to tell you about someone else - the teacher in my Norwegian class. My class consists of well-educated recent immigrants to Norway from many different countries (most of whom are professionals and are conversant with several different languages) We are unfortunately saddled with an old-fashioned teacher who is set in her ways and methods, and who apparently has taught in the same way for more than a quarter-century. (Not all Norwegian language teachers are like this of course - last spring we had a very good one.) Most of the time our teacher runs her class with an iron fist, and treats us like third-graders. We get surprise tests, lectures on punctuality if we're late to class, complaints if we're absent for whatever reason, and corrections to our homework assignments with her favorite big red marking pen, including corrections to our handwriting (even the way we write our names). To top things off, she teaches complex grammatic forms that are rarely used today - Norwegian as s he wishes the language still was, rather than what it is now. Last month, for about a week, the teacher stopped calling on me in class. In some ways, this was a relief - I didn't have to block my way through those tough Norwegian sounds that are often very different from English. But the rest of the class noticed it - and one of my classmates asked the teacher after class why she was ignoring me. She answered that it had been too difficult for me to speak. Eventually the teacher resumed calling on me, but one day she asked me to stay after class. She pulled out a long evaluation form for comments about my progress with the language. She first informed me, "Du har et stort problem". ("You have a big problem.") [I was tempted to answer, "Yes, lady, and it's you", but I didn't.] When she came to an evaluation of my oral skills, she had written only one comment, which she had underlined with her favorite big red marking pen: "Han stammer veldig." ("He stutters very much.") She recommended that I see a friend of hers who, she said, could teach me a breathing technique (to help me speak my Norwegian words properly). I reminded her that I was already well educated in logopedics (speech pathology). Here she switched to English to emphasize her point: "Yes, but you can't help YOURSELF." She wondered aloud how she would be able to grade me on her upcoming oral test, expressed impatience with having to wait for my blocks, and even mentioned that it mig ht not also be "fair to the others" to have to "wait" for me. (Gee - I hadn't realized that such teachers were still around in this day and age!) Luckily however, the situation has been improving. Last week Liv sent a letter of complaint (in Norwegian) to the school administration; since then the teacher has been noticeably nicer to everyone in her classroom (though she still treats us like children). And - most remarkably - she even gave me top grades on her oral test with her favorite big red marking pen!

My point is this: An 8-year-old girl with mental retardation shows a great deal more kindness, compassion, and sensitivity to stuttering than a language teacher with over a quarter-century of experience. Some people have these wonderful innate qualities of caring, and some do not - and whether one is blessed with these gifts of love and humanity is not determined by one's age, IQ, professional experience, or achieved status in life.

added with permission October 12, 2001