by Jean-Pierre Tibi

When my Italian teacher at UCLA, yesterday, asked me to read a part of the lecture to the class, I tried to avoid stuttering as much as I could. I paused between each word, unable to let my stutter be revealed or to "slide" on syllables to have a smoother speech.

Although it was not a very fluent reading, I felt some relief after: I had read out loud to a class for the first time since 1963! Indeed, 33 years ago I was told by my French literature teacher at school that I would never read in class because it was taking too long and disrupting the class. I was "condemned" to write anything I would want to say. The other teachers adopted the same "rule", and for all my high school years. The fact that I was never speaking did not stop the teachers from making fun of my person in general. It was easy, I could not answer. Everybody, but me, laughed well.

My grades went down rapidly, and I was then, not only a stutterer but a bad student.

One year, I could have had a chance to change everything. I had a new teacher in French literature who was patient with me and would listen to me. He encouraged me and gave me good advice on how to write an essay. My grades went up. But he gave me something more. He gave me the love for writing in French, and, I must say, for writing in general. Unfortunately, I was 16, and did not take advantage of his generous personality to reveal my speech to the class who would still laugh at my head jerks. I continued hiding and avoided all situations where I would have to talk.

This teacher was physically handicapped: he had to walk with crutches, having the two legs paralyzed. All the class, who was warning the teachers about my speech at every beginning of the school year, was also making fun of him. But, they would not dare doing so in front of him. He was getting the respect from even the meanest "kids". His classes were organized, interesting and his attitude always fair toward everybody.

I had a great admiration for him, but regretted I could not confide to him: I thought he was not like me. How more blind could I be! Only years after, I became aware of his positive attitude in life despite his severe handicap. Unfortunately, it was too late for him to know who I really was, and for me to tell him how much he was helping me and could help me more.

So, when my Italian teacher, the other day asked me a second time to read to the class, I could not avoid to stutter. The first time I could see "it" coming, not the second. And all the failures from my memory rushed to my consciousness as if I was back in 1963. Only that, this time, I was not 13.

At 46, I am used to my stutter. "Him" (in French "stuttering" is masculine, and it is used mainly as a metaphore to describe how human history repeats itself) and me are good friends now, even if sometimes I get mad at "him"! So, I took all my time to stutter, sliding on the first syllable. I could see, at the corner of my eyes, heads turning: people seemed surprised. But there was nothing I could do. I continued thereafter, and, feeling relieved from having to predict my stuttering to return, I could focus on the Italian accent, at last! I don't remember having stuttered again during the rest of my reading. I do remember that I was proud of my Italian intonations after. I felt I was a normal speaker.

Allowing myself to stutter at that moment took me a little away from the attitude I adopted a long time ago. An attitude of resignation, anger, shame and fear. I don't say that it was my fault if teachers forbid me to talk. I just think that my attitude agreed with them. I was telling myself: "I am not able and not allowed to talk".

My French literature teacher, despite of his handicap was driving a car and, despite of the stupidity of the young kids he had in his classes, was organizing with his best students a theater troop to play French classic writers. I would have loved being a part of it, but did not even consider trying.

I hope this story will say something constructive about stuttering, and about mistakes we make in judging people, not recognizing sometimes those who are like us.

Jean-Pierre Tibi

jtibi@ucla. edu