Giving up - or just facing reality

Franklin Silverman, in his book Stuttering and other Fluency Disorders talks about how stuttering sometimes influences a person into "not pursuing a desired vocation or avocation." He goes on to say "While persons who stutter may have "reality-based" reasons for avoiding certain vocations or avocations, most of those avoided by persons with whom I have worked were ones in which they probably could have performed competently judging, in part, by the fact that others who stutter have been successful in them. These include medicine, nursing, law, teaching, politics, sales, social work, theater, sports, business administration, writing and speech pathology." Some of these persons became "very prominent in their chosen field in spite of the fact they stuttered." (p. 6)

While this is true, as the many careers of people who stutter in The Real World of Jobs demonstrates, an important discussion appeared in April 1999 on Stutt-L in response to the question "Are people who stutter really limited in their career choices? Are there certain jobs that they cannot do?" The responses are printed below with the authors' permission.

Vicki Victoria Schutter responded:

That's a good question, and it's difficult to answer, because the answer is not the same for everyone. One thing I strongly believe is that the statement that you can do whatever you set your mind to do is very harmful. Because sometimes you can't. You give something everything you have, and you just can't, and then you are left with the guilt of not having tried hard enough, so you must not have wanted it badly enough. I believe that sometimes the winning is in the trying. Sometimes even failure is a victory, because your failure has left you with a knowledge that you didn't have before.

To show you my own experience, I am going to post an article I wrote about when I student taught in college.

"My Day Of Poetry And Roses"

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away ... I wanted to be an English teacher. At least a couple of English teachers had been a profound influence on my life, so I decided that I wanted to be one, too. It was the second semester of my junior year of college, and I had just completed six months of intensive speech therapy. This therapy had helped me in a lot of ways but, unfortunately, fluency was not among them. Still, I was determined that I was going to try my hand at teaching, so I applied to the Education Department to enter into the Teacher Education Program. They flatly refused, telling me that there was no way I could be a teacher with my speech "the way it is." I must admit that I was not really that sure that I COULD be, or even WANTED to be, a teacher, but I knew I had to find out for myself. I decided to challenge the Education Department's decision, and I turned to the English Department for help. English was both my major and my first love, so many of the English professors had taught me. In addition, I worked as an office assistant in the English Department, so they all knew me. They supported me when I appealed my case to the Education Department, so Education reluctantly admitted me. At first, the Teacher Education stuff was a breeze. The classes were notoriously easy, and when I did my observation, all I had to do was ... observe. But then came the first semester of my senior year and student teaching. I found myself placed in an ideal situation. The Education Department permitted me to do it at my alma mater, which was usually not allowed. I was assigned to Mrs. Eubanks, who taught sophomores: three classes of College Prep English, one of regular English, and one special elective English class, which was Shakespeare my semester. Mrs. Eubanks was very nice, the students were very intelligent and well-behaved, and I would start out teaching "Hamlet" (which I loved) to the Shakespeare class. How could I fail in a situation like that?

I had taken speech therapy off and on my entire life, but at that time I had NEVER GRASPED the technique of controls. Every minute of fluency I had ever experienced had been "lucky" fluency. Nothing I had ever learned or done to control my speech had ever given me ANY confidence that I could actually make it work when I felt the blocks coming on. And that was what happened when I stood up before the class and tried to tell them about "Hamlet." There was no way that I could NOT stutter. I would stand up there for an hour every day and struggle through almost every word. Most of you -- even those of you who consider yourselves stutterers -- really have no idea of what that's actually like. You worry about the one block you had that day -- or that week -- and you can't even imagine what it would be like to block on almost EVERY SINGLE WORD. That was what teaching was for me.

It was the most physically and emotionally exhausting experience I had ever had, or can even imagine ever having. By the second week, I felt myself pushing at the edge of some kind of breaking point. I tried to talk about "Hamlet" and, as before, had to fight my stuttering for every word. Finally, as I stood before the class playing teacher, I suddenly started talking about something else. I don't remember what it was; I only remember that it wasn't Shakespeare, and I was speaking fluently, and it felt so good that I almost cried with relief. I knew I couldn't keep that up for an entire hour, though, and sooner or later I would have to get back to the reason I was there. So when the wind blew the schoolroom door closed, I said, "Oh, that must be the ghost of H-H-H-Hamlet's father." God, I was tired! At that moment I was more tired than I had ever been in my life. I looked out at those sweet, brilliant, 15 and 16 year old kids, who had been suffering with me for the past week, and said resignedly, "I can't even say the son-of-a-bitch's name!" And then I sat down.

When I tell people that story, I usually tell it jokingly, laughing. This was, after all, a small country town in Alabama in the mid-70's, so you can imagine how shocked they would be by that language.

That's not true, though. I received no scoldings and no I-told-you- so's from anyone. Education told me they would deny me the teaching certificate, but would give me the hours' credit for student teaching. Mrs. Eubanks wanted me to stay for the rest of the term, assist her in the class, and try to teach something else.

My second round with teaching came when I taught for a week on popular music as poetry. My fluency was much better with that; maybe I just felt more comfortable with the subject matter. It was a humbling experience, though. These kids had never heard "Eleanor Rigby" (that's a very famous Beatles song, guys!) and were absolutely amazed when they heard "My Back Pages" ("I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now....") by Bob Dylan -- that somebody with such a terrible voice could make a living singing.

Finally, the last day for student teaching rolled around, and at lunch some classes gave their student teachers a little party. I was not really prepared for what awaited me, though. When Mrs. Eubanks and I returned to the classroom, there was a room full of kids and a table full of food. When I walked in, they all shouted "Surprise!" and then they presented me with a box of 9 long-stemmed red roses. Then this cute little black girl named Cynthia gave me a poem she had written for me, which all the kids in the 6th period regular English class had signed. It was one of the sweetest things that anyone has ever done for me.

I don't regret not being a teacher. When I thought about doing it, I would always picture this perfect situation with these perfect kids. That's almost what I had when I student taught, but I still couldn't handle it. So how could I handle a not-so-perfect or far-from-perfect situation? Even with more fluency, I don't think it would have worked out. I know plenty of people (fluent people) who went through their student teaching with the same dreams I had, only to find the reality of classroom and restless teenagers more than they could handle. One of my fellow student teachers was working at Sears two years later.

No, I don't regret not being a teacher, but I also don't regret for a minute going through student teaching. The Education Department told me I couldn't do it, and they were right. I had to find out for myself, though. If I hadn't challenged their decision, I'd have spent the rest of my life saying, "What if ...? I guess that was the most important lesson I learned from student teaching: The umpire can't call you out before you get to bat; you gotta step up to the plate and swing.

One of the most surprising things to happen after this article was printed in "Letting Go" was that I got a lot of criticism because of it. A lot of people told me that I shouldn't have given up, that I should have kept fighting. I was really shocked by that kind of judgmentalism. Personally, I'm proud of myself for fighting as hard as I did. I think I gave it my very best shot. That's all we can expect of ourselves, and that's my answer to your question, Jessica. We do what we can do, and if it doesn't work, we try something else, and if that doesn't work, we keep on trying until we find the place where we belong.

Lynda Voigt wrote

Vickie, thank you for debunking the myth "that if you just try hard enough, you can do anything." I so agree that this attitude can be harmful. After all, only one person gets the gold medal in an Olympic event, even though most of the competitors tried as hard as they possibly could. I think giving something your best shot and best effort is a great thing to do (if it is something you truly want), but we must realize that no one can do everything if they try hard enough.

This "try hard enough" attitude can make people feel bad when they don't "succeed" because they think they "didn't try hard enough." I also love your statement that no one can call you out before you get up to bat. As always, you have a wonderful way of expressing great insights.

Bernie Weiner replied

To Vicki,

You do have the great gift for putting things squarely in perspective, saying what most of us wish to express, but cannot find the right words. Yes, many of us PWS have found a comfortable place in life, both in work situations and in our personal lives. We do what we can do, and get on with it.

When I graduated from college, way back in 1970, I was armed with a degree in History and English. My stuttering was so bad, that teaching was out of the question. I wasn't even brave enough to try. After many different jobs, some involving speaking situations, some not, I found a career that was suited to my talents and skills. Things have a way of working themselves out, putting us where we should be. Not all people who stutter will become teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. and that is o.k. We are all productive in our own way and contribute something the best that we can. the most important thing is not to give up and to keep on plugging along.

Ward Harkavy added

Good post, Bernie. Reminds me of one of the pitfalls of my faulty thinking about stuttering: the "giant in chains" complex. For years I lived in a dream world--bitter dreams--of thinking that if I didn't stutter I could be practically anything. But because of my stutter, my flawed thinking went, I was nothing. I veered between those extremes and saw myself as a "giant in chains." Instead, as I later realized, I was just another human being. I had a disorder, stuttering, that I had to deal with, but it didn't have to define my existence. And I didn't have to use my stuttering as an excuse for not trying to accomplish something. (As Vicki aptly points out, the joy is in the process, not the end result.) Being a "giant in chains" was not beneficial. Nor was it realistic. It was a mindset that caused me plenty of grief that I kept inside and used to punish myself. Not everyone who stutters has to wrestle with those emotions, I know.

But I also know that a lot of people who stutter wind up with unrealistic views of themselves. For one thing, I now know that my stuttering was a lot more of a problem for me than my stuttering was for other people. Most people don't give a damn about it and don't judge me that way. But I was my own harshest critic. Thank God there's more to life than simply careening from one emotional extreme to another. Being around other people who stutter has helped me gain a more realistic view of myself.

I think that the only problem a person who stutters can effectively address is the limit he or she puts on his or her life. I'm too short and squat to be a TV personality, so that career is out for me. However, for many years I put limits and restrictions on myself in choice of careers, towns and streets (no place names that started with "B," please) and activities because I thought my stuttering was an immutable problem. It turned out that my only problem was what I thought about my stuttering. Now, I'm a mild stutterer who can "pass" for fluent, so my problem was mostly psychological, although I needed specific therapy and exercises to change the way I stutter and become desensitized and more comfortable communicating. Every one of us has a different thing to wrestle with when it comes to stuttering, but there always will be people on the outside seeking to limit us, whether we stutter or not, from certain careers or goals or dreams. Aside from fighting obvious signs of discrimination and from educating people that stutterers are no different from anyone else, the best thing we can do, I think, is convince ourselves that our stuttering doesn't have to be an obstacle.

John Wade - added to the discussion on July 2, 1999

I struggled when I was deciding whether to pursue a career as a psychologist as a PWS. The difficult issue of effective communication and stuttering is an important question. When I first joined the NSP about 14 years ago, it took me four minutes to say my name at my first meeting. Although I knew at that time that I wanted to either teach or be a psychologist, it was pretty clear that my stuttering was so severe that I was not communicating effectively. I knew that I could not have four minute blocks and counsel someone. Thanks to the support of the NSP and good speech therapy, my stuttering became considerably less severe, although still very noticeable, and I decided to enter graduate school and pursue my dream. Throughout graduate school I often wondered whether I was doing the right thing, and whether I would find a job once I finished. People were generally supportive, but there was the occassional supervisor who would suggest that I learn sign language so I could work with the deaf. The issue of communicating effectively is very important. In my own case, I began to realize that although I stuttered noticeably, judging by the listener's reaction and the flow of the conversation, I was still communicating effectively - that I probably would not have been any more or less effective had I been perfectly fluent. However, I will say that especially early in my training, that there were some instances when I was working with a client that I was struggling with my speech to the point were both my attention and my client's attention was focused on my speech, and communincation was negatively impacted. However, I think that I have become more confident in my clinical abilities, I remain more composed even if I am struggling somewhat more with my speech. Effective communication is important, but I think that you can stutter pretty severely and still be effective. I don't at all want to encourage unfounded optimism, or to make important decisions based on false hope, but I also don't want to see you give up hope on your speech improving. During grade school, high school, and some in college I had received much speech therapy, and would typically make some improvement, at times even substantial improvement, only to relapse and progressively get worse. I had just about resigned myself to stuttering severely for the rest of my life until I joined the NSP and met people who were managing their stuttering effectively with tools learned in speech therapy. This inspired me to give speech therapy another chance, (and another chance after that when I began slipping again), and although my past record with therapy success was dismal, I now count myself as a therapy success. I hope this posting has not sounded like advice giving - I just want you to know that I (and I'm sure many other PWS) can identify with the struggle regarding deciding a career path as a PWS.

added with permission of those who posted to stutt-l
last modified July 7, 1999