My first experience at a Speak Easy symposium didn't all together quash my skepticism, but it fascinated me. I did pit my own stuttering against that of everyone else I listened to and was disheartened to find that I was one of the least fluent people at the symposium. Many people were graduates of Schwartz's program and of Hollins and seemed to be functionally fluent. As for victimization, I didn't see that attitude in the other participants, but the experience of being a severe stutterer among so many recovering stutterers brought it out in myself. I ate lunch with three members (who are now friends) and who were all fairly fluent. Listening to them make small talk caused me to feel sorry for myself. I coped by not speaking (and therefore not stuttering).
The Symposium's saving event was a talk by a man named Ames who, I was told, was a successful tax accountant and the head of the Speak Easy chapter in New York City. Ames took the podium with a prepared speech consisting of many pages. He proceeded to stutter on virtually every word and sometimes blocked with no sound coming out for many seconds. I felt a guilty glee that, ha! here is someone who speaks worse than I. But my glee turned to impatience when I realized that he intended to read every word on every page of his speech. Were I him, I thought (thankful that I wasn't), I'd skip the whole middle section -- make my introductory remarks and then jump right into the finale. "Ladies and gentlemen," I would have said, "I would like to conclude by thanking you for listening to me."
But Ames persisted. The others in the audience sat there, keeping eye contract with him, not fidgeting, hanging on to his every stuttered word. When he finished, they all applauded, and then went up to tell him how well he did. I was dumbfounded. The cynic in me thought, "of course, we're applauding: he's done!" But I knew that was a cheapshot. I felt like the unknowing Mr. Jones in that old Bob Dylan song. Something was happening here and I didn't know what it was. It was only when I got home and thought about it that I came to understand that instead of being obsessed by his fluency (or lack of it) as I was, the others were responding to his courage. Their compliments were not expressions of empty sentiment but deep admiration. If he could get up and speak like that in public, so could they -- and so could I.
It was my memory of Ames' speech that inspired me to go to the second symposium. This time I wasn't a stranger. People from the first year remembered me and seemed sincerely glad that I had come back. They engaged me in small talk. I started to stop judging my own speech. The other participants began to take on personalities of their own. I was amazed at the diversity of the group but no one fit the image of hapless, pathetic stutterer that still persisted in my consciousness. I started enjoying myself, and I've been to most every Symposium thereafter.
After my second symposium, Bob Gathman, the head of Speak Easy, called and asked if I wanted to be on a panel the next year. I couldn't say, "no." I was proud to be asked but terrified at the thought. I forget what the topic was, but I was very nervous making my presentation and I stuttered badly. Afterwards, I received many compliments. My cynicism of "...but I stuttered" started to gave way to a more gracious, "well, at least I did it." Those two sides of me are still embattled, but graciousness is winning.
I've been on a Speak Easy panel at almost every Symposium since. My nervousness has slowly given way to anticipation. I'm no longer anxious weeks before the event, and my palms no longer sweat when I'm introduced. If anything, the stress I feel is more the result of excitement than it is of apprehension. Each year, I feel less fearful of stuttering and more in control of my emotions. Moreover, I've learned to appreciate the compliments as earned credit. I'm told -- and I believe it -- that my example has inspired others to become more open about their stuttering and start speaking more in public. I've become a role model, just as Ames Bleda was a role model for me. That is the power of mutual aid, the idea that underlies self help.
At first, I carefully prepared my remarks; now I like to wing my way through a presentation. This may not be the best strategy for fluency. Ames for example, is now almost fluent when he reads prepared remarks, but his stuttering reasserts itself when he's speaking spontaneously. With me, it's the other way around. Reading from a printed page inhibits me. Perhaps this reflects a shortcoming, my own lack of discipline. But spontaneous speech feels natural to me. I like to compare myself to a jazz musician riffing. I generally know what I'm going to say and I never substitute words in order to avoid a block. But I like to improvise, play with words and hone ideas. But perhaps it's not jazz that inspires me, but the habits of a writer. I like to edit as I speak, and so come closer to achieving the emotional truth of what I want to say. With practice, I'm learning to monitor my speech by momentarily detaching myself from the substance of what I am saying in order to focus on how I am speaking. It's not easy for me to make that break. Sometimes I concentrate on speaking slowly and throw in occasional voluntary stutters. Other times I pay more attention to my presence as a speaker: Am I making eye contact? Using my hands appropriately? Pausing in appropriate places? Do I have the patience to carefully describe a scene in order to make a point -- or even (and here's where timing is everything) tell a joke. We who stutter know so little about speaking in public. We expend so much energy trying not to stutter that we rarely focus on the positive things we need to do in order to communicate effectively.