Bucked Teeth Wasn’t Bad Enough…

As a boy, I wasn’t like everyone else. My front teeth stuck way out. My teachers, the neighbors and my parents all didn’t think I was too bright. And…I stuttered. Wearing braces, although sometimes painful, took care of the teeth. A variety of review books and hours of studying dissipated the concerns over my intelligence (or the lack thereof). Those were pretty easy to solve compared to the stuttering.

Throughout elementary school and junior high I attended special speech classes. The teachers were genuinely concerned for my well being. Their eyes told more than what they said. They cringed as I tried to speak. Everyone had a suggestion on how to stop the stuttering. One speech teacher suggested that I try to speak more slowly. Didn’t work. Another suggested that I deliberately repeat the first sound of troublesome words until they would be able to pop out of my mouth like a jack-in-the-box. Didn’t work. There were too many words to think about. One person even told me that if you sing you don’t stutter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sing either. Of course, everyone suggested that I try to relax. Although relaxation may help to reduce your heart rate, it didn’t help reduce my stuttering.

My parents were upset and probably embarrassed. Their only child was so different from the others on the block. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, I was the only one who stuttered. For about the first ten years of my life I never even heard another stutterer. Friends tried to help by saying the word that I tried to say and added to my frustration. I don’t remember if I was made fun of more for my over bite or the slowed speech.

The summer of 1962, between junior high and high school, proved to be memorable. We moved from Brownsville to the Glenwood Projects in East Flatbush. I had to adjust to the new apartment, the new people, and worry about starting the fortress that they called Tilden High School the next fall.

That was probably my best and worst summer ever…because it happened. I remember it as though it happened yesterday. I went into that plain white bathroom, looked into the dirty mirror and started having a conversation with myself. “You look as good as anybody else,” I said. After thinking for a minute, I added, “You can do whatever others can do.” The conversation ended abruptly…and so did the stuttering! That was it. A thirty second pep talk and the stuttering that lasted for more than ten years ended…suddenly.

When the fall came I was put into a special class for stutterers at Tilden. The teacher couldn’t understand why. According to her, I wasn’t a stutterer. I spent that time looking at the other stutterers and thinking about how I had felt a few short months before. They looked down upon me as an outsider who could speak normally. The subject of how I stopped stuttering never came up. It wouldn’t have helped anyway. I’ve never heard anyone say that they stopped stuttering the way I did in all the years since that fateful day in 1962.

I’ve since read of various methods used to help stutterers including one where they tell people to speak with marbles in their mouths. Sorry, I don’t know why.

All I did was have a talk with myself. Why did it work? I have no idea. But, it worked!

Occasionally, I hear myself hesitating when I speak. However, it never interfered with my life after that. During my 33 years as a teacher no student ever made a comment about my speech…and kids always look for something to criticize. Over the years I have gone out of my way to speak in public. I’ve given dozens of workshops for adults. On a couple of occasions I had the opportunity to speak in front of audiences of more than a thousand people! After one such occasion a colleague said, “You didn’t even look nervous.” I wasn’t. I know that public speaking is supposed to make folks into nervous wrecks. The opposite is the case for me. I like speaking in public. I’m comfortable with it. All because of a pep talk in a bathroom in apartment 2A in Flatbush.