Speaking up

Confession time, though not much of one. I stuttered when I was a kid. 

It started around third or fourth grade, eased up in seventh and eight grades, then returned with a vengeance in early high school. It went away in the blink of an eye in junior year. 

The only lingering effect for the last 45 years is queasiness just before I have to give a public talk, fearing that somehow it will pick that moment to come back. It hasn’t. Yet. 

About one in 20 people stutter at some point, usually in childhood. It’s estimated that one in 100 Americans stutter as adults. 

It isn’t pleasant. I would fake sick in high school — it didn’t take much faking — on the days when I knew that I would be in line to lead the class in the Rosary.  

I would never answer the phone at home because it would take me at least 10 seconds to get past the “h” in “hello.” 

I thought of all this the other day when a story in The New York Times reported on a student, 16-year-old Philip Garber of New Jersey, who was allegedly blackballed by his teacher. The high school kid was taking a history college course and had his hand up for a full 75 minutes in class, but his teacher wouldn’t call on him. Garber claimed it was because of his stuttering. 

Well, like a lot of stories in The New York Times, there was more to it than that. The teacher claimed in a follow-up story that she was taking no questions that day from any students and had informed the class accordingly. She called the story a “character assassination” that attributed motives to her without any substantiation. Imagine that happening in media. 

I don’t pretend to any great insight on this. Our stuttering young friend is described as “uninhibited” and with a wry wit. Those are two things that will often get you told to shut-up in a classroom, whether or not you stutter. 

After the story appeared, the teacher was universally vilified and has received the usual spate of vulgar emails and anonymous threats. Such is discourse in America today. 

I know that a person with a bad stutter could unintentionally disrupt a class. But I also know firsthand the honest-to-God shame in stuttering.  

I admire any stuttering kid that is courageous enough to speak up publicly. 

The latest round of medical expertise claims that stuttering has physical causes and is hereditary. In my day, it was all explained psychologically.  

I attributed it in high school to the destabilizing influence of girls. I never had a problem on the football field. But all was lost at a dance. 

To finish the story, my stuttering disappeared in a moment’s flash at the beginning of junior year. We were at a closed retreat at a Jesuit-run house on Long Island. 

On the first day, the Jesuits were passing out assignments and I was told to lead the group in the Rosary. Some other kid read the brief meditation on the First Joyful Mystery, and I opened my mouth: “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name … .” 

And I was perfect. So perfect that I lost count on the Rosary and started about 20 Hail Marys until the kid next to me elbowed my ribs. 

Alone that night, I made all kinds of thankful promises to God and to the Blessed Mother. I don’t think I kept any of them. They are used to that, I guess. 

In Solomon-like judgment, I’ll rule that the teacher didn’t deserve to be nailed.  

And that Philip Garber, despite his bad habit of being witty and uninhibited, is a kid who deserves to go far. 

And if nothing else works on that stammer, I’d suggest the Rosary. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.