When words do not get out
I was honored and, although it is not an easy emotion for me, humbled to receive the American Institute for Stuttering leadership award, despite the initial impulse I felt to say, "No, thanks."...
I was honored and, although it is not an easy emotion for me, humbled to receive the American Institute for Stuttering leadership award, despite the initial impulse I felt to say, "No, thanks."
After all, if there is anything that this country's estimated 3 million stutterers have in common it is our lifelong effort to prevent the rest of the world from knowing that we stutter. Here was a distinguished group of people in New York who wanted to blab it to the world.
Yet, I am happy to report, I graciously accepted this honor, which accomplished something I previously thought was impossible: It actually made me feel proud to be a stutterer, especially after I got through the ceremony without stuttering.
My wife and I were privileged to dine at the chic Tribeca Rooftop in Manhattan with co-chairs and media power couple Sir Harold Evans and Tina Brown and with my fellow honorees: actor and host Emily Blunt of "The Devil Wears Prada," actor Harvey Keitel of "Mean Streets" and "Reservoir Dogs," and Michael Sheehan, star communications consultant to President Bill Clinton, among other high-power clients.
Past honorees have included Vice President Joe Biden, libertarian Fox News commentator John Stossel, pop music star Carly Simon, NBA All-Star Kenyon Martin, the late author Dominick Dunne and fitness star Jake Steinfeld. They're all stars in my book, regardless of race, creed or political leanings.
I'm proud to be honored for the sake of all today's kids who are like we used to be: bullied, pitied, picked on, ridiculed or relentlessly lectured by our peers and well-meaning parents, among others, for our stuttering -- or, as the Brits like Emily Blunt like to say, our stammering.
The bright young people I met who are receiving services at the non-profit New York-based Institute need role models. They need to know that they can succeed and excel in spite of the invisible stifling beast that rests, ready to erupt at any moment behind their lips and voice boxes.
Or perhaps, the thought occurred to me, could we honorees actually have made something of ourselves because of our affliction? Could the cursed ah-ah-ah-affliction that had brought so many mi-mi-miserable moments to my formative years actually have been a blessing in disguise?
It may be no coincidence that the stutterers of the world have included some of its highest achievers: Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Jimmy Stewart, James Earl Jones, Charles Darwin, Henry James, Lewis Carroll, TD Ameritrade Chairman Joe Moglia and former GE CEO Jack Welch, just for starters.
As the writer John Updike wrote in "Getting the Words Out," an essay about his stuttering, his "flattering father" would tell him he had too many thoughts in his head and that he should speak slower. My parents said the same about me. So did Joe Biden's. We had so many words partly to arm ourselves with alternatives to the words we knew would cause us trouble.
Stutterers don't have words to waste. We think. Sometimes too much. Then we speak. Or try to. Thinking too much about the mechanics of speaking can cause you to trip over your words as surely as thinking too much about the mechanics of walking will make you trip over your feet.
Slowing down helps. But so does an appreciation of the value of breathing, which is an essential power source of the voice.
Carly Simon says she started singing because almost nobody stutters when they sing. Marilyn Monroe developed her slow, sexy, hot-breathy voice because her speech coach thought it would to help control her stuttering. Winston Churchill became a master orator, despite a lisp on top of his stutter, by preparing his speeches weeks in advance and rehearsing them in front of a mirror.
I, too, learned to conquer the obstacles to my speech by plunging into them head-on like a reckless football running back. I signed up for speech contests -- original oratory and extemporaneous. I joined my high school's debate team. I lost a lot. But I persevered. Now, thanks to years of therapy and a lot of wonderful, encouraging grown-ups who believed in me, hardly anyone can shut me up.
This "anxious guilty blockage in the throat," as Updike called it, is just one more of life's challenges. It may never go away entirely, but you can manage like Updike and many others have to maneuver millions of great words and thoughts around it.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org , or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)
(C) 2010 CLARENCE PAGE
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