Stammering my way through it all

My story of a friend overstaying their welcome

Gabe Hewitt

Speaking at my high school graduation ceremony was one of the most rewarding and terrifying moments of my life. They never tell you to increase the font size of your speech before you give it so it’s easier to read. They also never tell you how incredibly dry your mouth becomes as soon as you get in front of a microphone. But here I was. In front of a crowd of 300. All eyes on me. It was a surreal moment for me because just 10 years earlier, I was being called on to read in class and I-I-I couldn’t do it.

I’ve had a stutter for as long as I can remember.

It’s hard to describe what having a stutter feels like. Imagine your flow of speech is doing the hurdles event in track and field except the other peoples’ flows in the race don’t have hurdles in their lanes. These hurdles are called “blocks.” Some hurdles are bigger than others and sometimes you just have to bypass the hurdle because it’s too big. The number of hurdles increase when you’re nervous. A common phrase among family members growing up was “spit it out” whenever I would get blocked. Some advice: saying that does not help.

It took me a while to come to terms with it. I was terrified to speak in early grade school because of it. Kids at that age are awful when they realize you’re different from them in any way. So I never spoke and that alone made me different. They called me “quiet” or a “mute.” “He doesn’t talk,” someone would say whenever a substitute teacher was taking attendance. I was forever known as the kid who didn’t talk. It appeared my plan had backfired.

Reading was a pain. If I was a called on to read, I would sit in my chair and look at the words on the paper until it was all over. All eyes on me. I would sit silently until the teacher realized it was time to call on someone else. What a relief when they did. I remember my face would get really warm and my classmates would snicker. I’d get called on during every session of ‘popcorn reading.’ It’s like I was a circus act and everyone wanted to see the awkward and silent show.

Me at an age when having a stutter was cute. As soon as I got to grade school, I stopped smiling in yearbook photos. (Photo courtesy of Gabe Hewitt)

It’s hard to make friends when you don’t talk. This fear of talking spread over into my overall ability to express my emotions. I would rarely express my happiness or excitement over something. Refer to any school picture for evidence. How do you make friends when you come off as a quiet, emotionless kid?

Speech therapy saved me. Before, I was under the impression that my stutter levels had reached its peak and there wasn’t any going back. That it would be my permanent crux.

I started therapy when I was in kindergarten. My speech therapist, Kathy Brandt, would come to the classroom every now and then and take me to a room in another part of my elementary school. I’m not a religious person, but I am certain that Kathy was a saint sent from someplace holy. She had this iconic bowl cut for a 40-something and her smile could end world wars. She had this aura about her that made you want to better yourself. She had the patience needed to listen to this six-year-old child struggle to get through even the simplest sentences. “Just slow down…sound it out,” she would say.

There’s no way to get completely rid of a stutter. It’ll always be there resting on the back of your tongue like a friend in between homes that’s overstayed their welcome at yours. The only thing you can do is tame it and find ways to get around it. This includes word selection and tactics like breathing and pausing. You learn what sounds work better for you and how to mask things.

Learning all these tools and techniques was both great and frustrating. This was the first time I had fully confronted this speech impediment and that came with a lot of self-doubt. I would always ask myself, “Why me?” I listened to other kids who clearly had no challenges in speaking and it hit my self-esteem pretty hard. Even to this day, I get jealous of how well and easily people speak.

Kathy set milestones for me. One of the first ones was reading in class in any kind of capacity. If I did it, she would reward me with McDonald’s. That’s an offer you can’t turn down, right?

My 4th grade teacher knew what was going on when she called on me to read. It was my time to shine. Like when you get up to the drive-thru microphone box. Let’s do this.

I remember feeling like a complete idiot because one of the techniques I learned involved taking deep breaths between words and sentences. People must have thought I had asthma. I read nearly a paragraph. I couldn’t tell you what I read all these years later. Probably something published by McGraw-Hill. But I did it. I conquered my fears of speaking and I got McDonald’s for it.

This was the first crack in the shell. Kathy and others like my 5th grade teacher, Coleman Nemerov, continued to push me to open myself up more. To get more comfortable. It was becoming more clear that this friend that was overstaying their welcome was actually right at home.

I started talking more and coming out of my shell each grade year in school. I gained the self-esteem to better express my emotions and overall self by doing this and started to make friends from it. You don’t realize how powerful language is until you’re able to fully express it.

Circa June 2012. Dry mouth, palms sweaty, something something mom’s spaghetti. (Photo courtesy of Gabe Hewitt)

My five-year-old self would think I was crazy if I told him I gave a speech at my high school graduation. He would be right, I was crazy. I stuttered and stumbled through the speech. Between stammering and trying to find the little saliva that was remaining in the ground zero of my pallet, it was difficult, but I expected that and I was still proud of myself. I was once scared of being made fun of in a class of 20 and I had built up the courage to speak in front of a crowd of 300.

I’ve come to accept everything more and more since my graduation. The stutter is still there. Some days are better than others and some days I want to super glue my mouth shut.

I always get excited whenever I meet someone with a stutter because it reminds me that I’m not alone in a world of fluid speakers. There’s a point where you cross over from being an innocent child with a stutter to an adult where people ask you if you’re okay when you get blocked. They must think I’m having a stroke. I fear the day when I get pulled over and law enforcement accuses me of being drunk because I can’t form a competent sentence due to how nervous I am.

My speech impediment isn’t any kind of gift, but it’s not a curse either. I have no idea why I have it and at this point, I’m too afraid to ask.

My stutter is a part of me and it wasn’t easy coming to terms with that. Life will throw challenges in your face because it can. How you handle those challenges can help shape who you are and oh my gosh, why is my mouth so dry right now?

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