By John C. Fleming
An estimated one percent of the world’s population stutters, for which there is no cure. Many researchers believe stuttering has genetic components and can run in families. I have a cousin who was a stutterer.
“Journey of a Stutterer” follows my struggle to manage the beast of stuttering. The story is told using a few defining and illustrative vignettes over time. These literary sketches are a small sample of hundreds of events.
IN THE BEGINNING
I do not remember the first time I realized my speech was different than that of others. The family story was that I did not talk for a very long time. My first rush of words happened when my mother and I were passing by kitchen pots and pans in a store. I shouted out “pots, pans; pretty pots, pretty pans.” My first words were not accompanied by stuttering. The irony is that words beginning with the letter ‘p’ became some of the most difficult for me to say.
My father, a pharmacist, and my mother, a nurse, were not unfamiliar with different rates of development in children. I had an older brother who talked early and had no difficulties speaking. My parents knew that many children stutter between the ages of three and five as they are learning to talk. They were not distressed about my early speech problems.
My parents also had a friend who was a stutterer. He had graduated from college, was a successful farmer with 5,000 acres under cultivation, and had been elected a county commissioner. They understood early on that success in life need not be limited by stuttering.
My stutter was not addressed in the first grade. Our school system had very limited speech therapy support and there was little concern because it was not unusual for a child to carry a stutter into the first grade.
After six weeks in the second grade my teacher scheduled several evaluation sessions for me with a speech therapist. She concluded in her report that there was nothing she could recommend that would help me. In the strongest terms she wrote that I should not be pushed to excel in the classroom. Her belief was that pressure would exacerbate my condition.
At the end of the school year my teacher recommended that I should repeat the second grade because I was “slow” and could not communicate well. My parents declined her recommendation because there was no evidence that I was “slow” and they believed the trauma of being held back might make the situation worse not better.
By the fourth grade the taunting and teasing about my stutter had started to escalate. I became “stutter box” and was laughed at as I tried to respond in class. I began to shake my head NO when I was called on in class.
I remember a kid named Donnie who was merciless with his taunts. It got so bad one day that at recess Donnie found himself surrounded by the boys in the class who had simply heard enough. They “explained” why he should not tease me anymore, and I had no further trouble with Donnie.
JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL-GRADE 9
By the ninth grade I had become the quiet man in the classroom. I did not volunteer to comment in group discussions, and when called on I responded in the briefest manner possible or not at all. My grades were OK, but not what they should have been.
My ninth grade science teacher saved the year for me. He had been a stutterer, and he announced that fact in class. He moved me to the front of the room and instructed the class that there would be no snickering, smiles, or any other acknowledgement of my difficulty in communicating. The actions of this teacher carried over into my other classes and my grades soared.
One requirement in his class terrified me. He wanted us to practice speaking in front of a group, so twice during the year we were to pick a topic and deliver a 3 minute talk in front of the class. He explained that he would time our presentations and whoever came closest to 3 minutes would get 4 extra ‘A’s.
My first topic was matches. I was to explain how matches were made, and how and why they worked. I researched and wrote out my talk. But the hard part for me was developing a way to deliver what I had written. I developed a technique that involved taking each sentence, changing troublesome words in the draft to words I could more easily say, and then practicing each sentence, as a unit, over and over. Of course, I did not stutter when I was talking to myself! But I had to learn how to make the presentation standing in front of the class with no notes.
I enlisted the help of a patient neighborhood friend. He tracked what I was saying using the written copy and timed the presentation. We must have practiced the presentation fifty times.
When my turn came to deliver the talk, I was confident I could pull it off, and I did. I spoke the entire presentation without stuttering in two minutes and fifty nine seconds! I got the 4 extra As. The class cheered.
To this day I use this basic technique in my presentations. Years later I learned that Winston Churchill, perhaps the world’s best known stutterer, used this technique.
SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL-GRADE 11
My eleventh grade was a disaster. This was the year of a major flu pandemic. I caught the flu, went back to school, came down with pneumonia, went back to school, relapsed with pneumonia, and went back to school so far behind in my school work it seemed like I was climbing a Mount Everest of work. I had missed six weeks of school spread over two six week grade periods.
In addition, I was having a terrible time managing my stutter. Many times this school year we had to recite prescribed material. Of course, my science class technique did not conform to this mold. It was awful. I thought my classmates were going to hide under their desks as I attempted my recitations. My speaking difficulty had long since stopped eliciting smiles or laughter in a classroom setting.
I will relate two situations that were particularly egregious. But first, let us pause the story for an aside. My ability to speak without stuttering varied daily over a wide spectrum. A stutterer never knows which “voice” will greet the day. I never sought special treatment because of my stutter, but as you will read, some flexibility on the part of my teachers would have been helpful. Now, let us return to the story.
In English Literature class everyone had to recite part of Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be or Not To Be.” These lines must have been written to trip up a stutterer. When my turn came up I was having a particularly bad day and could not get the words out. I turned to the teacher and asked if I could try again on the morrow. She said: “Absolutely not. You will do it now or get an F.”
In homeroom we had daily devotionals using The Upper Room guide. I used my science class technique to paraphrase the devotional in words I could say. I took The Upper Room to the lectern but delivered the paraphrased and memorized version I had developed. I was about one half-way through the reading when my homeroom teacher said: “Stop. Now start over again and read it as it is written.” Disaster ensued.
I was so far behind in my work from being out sick I went to summer school to try to catch up. At the end of the summer session I went to see my guidance counselor. My grades were much less than my best, grades colleges would find very important. She suggested I repeat the eleventh grade so I could clean up my record. I took my guidance counselor’s advice.
After summer school my parents made it possible for me to take a month long Boy Scout trip as far west as the Grand Canyon. On our return east we went to Philmont Scout Ranch for eleven days of backpacking and mountaineering. This expedition changed my life. The Philmont experience ingrained in me True Grit (as trite as that might sound), if I can use the phrase made popular by the movie of the same name. When it came time to tackle school challenges, I had a level of confidence that I had not heretofore experienced.
Repeating the eleventh grade proved to be fortunate in an unanticipated way. I met a girl named Ann.
A GIRL NAMED ANN
Going back a grade meant changing homerooms. It was tough when I had to switch to a junior class homeroom. But the teacher handled my transition quite well, and after the initial stares everything went smoothly.
One person in the homeroom class made an extra effort to make me feel welcome. I knew who Ann was but we had never talked. Every morning Ann greeted me with a warm smile and a hello. She was not put off by my stutter. She never attempted to finish my sentences for me as some people did while thinking they were being helpful.
Ann was smart, pretty and popular. I had not dated any, but I slowly developed enough courage to ask her out. I casually mentioned Ann to my mother and she encouraged me to call her. I thought about it for several days and then started planning what I would say. I had to choose my words very carefully. I wrote out what I would say using my science class technique. I called, Ann said yes, and several nights later we were off to see “Houseboat” with Sophia Loren and Cary Grant. After a few awkward moments at the beginning of our date, I felt so at ease with Ann that I had little difficulty talking without stuttering. My family was excited about my first date, and my brother loaned me his new car for the occasion.
Ann and I dated regularly and by the New Year we were “going steady.” Ann made it possible for me to enjoy my last two years of high school. Her friends accepted me quickly and helped me feel comfortable in social situations.
And with Ann came her family. Her parents and brother included me in their activities and made me feel welcome. Around their family, as with my own, I seldom stuttered. I cherish the memory of their kindness.
Over the years as I had dealt with my speech limitations, I had come to believe that I was not all that smart. I could participate very little in class discussions and was terrified of speaking up in a group situation. Of course, my grades suffered as a result. My perspective was about to change.
During the school year the junior class was given a battery of knowledge and IQ tests. I believe the testing was part of a research project. We were told we would never learn the results of the tests. Ann worked in the school office one class period per week. One evening she said she was going to tell me something and I should never tell anyone. Ann had learned that the knowledge and IQ test results were in the school files. She looked up my scores. I was ranked 16th in a test population of 224 students on the knowledge tests. My IQ score was 143 (99.7 percentile). I was astounded and at that moment I vowed to redouble my efforts to overcome my limitations.
COMPLETING HIGH SCHOOL
My school experiences improved as I continued to develop my ability to substitute words and paraphrase with words I could say. This was a long slow process at first, but the pace of improvement quickened. My substitution scheme worked well…..except when it did not work. Let me explain. There are two basic models-spontaneous and planned.
Here is a spontaneous example. The entire junior class was in the auditorium for a social situations response program. The guidance counselor would put a picture of a situation on the screen and ask someone to explain what was going on in the pictured situation. The counselor flashed a picture of two people arguing and said: “John Fleming, tell us what is happening here.” I could not say arguing, so I used my instant word search routine and said: “They are feuding”, which produced immediate howls of laughter from some in the class. My thought at the time was: “Well, I didn’t stutter, did I?” Sixty years ago “feuding” was as archaic in common usage as it is today; therefore, laughter.
Here is a planned substitution example. I went by my favorite hamburger emporium to pick up a hamburger for dinner. I could not say the word ONE, so I said I want A hamburger. In a few minutes they handed me a bag of EIGHT hamburgers. I held up my index finger to indicate I ordered only ONE hamburger. They were not happy.
As my stutter improved I could talk more in class and participate in other activities. I was asked to join the yearbook staff. I was chosen to be drum major of the band. And for the fourth time, I was chosen to participate in All-State Band. My All-State Band experience one year illustrates how stuttering can spin out of control.
All-State was a two day event held in a nearby college town. We practiced all day on Friday and were assigned to a host family for the evening. Everything went well on Friday. On Saturday morning I was eating breakfast with my host family when they began peppering me with questions. I got frustrated with their persistence and my stutter became progressively pronounced. I finally stopped talking and finished breakfast.
The plan for Saturday was to practice from 9AM to 4PM, eat dinner with the host family, and return in uniform for the concert at 7:30. When it was time to leave for practice, I came out with my overnight bag and uniform. They told me to leave the bag and uniform until dinner time. I responded that I needed to practice my music and would not return for dinner. They protested but I prevailed. In this case, as with so many experiences, I never told my parents. There was nothing they could do about all this unpleasantness.
Beyond school, I earned the Boy Scout Eagle Award and was inducted into Order of the Arrow, a Scout service honorary.
A watershed event developed as I worked to complete my senior theme, a major project and requirement for graduation. The senior theme had to be an exhaustively researched paper and included a twenty minute verbal presentation. In something of this scope and length, there was no way my presentation technique would suffice. I needed to travel to the next level in my quest to escape the stutter.
My father had a heart attack just before I had to choose my senior theme topic, so I chose “The Heart and Its Diseases.” During my research his cardiologist offered to meet with me. The cardiologist was a stutterer. He masked his stutter by speaking in a clipped staccato voice.
The doctor was generous with his time. He answered all the questions on my list, gave me a heart exam including an EKG, and explained what would happen if I had a heart attack. As I was leaving the office he loaned me his plastic model of a heart to use in my presentation. I do not think he realized it, but he also gave me a gift. He demonstrated how someone with a stutter can achieve at a high level.
For my senior theme verbal presentation I had props: a skeleton model of the body that I borrowed from my biology teacher and the heart model. And for the first time, I decided to cut back on so carefully choosing words, rather I chose to use the most appropriate words to tell the story. I practiced the presentation over and over as was my habit. When I encountered trouble with a word, instead of switching into panic mode, I paused, started over, and went on with the presentation. I made an A. There is no way to exaggerate the importance of the senior theme experience.
As I completed high school, I was grateful that I had followed my guidance counselor’s advice and added a year to high school. As a result I had cleaned up my transcript and I was admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill as a pre-pharmacy major.
COLLEGE LOST AND REDEEMED
I realized early in my first year at Chapel Hill that I was on the wrong path and my mediocre grades recorded the misery. The dean of the pharmacy school suggested I go to the counseling center to be tested for interests and abilities. I found the testing process interesting and returned to the center for my exit interview.
Bottom line, the counselor acknowledged I was capable, but added that since my ability to communicate was limited and there was no treatment or cure for stuttering, that I should consider becoming a shipping clerk. I was incensed and walked out.
Realizing there was no future for me at the university, and understanding that I needed to find a more suitable environment, I left Chapel Hill at the end of the term and just before the ax would have fallen!
After returning home and having no plan for the future, I decided to apply at N.C. Wesleyan College near my home. I needed to solve this problem quickly, so I decided to apply in person. When I arrived on campus, I found that admissions reported to the Dean of the College. I asked if I could speak to the Dean and he gave me a few minutes of his time. I told him my story and he asked me half a dozen questions. He then rose from his chair, shook my hand and said: “Welcome.” We went across the hall where he introduced me to the president of the college as: “…our newest student.”
At Wesleyan I went on the Dean’s List in my first semester and stayed there. I had the good fortune to meet two young dynamic professors, one who was from UVA and taught economics, my new major, and the other was from Duke and taught history. If I had a history paper to write, the history professor would have me choose an economics topic in the designated historical context. The economics professor would advise me on the paper and both professors would grade the paper. They reversed roles if the paper was for economics. This arrangement functioned like a modified Oxford Don system. I learned a great deal very quickly.
Meanwhile, my stutter continued to diminish. At Wesleyan whenever I had a problem speaking everyone was patient and the attitude can be summed up in: “OK, John. Try that again.”
After my junior year at Wesleyan I took summer school courses at Chapel Hill. I wanted to prove that I could do well there, and I took courses in my major that were not available at Wesleyan.
At the beginning of my senior year I started thinking about graduate school. I would need to have financial assistance and a teaching assistantship (TA) represented an opportunity. But, could I teach? My first step toward this goal was to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) including the economics concentration test. If I scored well in economics, a TA position might be a possibility.
Concentrated preparation for the GRE was essential. For three months I did my regular school work during the day and prepped for the economics test four to six hours daily in the evening. By this time Ann and I had stopped dating, but she aided my preparation by bringing me books I needed from the East Carolina University library.
The GRE test results were gratifying. I scored in the 91st percentile on the economics exam. The University of Georgia accepted me into the economics program and provided an economics teaching assistantship, and later an instructor in money and banking position, that funded my graduate work.
As I walked up the stairs to teach my first class I was thinking: “Can I do this?” The answer was: “Of course I can.” And I did. As I left that first class my thought was the stuttering beast had been caged. What a glorious feeling.
The most important event of the first week at Georgia was not that I had been able to teach without stuttering. Instead it was that I met a young woman. Several weeks later we crossed paths at the bookstore. On impulse, I asked her if she would like to go to the upcoming football game. We went to the game- UGA was playing UNC- and later that evening out to dinner. When I returned to the graduate student dorm that evening, I told my roommate I had met the girl I was going to marry. He thought I was crazy. We married two years later. Oh, and UGA won! Borrowing phrasing from Theodore Roosevelt as he was writing about his wife Alice: My Becky is beautiful in face and form, and even more beautiful on the inside.
As I began graduate school and all that followed, including a thirty year banking career, I did not know a more formidable challenge would test my ability to keep the stuttering beast caged.
Late in the afternoon on an early spring day my brother died of a heart attack. He was 61 and the same age as my mother at the time of her death.
As I went to bed on the evening of his death, it crossed my mind that I needed to speak at his memorial service. Early the next morning, I went to my study and after 30 minutes of feverish writing I had put on paper what I wanted to say. I had composed my remarks as I slept.
With the approval of my brother’s family, I talked to the minister who would lead the service. I had known him for decades. He was a gifted speaker. He explained how difficult it would be to speak at the service, but he agreed to call me to the podium at the appropriate time. I would not be listed in the bulletin in the event I developed second thoughts. The minister understood that I would be addressing a hometown congregation that knew me as John who stutters. He looked me in the eye and said: “You must not get upset.” By that he meant that I could not become emotional, cry or stutter.
It was important for me to have the opportunity to speak at the service and honor my brother who always stood ready to encourage me and help me on my journey. I was pleased with my remarks, but awaited confirmation. It came quickly. The minister greeted me after the service and said one word: “Magnificent.”
MY JOURNEY’S END
The trauma surrounding the passing of my brother, at the same age as my mother and under similar circumstances, opened the window to a period of reflection on major events in my life. Ultimately I realized that stuttering which had defined years of my life and commanded so much of my energy was no longer an issue. Speaking at my brother’s service without stuttering while under tremendous pressure had closed the door on this feature of my life.
My journey as a stutterer had ended.
Posted Aug. 25, 2016