Last Sunday, as I read Eric Smithers' article in Neighborhood Times about 9-year-old Joey Fraze in Tampa, my throat tightened. Smithers described how Joey "hesitates, grimaces and spits out his words" as he read aloud during a recent speech therapy session with Cindy Herold, a speech pathologist.
My throat tightened because, like Joey, I know the humiliation and frustration that often come with stuttering. Most of my readers will be surprised that I have stuttered for as long as I can remember. I taught myself how to manage my stuttering.
When I was Joey's age, my speech was so halting that my heart would race when I had to recite or read in front of class. I kept a quarter in my pocket that I rubbed between my thumb and forefinger to get me through. This trick worked a lot of times. When it did not, I would blink, tremble and perspire, often causing my classmates to laugh and poke fun. Back in those days, stuttering was a source of cruel imitation. (My brothers also stutter. My sisters do not.)
In elementary and junior high, I thought I was "dumb." My teachers regularly lifted my spirit when they wrote "excellent" at the top of my work. Because I had more autonomy in high school, I avoided potentially embarrassing situations altogether. I never performed in school plays, nor did I stand up in class to answer questions.
Needless to say, attracting girls was a dicey affair when you sounded like Porky Pig.
During my college undergraduate years, something liberating happened: I found the courage to speak up in class when I was challenged intellectually. In fact, my stuttering disappeared during heated argument. I spoke as clearly as the average person when pushed to defend an idea or a position I had staked out.
My concept of stuttering changed in graduate school at the University of Chicago, when I took a 17th-century poetry course with John M. Wallace, an urbane, brilliant and witty Brit. This learned man — author of the acclaimed book, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell — stuttered.
I watched and listened as he synthesized the relationship between politics, history, literature and the fine arts over a century. His eyes would blink, and his lips would tremble slightly before words came out. I soon thought of those involuntary movements as being sophisticated affectations.
I will never forget his reply when I told him about my stuttering: "Well then, William, become an authority in your field and 'stammering' won't matter much, now will it?"
From this great professor, I found the courage to become a teacher. Although I was successful, most of my lectures were a private hell. Each time I stood in front of a class during the early years, I feared that I would be unable to get a sentence started, that I would fumble with a word too long, that I would forget my next thought. In time, I relaxed, often lecturing with ease.
Over the years, though, I still had problems outside the classroom. I have refused to participate in most panel discussions. I never appear on television or go on radio. If I am not in control of the format and the material, large crowds, cameras and microphones induce my stuttering. For several years, when I did a public reading of essays, titled "Parallel Lives," with novelist Beverly Coyle, I would be so afraid of stuttering that she would have to reassure me before I walked on stage.
When American Stage theater asked me several years ago to read a character in the play The Exonerated, I declined because I was afraid of stuttering and blowing the part.
Stuttering is a serious disability for many. According to the Stuttering Foundation, more than 3-million Americans, mostly males, stutter. Here are the names of some famous people affected: Winston Churchill, John Stossel, Carly Simon, Mel Tillis, James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe, John Updike, Eric Roberts, Thomas Beckett, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, Nicolas Brendon, Isaac Newton, Bruce Willis, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Stewart, Sen. Joseph Biden, Harvey Keitel, Peggy Lipton and Aristole.
I wrote this column mainly because I want Joey Fraze and thousands of other kids like him to know that they can fulfill their dreams, even speaking in public, despite stuttering. They never should be ashamed to let others know they stutter, and they should seek therapy if they need it.