I blogged yesterday about trying to find my literary voice and a niche as a writer, and while that post was primarily about what goes on the page, I did mention, albeit briefly, about growing up with a stutter and how that drew me to writing. And while I am not writing today’s blog because I think I am some kind of role model or poster boy for “Stutterers who Don’t Shut up now!”, I have managed to take the events of one of the worst days of my life and grow from it. Sure, it took some time and a great network of support, but I look back on it and almost laugh now. Maybe it was bullying, I don’t know. Back then, in 1986, I don’t think we ever called it as such.
Some background for you first. I was always short and scrawny. Always. And I had George Harrison’s haircut (George Harrison was the lead guitarist in the Beatles). The Beatles had broken up the year before I was born so why I was still sporting his haircut as a teen in the 80s was beyond me. But it was the 80s. It was either that or a mullet or the feathered look. Not a great hair decade if I’m honest. Sorry, off topic. Short and scrawny. Did I mention I was bow-legged and pigeon-toed as well? At one time I had to sleep with a brace on my feet (and shoes) so I could try and train my feet to point the other way. So basically, to all other teenagers, I was a really big red circle on an archery target.
It wasn’t too bad when I was in elementary school and junior high. I went to the same school from grades 1 through 9 (5 years old to 14 years old), with pretty much the same people all the way. Plus I was one of the star athletes – ran 9 events for the track team, played ice hockey, softball, soccer; volleyball and basketball for the school. I didn’t have to talk much because I could walk the walk. But that all changed.
Having just turned 15, I decided to go to the largest high school in the province. Over 2500 students. Walking around campus that first day was a real eye-opener. Every ounce of confidence I had walking out of junior high had suddenly seeped away the first moment I had a cigarette butt flicked at me from the returning grade 12s sitting on their muscle cars in the parking lot. I picked up my schedule, met the three people from my old school I knew, and tried to make sense of what would be the biggest threat to me growing up I would probably face.
Second day of class. Wednesday. Just after 11 am. I’m sitting in English with around 30 other students. Some of them seem to know each other as they’ve all come from larger more popular schools than I have. I’m already feeling alone. Attendance was thankfully a breeze. This teacher just decided to read out our names rather than have us introduce ourselves. You see, the introduction stage is where people usually get the first glimpses of my stutter. Like most stutterers, words that start with vowels or vowel sounds always tripped me up. My family name, starts with an “I”. I could never say it without stuttering. And yes, I have forgiven them for it. But my delight at not having to mispronounce my last name vanishes as I realize we’re all going to have to read a paragraph from the short story we’re reading. It gets to my turn and I shake my head to say I’m not doing it. He insists. I still decline. Finally I give in, stare down at the words in front of me, think to myself they don’t look too bad, and I let it fly as confidently as I can.
Third word in, I stutter. And once I start, I can’t stop. Because I’m so focused that I’m doing it, I keep doing and compound the problem by making it worse. The snickering starts. What should have taken about 45 seconds to read, has taken me around 2 minutes and then I hear it, loud enough to eclipse the steady droning of laughter that is greeting my attempts at reading George Orwell. From the back of the class, from the blonde and physically perfect girl who everyone said “hi” to as she walked into class, whose name I still remember but will not use because, quite possibly, she might actually look back at that day and wish she could do things differently, came this seemingly angelic voice full of indignant consternation, “Oh my God, they put a retard in class with us.” Cue more laughter.
At this point, trying desperately not to show that I wanted to curl up in a ball and drown myself to death in tears, I closed the book without finishing my paragraph, handed it to the teacher who didn’t say a word to her – possibly out of shock – and managed to spit out, “I’m off to drop out of school now” before leaving the classroom. I walked straight to my guidance councilor’s office and said the same thing. Fortunately, he and another teacher got me to change my mind. That is a story for another day, tomorrow, so please come back and read that one as it is about a man who, besides my family, is most responsible for who I am today. And the reason I will never say anything bad about teachers.
Even back in the 80s when things weren’t as politically correct as they are, that jibe nearly killed me. At that point in time, two days into my high school career, I thought it was over. Teenagers can be cruel at times. That much hasn’t changed in the near 30 years since this incident took place. For the record, I cried for two hours when I got home that night. Managed to make it through the whole day at school without doing it. I didn’t tell my parents it had happened either. Dad would have gone ballistic. I thought this was something I would have to handle myself. Part of growing up. If I could survive this, I could survive anything. Surviving it took time, more abuse, and more support than I thought I had. To this day, I don’t know if I would call it bullying because it wasn’t from one person or group and not steady and often. It was little blurbs and barbs here and there, from anyone and everyone it seemed. But it still hurt.
As an aside to this story, we can flash forward around 10 years and I’m out at the pub that sponsors my soccer team. By this time I had learned to live with my stutter and was doing it less because I cared about it less. And the people I associated with, the ones I called my friends, didn’t care about it either. And I finally put on a bit of muscle, got a good haircut, learned to dress a bit better, and was starting to realize that my dimples were far more of an attraction to women than my stutter was a deterrent. I’m walking from the booth a few of us are sharing towards the bar to get another round in when this girl walks over. I knew who it was as soon as I saw her. She’s all smiles, touches my arm, starts chatting away about finally working up the courage to talk to me because she’s seen me here a few times before but has never approached. We talk as I’m waiting for the drinks I’ve ordered and as they arrive she asks if I’d like to join her for a drink. I smile, as politely as I can, take her hand and say, “Really? You’d like to have a drink with the retard they put in your class?” I grabbed the tray of drinks and walked off. Didn’t even give her a chance to respond. Maybe that was harsh of me. But she had no idea who I was so I figured she didn’t deserve to know. And I won’t lie, it did feel a wee bit good.