Embracing Uniqueness

As children across America head back to school, I find myself empathizing with those students who may be a little different from their peers.

My grandfather stuttered, as did my uncle. My brother did, too, and at 41 years young, I still stutter.

It wasn’t too terribly difficult the first couple of years of school. In fact, I don’t recall being made fun of at all, although there was a great deal of curiosity about my abnormal speech.

In the second grade, a classmate asked me why I talked funny. With a straight face, I told her I had a piece of meat stuck in my throat which caused my words to get stuck.

Poor, bad hair, and meat stuck in my throat…..this was 2nd grade for me.

Poor, bad hair, and meat stuck in my throat…..this was 2nd grade for me.

Years later, with a straight face, she asked if I still had that meat stuck in my throat. She was serious.

To this day, stuttering can be difficult, in more ways than one, to explain.

Kids love recess, naps, and show and tell, and I was no different. Recess and naps came easy, and in spite of my speech disorder, I still took part in show and tell just like all the other kids. I just did a whole lot more showing than I did telling.

It’s never easy being a kid, but it’s especially tough when you’re different.

I had trouble saying my name and would often give fake names when meeting new people. It was not uncommon for me to be Jason or Mike, Chris or Kevin, or Calvin. Yes, one time I was Calvin. I don’t really look like a Calvin but that’s what came out.

Most little boys are shy when talking to girls, but I was downright terrified. I can probably count the number of times on one hand that I talked to a girl in elementary school. Years later, many of those same girls told me they thought my stuttering was cute. I wish I’d known that then.

As I got older, some kids started getting meaner and the mocking ensued. Unfortunately, I let it bother me. I shouldn’t have, but I did. I put more stock in what they had to say rather than being thankful for the overwhelming majority of kids who treated me with kindness, respect and compassion. In hindsight, I know that it was a reflection of them and not me. Again, I wish I’d known that then.

My 4th grade picture…with a hair like this, not to mention the sweater vest and collars, I would have made fun of me, too!

My 4th grade picture…with a hair like this, not to mention the sweater vest and collars, I would have made fun of me, too!

It was not uncommon for me to know the answers to questions during class, but it was quite common for me to remain silent out of fear of being ridiculed.

Reading aloud in class was pure torture. The buildup and anticipation of being called upon created more stress and anxiety than I am able to put into words, which resulted in frequent tension headaches.

When it was my time to read, I would lower my head, focus, and stop breathing. I would instinctively hit my thigh with my fist over and over to literally beat the words out of me, whereas other times, I would hit the underside of my desktop.

Giving an oral presentation in front of the class was the ultimate challenge, which usually resulted in ultimate shame. There was nowhere to hide. All eyes were fixed upon me as the secondary effects of stuttering stole the show. My eyes closed and my face contorted as I struggled to get out each word. There was no desk to pound and beating my leg in front the whole class was incredibly awkward.

Kids were mean and I let that bother me. There were very few days this future soldier didn’t find himself crying by the end of the day. I didn’t like who I was and didn’t want to be me.

The funny thing, though, was that it wasn’t the stuttering that caused any of the negative feelings I had, and it wasn’t the bullies, either. It was my reaction to both the stuttering and the bullying.

I let it bother me, but it didn’t have to be like that.

Sometime in the eighth grade, my attitude changed. I don’t recall exactly when, where, how, or why, but I turned what I’d always perceived as a negative into a positive.

I wasn’t an athlete and I wasn’t a genius. I wasn’t in the band and I certainly couldn’t sing, but everyone still knew me, because I stood out, and that was a good thing. I was different and I finally embraced that difference and ran with it.

Instead of waiting in fear for the teacher to call my name, I raised my hand when I knew the answer to a question. I always volunteered to read and even used oral presentations as an opportunity to showcase my comedic talents.

I was in control and would not allow the anxiety or insecurity to control my feelings, attitude, or behavior.

In subsequent years, I’d go on to speak in front of the entire student body on multiple occasions.

Being in control eased most of the tension; inevitably, there were less headaches, secondary effects, and, to a degree, stuttering.

Self-acceptance is crucial to happiness and success in and out of the classroom. It doesn’t mean we can’t strive to improve upon our so-called flaws, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love ourselves and embrace our uniqueness either.

Individuality should be celebrated, not suppressed and certainly not mocked.

I went from a stuttering kid who seldom spoke a word to a stuttering man who now speaks for a living.

The Speaker

The Speaker

It’s never easy being a kid, but it’s especially tough when you’re different, but it doesn’t have to be.

The time to embrace your uniqueness is now.

Signed, Calvin.

Jody Fuller is a comic, speaker, writer, and soldier. He can be reached at jody@jodyfuller.com. For more information, please visit www.jodyfuller.com.

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Stuttering is Cool

I come from a long line of disabilities. I stutter, my father was blind, and my mother and brother are Alabama fans; however, since May 13-19 is National Stuttering Awareness week, I’ll st-st-stick to stuttering.

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When I was in the second grade, one of my classmates asked me why I stuttered. I told her that when I was a kid, I was eating a piece of meat and it got stuck in my throat, so whenever I tried to talk, it bounced up and down which caused me to stutter.

She bought it hook, line, and sinker.

I can’t recall whether she moved, transferred schools or what, but I didn’t see her again until we were in the seventh grade. After a brief conversation, she said, “Jody, it sounds like you still have that meat stuck in your throat.”

Indeed, I did.

Indeed, I do.

I’ve stuttered my entire life, although it was much more severe during my childhood.

There are varying degrees of stuttering, from mild to severe.

There are, perhaps, as many different patterns of stuttering as there are people who stutter. I’ve often said that a person’s stutter is as unique as fingerprints and snowflakes.

The exact cause of stuttering is not known.

Throughout history, some of the more laughable proposed “causes” of stuttering, per Wikipedia, have included tickling an infant too much, allowing an infant to look in the mirror, eating improperly during breastfeeding, cutting a child’s hair before the child spoke his or her first words, having too small a tongue, or, my favorite, the “work of the devil.”

People who stutter often experience physical tension and struggle in their speech muscles, as well as embarrassment, anxiety, and fear about speaking. Together, these symptoms can make it very difficult for people who stutter to say what they want to say and to communicate effectively with others.

I borrowed the previous paragraph from my friends at the National Stuttering Association.

The National Stuttering Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing hope and empowerment to children and adults who stutter, their families, and professionals through support, education, advocacy, and research.

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For centuries “cures” such as drinking water from a snail shell, hitting a stutterer in the face when the weather was cloudy, strengthening the tongue as a muscle, and various herbal remedies were used.

These “cures” are equally as laughable as the “causes.” There is no cure for stuttering. Some of us may outgrow it or control it better than others, but once a stutterer, always a stutterer, and that’s okay. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it should be embraced.

Danny, one of my Canadian pals who also stutters, says stuttering is cool. I couldn’t agree more.

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(My Canadian pal, Danny, eh….at the 2011 NSA conference in Ft. Worth)

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

During Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, I was told by an officer from another company that I couldn’t be an officer because of my stutter. I wish I’d caught his name because I would’ve looked him up and sent him a message by now letting him know that upon arrival at my first assignment at Ft. Lewis, my bosses had enough confidence in my abilities to appoint me as the platoon leader of the third largest platoon in the Army.

Clear and concise communication is important; however, it is not the be all end all.

Only 1% of the adult population stutters but 4% of children do, which means 96% do not. If I had a nickel for every time I was made fun of, I could have retired at 12.

We all have perceived flaws. Yes, all of us. You, too. None of us are perfect.

We’re all unique in our own way and all have the ability to shine, regardless of the perceived flaw. At the risk of sounding arrogant, there was a time in my life where people made fun of me for the way I spoke, yet, today, people pay to hear me speak.

Due to, in large part, to stuttering, there was also a time in my life when I wanted to be any but me, yet, today, there’s no one else I’d rather be.

My advice to anyone who stutters is to truly accept it. I know that can be hard for some of us, but if you don’t accept it yourself, then how can you truly expect it from others?

Accept it, embrace it, and let it shine, because loving yourself really is cool, no doubt about it.

Jody Fuller is a comic, a speaker, and a soldier. He can be reached at jody@jodyfuller.com. For more information, please visit http://www.jodyfuller.com.