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