About a third of the way through The King's Speech I almost got up and walked out. Not because the movie wasn't compelling, but rather it hit too close to home. Watching the performance of Colin Firth as King George VI made my eyes water. Like the late king, and an estimated 68 million people around the world, I stutter. Long after the credits rolled I told my wife about my discomfort watching the movie. She said "didn't you see it as a victory?" To which I answered: "there are always painful battles before victory."
For those of us who stutter, it is often a daily tug of war. Will I? Won't I? And what happens if I do? I'm a 50-year old African-American man. I'm as conscious of my stutter as I am the color of my skin. Proud of how far I've come. Still leery of what lurks beyond every sentence. As a boy I often felt ashamed and allowed myself to believe the taunts of others that I was indeed stupid.
For years in school I ordered soda for lunch because it's the only drink I could safely say without stuttering. I've never liked soda, but for me stuttering meant limitations. Limits on the things I could drink, the people I could talk to, the places I could go and even the dreams I could dare dream.
Once in grade school I was attacked by a bully outside a neighborhood fast food restaurant. I was unable to defend myself physically or verbally. He took my food and my dignity that day. The moment still haunts me. There were of course the loving relatives and dear friends who tried to help me by finishing my sentences or defended me to others. To them I will be forever grateful.
I actually didn't get help for my stutter until I was almost out of college. A speech professor at Ohio Wesleyan University heard me struggling one day in class. It was during a group discussion about our future occupations. Other students were shouting out: Lawyer... teacher... entrepreneur. Then it was my turn. "Jour--- jour--- jour---jour-- journalist," I said. There was laughter.
The professor asked to see me after class where he kindly offered to help me for free. There was no formal program to follow so it was trial and error. You could call it tough love for stuttering. He would make me read the newspaper with pencils in my mouth. I would read great works of literature backwards. There were breathing exercises, audio recordings, even singing while reading. We made a list of words I should avoid and a separate list of replacement words. And he encouraged me to take a job at the university radio station as a disc jockey where I was forced to confront my terror and speak in public.
It was a difficult and at times painful road. For the first twenty years of my life I'd felt virtually voiceless. One man helped changed that. It's one of the reasons I became a journalist: to give voice to the voiceless.
Fortunately for thousands of children and adults, the science of speech pathology has come a long way in the past thirty years. There are any number of outstanding speech pathologists and stuttering programs in almost every state. I've seen children as young as four helped in unbelievable ways. Kids smile with their progress. Their parents would cry.
Truth be told, I will always struggle with stuttering although I manage it. The shame of that little boy still lives inside me. Every day I wonder if this will be the day I 'get stuck' on a word. Millions of people just like me fight the good fight every day. It's likely you know someone who stutters. We don't want pity. We don't want you to finish our sentences or make excuses for us. We just want what you want; the ability to express ourselves and be understood whether we stutter a lot or a little. Even if it's afternoon by the time we get out "good morning." Few of us expect our war with words will ever end. But we do win battles. We can claim victories large and small.
After King George VI gave that most important speech, I'm sure he gave plenty more. And I'm equally certain he agonized over speaking clearly in the days and years that followed. King or commoner, stuttering does not discriminate. It spares no economic class, ethnic group, gender or zip code. You never get over stuttering, but it is possible to get past it. And that, my friends, can be a sweet place. I've been there. It's one of my favorite places on earth...
To Learn More About Help For Those Who Stutter