A former student of mine recently shared with me a song he made about having a stutter.
It’s been a long time since I taught him, but I will never forget a conversation we once had about having a stutter; how difficult it was to cope with day to day interactions and how it was impacting on his whole life.
During this conversation, I divulged a highly sensitive piece of information: that I too have a stutter. Always have. Always will.
Now, in my chosen profession of teaching English, it’s pretty par for the course to have to speak, openly, to a range of audiences in a range of contexts – something which aged 11, would have put me into convulsions of fear.
But somehow, here I am. A fully functioning teacher and speaker and performance poet and rapper and husband and blogger, despite having grown up with an accursed speech impediment. How did this happen? And what have I gained from stuttering. On reflection, quite a lot…
1. Anxiety into empathy
Growing up with a stammer meant that I really hated being in the centre of small social interactions. A conversation was, for me, a highly pressurised spotlight of my oratic shortcomings. I couldn’t hack it. My response was to focus intently on other people. I became hyper-sensitive to the potential thoughts and feelings of other people; how they may be reacting to my words, how that might react to my stuttering, what they might say in response, etc.
As a teacher, I frequently find myself thinking keenly about the experiences of my students (and colleagues) over my own experiences, or thinking acutely about how my actions might be taken by others. It’s an anxious way to live, but it’s important to put yourself in perspective.
Stuttering is humiliating. You can spend every waking minute with a sense of dread, waiting for the moment that it all goes wrong and you get stuck on, say, pronouncing your own name.
This kind of humility is very grounding, and essential for all professionals. Despite all the bragging you may have heard on my various mixtapes, I try to remain a humble, level-headed person at all times. I live to learn, and know only that I don’t know very much at all.
I distinctly remember, in my youth, wondering how on earth I would get through the obstacles of adult life with such a debilitating social disease as a noticeable stammer. Years later, here I am.
Having a stammer forces you to be resilient and tough. You have to face those unfaceable social interactions, you have to use the telephone, you have to go back to that person you stammered in front of and continue speaking to them. Teaching is a similar game of nerves. It doesn’t get easier, and you have to jump back into the maelstrom, every time. (And, because nothing is worse than fearing your own stammer, I’m actually quite relieved that the extent of my problems are often classroom based.)
A huge realisation for me was that I didn’t actually stammer when in the middle of performance. I must have been 10 or so and there was a school production ion which I had to recite something in tandem with another student. And I was fine. I could always recite in unison with others, but from then on, I discovered I could recite clearly when in any kind of performance-based context.
I took this with me into adolescence and beyond, putting on a persona of performance whenever I had to speak. Even know, a telephone conversation with the bank is, for me, the exact same thing as leading an assembly in front of 600 people or reading from the bible in front of a congregation of near 1,000 (both of which I have done).
Ironically, the skills I have developed to survive stammering in small-scale interactions have helped me flourish in much ‘scarier’ contexts. Public speaking is not an issue for me – a confidence that allows me to breathe in classrooms.
When you stutter, you have certain sounds and syllables that trip you up, and knowledge of this makes you more likely to slip up. From an early age, I developed crazy strategies to avoid certain words, or trick myself into relaxing enough to get through conversations that would otherwise leave me in tears.
In a hiphop sense, I’ve been riding the fine line between freestyling and writing rhymes in advance. My mind is flexible, because I was never in the moment with my words: I had to exist just outside the moment and work out the best way to inhabit it without falling victim to my own shortcomings.
6. Respect for talk/ respect for words
I used to (and still do) marvel at fluency. I was eternally envious of kids who could read from a book aloud, when asked, with no prep, no fears. Because I couldn’t. I’ve always loved words and their power to connect, but having a stammer has heightened my respect for talk into something critical.
Talk, for me, is not cheap. In class, I treat it very carefully and understand the subtexts and pressures that come with even the most casual of conversations. It’s no accident that I have helped develop an Oracy curriculum over the past two years – I appreciate the importance and power (and fragility) of words.
When you don’t talk, you listen. When you listen, you learn. Simple.
As ever, yours, in teaching,
ps: For real life recorded evidence of my now celebrated eloquence, click here for footage of a spoken word set at Jawdance, a short while back. Enjoy!