Essays

How Kids Helped Me Accept My Stutter

My time volunteering helped me finally understand that my speech disability was just another way of communicating.

The learning center is in a frenzy.

Kids step off the school bus and race through the screen door, pushing each other to claim a folding chair. “Stop running and shoving, please!” I call, but know it won’t do much good. Like most nonprofit learning centers, ours never seems to have enough chairs, snacks, or volunteers to totally keep order. But I spend three afternoons a week volunteering here, making refreshments and tutoring kids.

Normally that much committed time interacting with others would leave me flustered. I was born with a neurological speech impediment: a stutter, a fluency disorder that effects only 1% of the population. Conversation with other adults is often laborious and stressful. I spend most of my time trying, and failing, to hide my stutter. I’m often obsessed with how my speech is being perceived—fearful it makes me appear erratic or unintelligent. Even simple interactions, like introducing myself or ordering at a restaurant, flood me with embarrassment.

But volunteering my afternoons at the learning center, I have discovered something astonishing: around kids, the severity of my stutter often lessens.

This phenomenon doesn’t just occur at the learning center. Once, I was explaining something to my friend and stuttering severely; the next minute, her four-year-old son and I were playing, and I didn’t stumble over my words once. The same was true about my niece and nephew—whether we were reading or playing or discussing the mysteries of life, it didn’t matter.

I have discovered something astonishing: around kids, the severity of my stutter often lessens.

Though I know my stutter is a lifelong impediment with no cure, I still can’t help but wonder why speech seems easier around children, but incredibly strained around adults.

The screen door slams shut. A few of the kids are calling my name, eager for my company or perhaps just wanting refreshments—I’m never quite sure which.

“Almost done!” I call out to them. While the other volunteer opens a box of cookies, I peek over the counter and count: there are over twenty kids, elementary and middle-school age. Mostly everyone has found folding chairs—except for the latecomers leaned against the wall, resting their backpacks at their feet.

“You won’t believe how much homework I have,” one of the middle-school girls tells me, her eyes wide with dramatic effect.

I pour fruit punch into small, styrofoam cups—not ideal for the younger kids, but it’s all we have available—and then start carrying them to each table.

“How much?” I ask, handing her a cup.

The preteen pulls out her binder and shows me the assignment sheet: a five-paragraph essay.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “The first p-p-paragraph is just an intro, then the next three are your main points, and the closing is just a s-summary.” I hand her a cup of fruit punch. “We’ve got this,” I say, and she smiles.

After snack, we look over the assignment sheet and get to work: brainstorming, then outlining, until finally, she sits down and writes a first draft. She’s reading it aloud an hour later when her mother comes to pick her up—grabbing her daughter’s backpack from the floor, listening to her daughter read.

“Thanks so much for helping her,” the mother says, looking at me. Her daughter is sliding her homework back into her backpack. “You’ve helped her before, haven’t you? She says you’re a great tutor.”

I stand up, watching the room fill with parents. “Th-th-thank you,” I say. “Sh-sh-she’s a great kid.”

“You’re a student at the university, right?” the mother asks. “Are you going to be a teacher?”

“Nnnnnnnnnn…nnnnnnnnno, I’m not,” I say. “I llllllllllll-lllllllllll-llllllllike kids a lot, but—but—but—I don’t llllllike to s-s-s-speak ppppppp…pppppppp…pppppppppublicly.”

I feel my face flush. The mother holds onto her daughter’s shoulders, looking confused. I imagine what she must be thinking: how could this person possibly tutor my daughter? My mind is full of shame, searching for a way to smooth things over.

But I never get the chance. The mother nods politely, pulling her daughter forward, and they leave—closing the screen door behind them.

That was several years ago. But it’s an interaction that has stuck with me: I relive it often, as if in present tense.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the latest research on stuttering. I’ve joined online support groups, and attended the National Stuttering Association conference, where I’m surrounded by 800 others just like me. The more I learn and read and talk about stuttering, the more I’m able to acknowledge my condition for what it really is: just another form of communicating. Though stuttering makes conversation slower and less fluid, it’s communication all the same—a method of expression that promotes patience for both the speaker and the listener. My speech, I have realized, is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Everyone has insecurities, many more monumental than mine. People who stutter merely have theirs on audible display.

But I’m still curious about the connection between kids and fluency. With younger kids, conversation is usually spontaneous; their every formed thought or moment of individuality feels like a cause for celebration. Older kids are questioning the world and their place in it—a period of discovery that’s fascinating to observe. Because of this, during conversation with younger and older kids alike, I’m often more focused on what they’re saying than what I’m saying, or—more importantly—how I’m saying it. I allow myself to speak beyond the impediment and focus on the connection I’m building. And because I’m not focused on my stutter, my speech is—ironically—often much better.

Realizing all this, I wonder: if I can focus and listen to adults more in conversation—rather than existing in my own head, worrying about how I’m going to be perceived—perhaps I can speak more freely. Perhaps at the learning center, I could have prevented my apprehension and spoken to that mother more easily, if I had paid attention to her and not my worries. Perhaps she and I could have parted on friendly terms, rather than retreating into awkward embarrassment.

But life can’t be built on assumptions or possibilities, especially with a lifelong speech disorder to consider. All I can do is appreciate my interactions with kids, and approach adult conversation more mindfully. I’m not alone in my self-doubt: everyone has insecurities, many that seem more monumental than mine. People who stutter merely have theirs on audible display. But the more transparent I am about the hardship of stuttering, the more honest others become towards their own shortcomings. There is a vulnerability that occurs each time I stutter, an openness that’s shared by any receptive listener. The more I aim for acceptance—not perfection—in everyday conversation, the more others begin to see themselves reflected in my struggle.