It is easy to write or say the ELSA (European League of Stuttering Associations) Youth Meeting 2014 was the best week of my life. However explaining why is a lot harder. It is almost as difficult as saying your name fluently during a round of introductions. Or as difficult as ordering a b … b … b .. bun with b… .b … .b … brie at the b … b … bakery.
The b that is above often causes me to stutter. Stuttering was actually the only thing I was sure about beforehand. The ELSA YM would be a week with a lot of stuttering (and hopefully with nice people and interesting topics).
Challenges are there to be taken on. I will try to write down what was so special about a week with people who stutter from Europe (and Israel). Put them together in a meeting at a converted farmhouse in the Dutch village of Loosbroek and many special moments arise.
First, the fact that everyone had a stutter made the week special. You could expect stuttering from everyone. From the cooks when they told us what we were going to eat to the workshop leaders and the ‘camp mom’ Anita, when she sat at the table next to you. Stuttering was the norm, therefore it soon became much less difficult to listen to it. Everyone had time for each other and watched one another’s faces carefully for signs of possible stutters. I think it was great that everyone listened to each other. Even if someone wanted to take their turn to speak but stuttered on the first word. In contrast, when I was back in the ‘normal’ world, I found it difficult to have to fight for my turn when the first word was not fluent. The fact that I was back to needing four attempts to ask a question in a group (of fluent speaking people), made me realise that the patience and willingness to listen during the ELSA YM was special. However my self-confidence grew so much during the week that I actually took the four attempts and I did not let the stutter stop me.
Second, all kinds of workshops and lectures were given with opportunities to try and ask many questions – good practice. We were introduced to public speaking; how to be assertive vs. the passive attitude we often have; the rights of people who stutter; and how to run a stuttering association. With all this new information, we worked on a fictional project: setting up our own youth group for people who stutter. In between there were also games workshops, social activities, movies and breaks to chat and to take in the busy programme. Personally I thought everything was interesting so I always looked forward to the next part of the programme. At the workshop on assertiveness in particular, I kept writing more and more. I realized that I too behave more passively than I’d like to. During the week I noticed some progress towards the assertive Misty. Realizing that you do something is often halfway to finding a solution.
The Safe Environment
Third, stutterers rule number one: do not put people who stutter in front of a group for a speech. Sounds logical. You would think that most people who stutter do not find it fun when you ask them to speak before a group. However the environment during the ELSA YM was so safe that almost everyone got up voluntarily in front of the group. At the beginning of the week I think that was very difficult, what’s more for me the strange English language raised the bar even higher. During the week I felt the bar was lowered and by the end of the week I realised that the sweaty hands were gone. When the workshop leader asked me to stand up in front of the group, I was not fully relaxed but the ‘help-I-want-to-run-away-very-quickly’ feeling had disappeared like snow in the sun.
Fourth, I’ve already written about the English language as the official language. For me English and stuttering always come together. And I mean I stutter ten times more than usual (or maybe thirty times more). Luckily I was not the only one for whom it was like that. Together we stuttered a lot! Because it was the norm, nobody cared that much about stuttering. I heard stutters of all shapes and sizes but no one made an issue of that. We had the time. Just having to put no effort into speaking fluently was great! I didn’t know that this could feel so good. I think that it is clear that this makes the week special.
Fifth, with participants from sixteen different countries we were one big family. Anyone could have a chat with anyone else and words in different languages were exchanged. Also, cooperation in smaller groups went well. Gradually more personal stories came up and that strengthened the attachment. The only word that I believe in this context to be correct is a ‘sect’. A sect whose faith is: “I stutter. So what?” This solidarity resulted in nobody wanting to leave one another. The parties kept going on later and later and whilst saying goodbye, we were fighting against tears that we could not all keep in.
Sixth, it was really special that time flew. As I said, we had a busy schedule with lots of fun activities. Here I have to mention that I normally cannot handle all the fuss that well. Usually I long for my own bed and a quiet environment. In contrast to what I expected, time flew for me as well, which I regretted terribly when I suddenly realised it was already Thursday, the last day. Why was this special week not seven days longer?
Seventh, after a long journey home, the first thing that everyone did was share on Facebook how fantastic the week had been. I wrote on Facebook that I had learnt a lot in the last week and that I had met special people. One of the other participants wrote to me that she filled the emptiness she felt, from missing everything and everybody, with the messages that appeared online. That was, in my opinion, perfectly described. I am still doing that after a week. Is there anything new about the week posted on Facebook? What beautiful memories will come up with the new photos? Is there another new message from one of those lovely participants?
Trying in Vain
With these seven reasons I have tried in vain to describe the ELSA Youth Meeting 2014. In vain because it was more special than words can express; in vain because it was more special than you can possibly imagine; and in vain because it was better than anything you can imagine. I simply cannot explain why the atmosphere of that week touched me that much. I cannot explain how much good it has done for the confidence of all those people who stutter but I can add – as a final point – it has broadened my world. Literally and figuratively.
I’ve seen how powerful people can be; how much stuttering can unfortunately ruin but also how many beautiful experiences it can provide; how stuttering can drive people to extremes in positive and negative ways; and how stuttering can connect people. Participating in the ELSA YM is one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Now the meeting is over, I hope to connect with other participants, with other people who stutter, and with people who are fluent. Who knows, some day it might be possible to put other young people who stutter in touch with each other – a good plan. Assertiveness suits me better than that extremely passive attitude. I stutter, so what?! After the week I pinned the badge with that slogan proudly on my bag. No more hiding. Challenges are there to be taken on.
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