As the ISAD Online Conference begins, I look back at my stuttering season of 2016, which is how I think of the warm weather months. And realizing that I have been a part of the stuttering support world for 25 years; ever since my sister Erica saw John Ahlbach’s response to an Ann Landers column in September 1991. Erica mailed me the clipping, which is how I first learned about the National Stuttering Project. The organization is now called the National Stuttering Association, and this year’s conference was held in Atlanta in early July. I will write more about this conference in a later post.
In late July was the annual conference of Friends: the National Organization for Young People Who Stutter, which was held in Columbus, Ohio. The first afternoon there were icebreaker activities; one of which involved those present sitting with others who share the same birth month. I sat with others who have birthdays in July.
Each group was assigned the task of writing a 4-line poem related to the conference theme of breaking down walls of stuttering, and to delegate one or more members to read the poem out loud. We with July birthdays chose to present our poem with choral reading. In another group several tables away, a fair-haired girl who was 10 or 11-years old had volunteered. As she began speaking she blocked severely.
We in the audience waited patiently, and were with her in spirit; as is always the case at these conferences. I empathized with her stuttering. It reminded me of my own style during my more severe blocks, trying to push a sound out through my tensed upper body. But no sound emerges. At these times I feel like a dam, ready to burst.
She was able to get the words of the poem out. After which she sat down with her head on the table, her face hidden in her forearm.
As a person who stutters, and social worker, I wanted to reach out to this girl. I admired her courage in stepping up to present the poem, and hanging in there.
Two mornings later I was volunteering at the convention store, and saw her walk by. I voluntary stuttered in introducing myself, and said I admired her stepping up to the challenging task of reading a poem, and kept going. She smiled, thanked me, and walked away.
At the closing ceremony we were to encouraged to present a symbolic paper brick to someone we had observed break through a wall of stuttering that weekend. Of course I thought of this little girl. I found her in the crowd and gave her a brick, and told her that she had helped me be more courageous in my own life. Later I spoke with her mother as well.
While writing this I was reminded of a similar incident at the Friends’ Conference in Chicago in 2001. That year I was shooting footage for my documentary film Spit It Out. The film’s Director and Cinematographer Jonathan Skurnik and I accompanied a group of kids and adults on a short trip from the convention hotel to a large open field. The SLP Patty Walton had the creative idea of shooting our respective “stuttering monsters” into space, with the help of a rocketeer from Colorado.
I saw a 9-yo boy being teased by a boy with a less severe stutter. His older sister was standing up for him. Jonathan followed with his camera as I went for a walk with the boy and his sister. I talked with him about his feelings, and possible ways to handle the situation. I appreciated that a part of his anger at the other boy was his wanting to “knock his block off,” especially if the boy made fun of my stutter. A few minutes we rejoined the group, and joined in as we put our stuttering monsters into the rocket before it was shot off into the sky! These scenes appeared in the film.
Years later, a friend wondered if my support that day of the little boy was a precursor to my present work as a psychotherapist.
Weekend, October 1 & 2, 2016
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