Choosing to speak over hiding away
14th October 2022
Teacher Saul Smith tells us about developing a 'carry on regardless' attitude to stammering and the things that have helped on his journey to acceptance.
It's funny how the future can hinge on small events. For me it was at the age of 13, refusing to speak to the Little Chef waitress about the watch I had left in the toilets, which had subsequently disappeared. Back at the table, sitting with my family, I was told in no uncertain terms that if I wasn't prepared to speak to the waitress, no one else would. On the long journey up the A1, whilst initially resenting this tough-love ultimatum, I came to realise that being forced to speak to a stranger threw into sharp relief the choices I had as someone who stammers: speak to everyone no matter what, or hide away in silence.
In hindsight it was no surprise I chose the former. Having a stutter had not sat very well with my personality even as a small child. I was, and some say still am, a consummate show off and it was a constant source of frustration to me when I felt my speech got in the way of this.
Early teenage years, difficult enough for everyone, were a challenge in a South London comprehensive in the 1980s, but I battled on through, taking speaking parts in school shows and plays; my saving grace was being good at football, and you didn't have to speak much for that! I didn't completely escape the savage mickey taking, but it took the edge off.
I was, and some say still am, a consummate show off and it was a constant source of frustration to me when I felt my speech got in the way of this.
An unexpected side effect of stammering for me has been a built-in friend filter. Those people whose faces stiffened or could barely contain a smirk as I spoke, I knew weren't for me. Those who were able to listen past the repetitions, blocks and grimaces, I knew would be fun, reliable and non-judgemental. Most people are curious about stammering and I have always been open about its idiosyncrasies. I'd like to think I have made some people realise that your ability to speak fluently is not linked to your intelligence.
This 'carry-on regardless' attitude continued through college and early jobs. At college, as part of the Student Union, I had to address 1,000 freshers and parents, an experience which I dreaded for the preceding week but never waivered from doing. My attitude has always been 'what's the worst that can happen?' and have found that subsequently people are usually full of admiration and encouragement, and often not too patronising!
Introducing my stutter in a jokey way at the beginning of speeches I have had to make, and as a teacher (I decided to pursue an easy career for a person with disfluency!) in job interviews and when speaking to parents — is usually an icebreaker. This strategy has been effective and it's always good to see the relief on peoples' faces when the elephant in the room has been addressed.
Curiously I have never talked about my stutter to my pupils and I can't pinpoint exactly why. There could be an element of denial (if I discuss it, will my fluency in the classroom decrease?) or a reluctance to show any sign of vulnerability, which is inherent in all teachers' DNA! Yet I will certainly discuss it with parents/carers and have advised several parents of stuttering pupils.
...it's always good to see the relief on peoples' faces when the elephant in the room has been addressed.
It hasn't all been plain sailing; I have had the aptly named choke points in my life where disfluency has affected me so much that help has been sought. I have tried several therapies over the years; the most effective was, as a teenager, going to see an actor friend of the family who stuttered but used the Viennese speech therapist Emil Froeschels's chewing method. First described in 1943, Froeschels theorised that speech had developed among our ancestors through the sounds made whilst chewing food when the mouth and throat muscles were most relaxed. Spending sessions with two bits of bread in my cheeks, looking like Marlon Brando in The Godfather and reading from a book, really helped to relax my mouth muscles and is still my go-to technique nearly 40 years later (albeit without the actual bread!). (Ed: You can read about a pilot study on the chewing technique, published in the Journal of Voice. Please note there are lots of different approaches to stammering, so see our Guide to Therapy Options to see what current speech & language therapy involves.)
Living with my stammer
Becoming a father was an anxious time for me when the children became old enough to notice my stammer. However, moaning at the teenagers about tidying their rooms is something I can do with absolute fluency!
Like many fellow stammerers, I am much more fluent when putting on an accent, and after the second pint! Unfortunately for those around me, singing is another completely fluent way of communicating — don't try to grab the mic from me during karaoke, as my long-suffering wife will attest!
Over the years, my stutter has reduced, although I do have challenging days if tired, or if I'm sometimes under pressure. I think the gradual increase in fluency has to do with the fact that people can become more comfortable in their skin as they grow older.
Acceptance; having a technique that works for me; and a supportive network, have been the key elements for me in living with my stammer over the last fifty-four years.
Read more Your Voice stories from our supporters. If you'd like to write something and tell us how you're getting on with your stammer, see our Share Your Story page or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.