The day my mindset changed

Two images, one of a young boy, and the second of the boy as a grown up

21st July 2021

Teacher Abid Hussain gives us an evocative snapshot of growing up in 1980s Bradford, when support for his stammer was thin on the ground. But broadening his horizons later on in life helped him to think more positively.

Inner city Bradford in the 1980s. Winters spent learning Urdu and watching The A-Team, Blockbusters and Grandstand. Long vibrant summer days generating our own fun and playing football. My passion for the game stemmed from the Mexico World Cup 1986. I saved up pocket money to buy Shoot and Match magazines. I was hooked and the passion remains to this day.

Visiting the local Sunday market became our highlight. The 'Everything-for-50p' stand and the aroma of doughnuts. People came from across Yorkshire and beyond, and us five brothers would watch  them stream in by their hundreds.

We grew up in this bubble and very rarely did we travel out of Bradford. If we did it was only to Halifax to see cousins. This bubble had its pros and cons. It embedded in me the value of belonging to a family and community. However, there was very little interaction with people from other races and religions. This always bugged me, but we couldn't express it the way the millennial generation can now.

That is just a snapshot of how life was in my youth.

Stammering & School

My earliest memory of stammering is when I was ten. My teacher Mrs Cunningham was very strict. The majority of pupils were scared of her. Being told off was like Sir Alex Ferguson giving you 'the hairdryer' treatment. 

I was in the school choir and singing was a saviour for me. The words just came out; no stopping, shaking or sweating. With my brothers and friends, my stammer was not apparent. But with authority figures like my dad or teachers, everything changed. The words I wanted to express were in my head but wouldn’t come out. It felt like the signals from my brain had shut down and my heart rate went up. 

My answer was to shut down, not talk and only speak to those I knew wouldn’t mock me. Was this the correct way to deal with it? Definitely not, but I had no choice.

"It's an act, he only wants attention", "Can't you talk properly?". These, along with so many insulting and degrading remarks, came from family, friends and teachers. No support from school or from home. Being selected as a school prefect should have built my confidence, but the opposite happened. The words were still not coming out.

My answer was to shut down, not talk and only speak to those I knew wouldn’t mock me. Was this the correct way to deal with it? Definitely not, but I had no choice.

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Doing presentations at high school was the next barrier I had to face. Avoiding them was the only option, I thought. Whenever I had to present to the class, I wouldn't come into school that day. I'd get up 10 minutes before mum came in to wake us up and put my head under the pillow to give myself a sweat. Mum would place her hand on my forehead and say, "Don't go to school, you have a temperature". Job done, presentation avoided. I repeated this scores of times.

Talking to girls was a complete 'no'. Didn't want to be embarrassed. So I spent the majority of my time with a few select friends and adapted to a routine of speaking less.

I still cannot get certain situations down on paper; they are way too emotional and some I have chosen to forget.

Looking back, one positive outcome from my school years was that I could analyse people. By not getting involved with conversations I became a watcher and learnt a lot from observing people and their behaviours.

My own behaviour at home, for a while, was shocking. My temper was short and erratic. Constantly fighting with my four brothers, it was me against them all the time. I alienated myself. The only way to counteract the bullying and degradation was to behave in a juvenile way. Coupled with this, my weight ballooned. I was eating all the time. Looking back, I think it all had something to do with the stammering — barriers that I couldn't break down.
I used to wonder if there was a magic pill I could take or if some sort of miracle would happen while I was asleep and I would wake up able to talk fluently.

The catalyst for change

Roll on autumn 1997, the year that was to be the catalyst to what I am now; to the University of Huddersfield where I studied Biology. I formed new friends, meeting people from across the UK. There, no one laughed when I spoke or finished my sentences. I was talking. Words were coming out. I was respected, listened to and not bullied.

The confidence I gained there was unbelievable and this changed me for the better. My aspirations and my outlook on life changed.

There, no one laughed when I spoke or finished my sentences. I was talking. Words were coming out. I was respected, listened to and not bullied.

I remember my first ever uni presentation on the topic of the Ebola Virus. That morning I was wide awake at 5am, thinking of all the excuses I could to avoid it. This was in 1997, so we didn't have email. We didn’t have a home phone either, never mind a mobile phone. I walked to the end of our street to use the public phone. I dialled my tutor's number but as soon as it started ringing I put the receiver down. I dialled it again and the same thing happened. Something inside was preventing me from making this call. So I turned up to the lecture hall. The wait for my turn to present took ages; I could hear my heart pulsating and beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. 

"Abid, it's your turn."

"The…..the….the….the….E…E…..E…E."

Same old story, the words weren't coming out. But as I looked around the room, I was being encouraged. I heard someone say, "You can do this, Cartman". (Cartman was my nickname, after the South Park character Eric Cartman, who was overweight.) Deep breath and I started again.

"The….the Ebola Virus was first diagnosed…" The words began to flow. I stammered throughout the presentation, but I kept going. I couldn't believe it. When I finished I looked up and all I could see were smiles. I truly believe this was the day that my mindset changed. I was determined not to let stammering ruin my life.

The tables turn

Now to the present day. I'm 43, I have been working in education for the past 21 years and my job involves speaking all the time. My stammer's still there. The first few minutes before every lesson are nerve-racking. I think to myself, "Will my students laugh?". These same thoughts and feelings eat me up, whether I'm teaching a class of 20 or in one-to-one tuition.

But once I start, my confidence builds and there's absolutely no one to stop me. I can speak! I'm filled with confidence!

Now I cannot stop talking. Why should I? I'm making up for the time I lost over the years.  

The key is the mindset and being positive. You have to take it one day at a time. These days schools and colleges have more support in place to help students. I had no professional support but I made it through despite it being one difficult journey.

Stammering is a taboo subject. But why should this be? Inside we have so much to say. It's just a matter of expressing the words in a slightly different way to others. I stammer but the joy of teaching and inspiring young minds motivates me more. Now I cannot stop talking. Why should I? I'm making up for the time I lost over the years.  

Believe in yourself and seek support. If you don't stammer but know someone who does, be supportive and let them talk. Read up on what you can do to support them. Seek advice and guidance from STAMMA.

My youngest son has a slight stammer and has all the support and guidance needed to live his life.

Don't let mental blocks control you. Let yourself free.

(Picture: Abid as a child in the 1980s and in the present)

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