US-based Esteban Alfonso explains how his childhood experiences got him into art, photography and fashion. But firefighting was his real passion.
Esteban. That’s my name, but I change it around depending on if I can clearly say it without stuttering. Sometimes I’m 'Steve' or 'John' at random restaurants, coffee shops or any other place that requires you to say your name.
I began stuttering at around the age of 4 or 5 where I noticed that I couldn’t speak like my fellow classmates and friends. I would pause in between words and just couldn’t get them out easily. School teachers would tell my parents it was something I would outgrow and wouldn’t need any serious attention or therapy. Then a couple years down the line and there I was at a speech therapist’s office learning techniques to help with my fluency.
Speech therapy did do its job and got me to where I needed to be. Yet still I came to the realisation that I had something I knew was going to hinder me from easy communication tasks; heartbreaking to me as a child.
Over my years at school I experienced my fair share of frustration, anger and hardships. I still remember a fellow classmate in high school saying I sounded like a “broken record” in the middle of a class presentation that meant a lot to me.
This showed me that self-expression by speaking wasn't the best option for me. It made me take on other routes of expression such as art, photography and fashion – which didn’t require much speaking at all – opening a different path for me.
My appreciation for any sort of expression that didn’t require speaking truly came from stuttering. The way a painting or picture can spark emotion by not saying a single word really attracted me – especially anything that was considered 'abstract'. This is where I took up photography and started to create my own 'stage set-ups', taking pictures of locations, objects, and people (including myself) that fit the description of abstraction.
I would focus on everything from the outfits to the patterns around me to fit the emotion I was trying to display in my pictures. They became something I could give to all without worrying about my stuttering, something I began to personally treasure. But this was a just mere hobby and what I really wanted was to become was a firefighter.
My journey (which is still ongoing ) towards becoming a firefighter was a big one. After high school I signed up for my local fire academy to earn a degree in fire science. To be selected, I needed very good academic scores and was picked along with 100 other candidates for the final step: the interview – a difficult hurdle that could stop me from achieving the future I wanted.
I learned how my stutter would be gone in dangerous environments, yet talking in normal situations was much more difficult.
When the day of the interview came I still remember my heart beating a million times per minute and how my words would not come out. The chairmen looked quietly at me as they made notes on their papers. I truly thought that I failed that interview completely and I went home that day with my dream of being a firefighter shattered. My once in a lifetime chance was gone just like that because of my stutter.
However, the chairmen were understanding of my stutter and could see my strong desire to become a firefighter. So they notified me that they were placing me with the other 25 selected candidates in the fire academy. I was so happy!
On the job
These other candidates became a family to me as we helped, learned and thrived as firefighters together. But what truly reinforced the family part to me was that they didn’t pay attention to my stutter or judge me on it. Occasionally some of them would ask about my speech (which I encouraged) and I would explain to them all about it. They all listened to every single word I had to say without finishing my sentences or interrupting me, making me very grateful I got to meet them all.
Almost two years have passed since going through the selection phase of the academy. My different experiences with stuttering and becoming a firefighter have tremendously impacted my life. I learned how my stutter would be gone in dangerous environments, yet talking in normal situations was much more difficult. This meant that being put in a room on fire and communicating with my team on what needed to be done wasn’t an issue for me. At the same time talking through a radio with no danger around me, started up my stutter once more.
I know that as I continue this journey there are going to more obstacles in my way. But I will always continue to move forward, as stuttering doesn’t define my strength and capability to help others as a firefighter.