Stammering in my teens and beyond
27th June 2023
Richard Hall talks about stammering, school, uni and dating in the pre-internet 90s, as well as what helps him now.
It's 1991. In a northern comprehensive school, I'm sat in my GCSE English class as my teacher is scanning the room looking for two students to read out a passage from 'Of Mice & Men'. My head bows and I desperately try to make myself invisible. "Not me…not me" I repeat silently to myself.
"Richard, you'll be reading out George, and Emily, you'll read Lennie".
My heart sinks, my stomach goes wobbly and a prickly panic sets in. "Oh no, please Sir, I can't…" He motions for me to get on with it, and I begin. As expected, what follows is a disaster. I stammer the opening to every sentence, say words that aren't there, and generally feel like I've made a right mess of it.
The classroom erupts in laughter, and I've turned a shade of red somewhere on a paint colour chart between 'Flames of eternal shame' and 'Crimson of social catastrophe'. As we reach the end of the chosen text, the laughter subsides and my teacher, who I usually got on well with, shouts at the class to shut up and berates me for "not reading properly". The bell goes, and I'm out of there like a shot.
Parents of my friends would think they had a heavy breather on the line, as I struggled to get the first "hello" out.
That memory sticks out as the most embarrassing anecdote I have when I think about how disfluency affected me growing up. You're at an age when what people think of you is so important. Trying so hard to be liked, to fit in, and all the rest of what it means to be a teenager, and having a stammer felt like a massive ball and chain holding me back.
My first memory of stammering was in primary school. I must've popped out of class to go to the toilet, and as I crossed the assembly hall was asked for my name by a teacher going the other way. I just stopped, opened my mouth and nothing came out. Stuck.
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I grew up in the 1980s and early 90s, obviously with no smartphone, social media or email, so every arrangement had to be made over the phone. It soon became my nemesis. Parents of my friends would think they had a heavy breather on the line, as I struggled to get the first "hello" out. I distinctly remember pacing up and down, practicing my speech and trying to calm myself down as I was about to phone a girl to arrange a second date, more nervous about my stammer appearing than if she turned me down. Looking back on this, I realise the internet and social media have had such an impact on our lives, good and bad, but one of its saving graces is the power it gives us to communicate and join communities without the aid of speech.
What have I learnt from being disfluent for the past 40 or so years? It's that most people don't really care, or will be accepting of your stammer.
Before a job interview or presentation at University, I'd give little disclaimers before I spoke, in an attempt to deflect any incoming ridicule or embarrassment I was bound to feel. "Just so you all know, I've got a speech impediment, so please excuse any pauses or stammering". Most of the time it was fine, especially at Uni where I'd get so involved in explaining my work that my brain sort of shifted away from worrying about the next pause.
I stammer less now than I did growing up. Whenever I've talked about it to friends, I've heard "I didn’t realise you had one" quite a lot, which I find reassuring. I no longer slap my face to get words out, or dread ordering from the bar. I have developed a way to help me flow into sentences. Usually something like a small "err" at the start leads me in. I still stammer from time to time, especially if I'm anxious about something. I find the experience comparable to pressing pause on an old VHS tape – nothing is happening apart from a slight movement, as my gaze shifts to empty space, willing my words to rise in my throat.
What have I learnt from being disfluent for the past 40 or so years? It's that most people don't really care, or will be accepting of your stammer. In fact, I was at a 30-year school reunion last year and said hello to Emily, the girl I read 'Of Mice & Men' aloud with. She didn't remember me, so I retold her the story, because something like that would surely stick in someone else's mind.
"No, sorry, I don't remember that at all."