Sunday, January 18, 2009

Chapter 8: Speaking in English

It was not until I started first grade that I realized I couldn’t talk plain. Up until then, about the only people in the world I knew were church people. If any of them noticed my speech impediment, they did not call it to my attention. Maybe it’s just that I was such a shy little kid that I never talked much anyway, except to my own family, and they all understood me.

My teacher in first grade, Miss Dugan, had a very difficult time comprehending things I tried to tell her. She often made me repeat what I said several times before she caught on. Also, some of the other kids in the class made fun of the way I talked. Since I was naturally shy anyway, I soon learned not to speak at all unless it was absolutely necessary.

One day, some of the kids at school had been particularly unkind in mocking my speech. I made a decision; I would never open my mouth again in school. As Paul and I walked home together that afternoon, I explained my reasoning to him.

I figured there were three gestures that covered all the communication that was really necessary. I could shake my head up and down to mean “yes.” I could shake it side to side to mean “no.” Or, I could shrug my shoulders to signify “I don’t know.” That should take care of just about every situation.

For several weeks I tried to follow my policy of speechless communication, but I soon learned it didn’t work in every situation. Sometimes I had to talk -- especially when Miss Dugan asked me a question that could not be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Miss Dugan became very concerned about my inability to express myself and my acute shyness. She called my parents in for a conference. It was decided I should see a speech therapist.

One afternoon the next week, I was exempted from class and was taken a couple of blocks up the street to the Bradley County Health Department. This was to be the first of six years of speech therapy. In the beginning the sessions were weekly, but over time they became less frequent.

I remember that first meeting with the therapist well. A man in a white coat sat across a table from me in a little room and held up pictures, asking me to tell him what I saw.

I did okay on some words, but when it came to “pie” and “fish,” he went back and asked me to repeat the words over several times. He wrinkled his brow and wrote things down in his notebook.

The therapist asked me to stick out my tongue and touch my nose. I stuck it out and put my finger to my nose. He looked exasperated. “No, Son, not that way. Touch your nose with your tongue.” He stuck out his own tongue and curled it up to touch the tip of his nose to demonstrate.

Now I was the one who became frustrated. I could barely get my tongue out of my mouth and up over my upper lip. It came nowhere close to touching my nose.

The man asked me to whistle. I already knew I couldn’t do that. I had been trying to learn to whistle for years. My brothers and sisters had even tried to teach me how to whistle, but to no avail. Whistling was just one of those things I couldn’t do.

The speech therapist diagnosed my problem. My tongue was too short and too thick. He said I would just have to practice the difficult words over and over in hopes that I would eventually learn to pronounce them a little better.

In some ways I enjoyed the weekly visits to the Health Department for speech therapy because it was a break from the classroom. But trying to say the words that I just could not get to come out right was very frustrating. It sounded to me like I was saying them right.

After I transferred from Arnold to Mayfield School, in second grade, I no longer went to the Health Department. Instead, a lady therapist came to the school for regular visits.

At Mayfield, my therapist set up a table in a corner of the gymnasium, the only available spot in the school, and met with me there. This woman seemed to know what she was doing more than the man at the Health Department. After a couple of years, she was replaced by someone else. But with one therapist or another, I would meet for periodic lessons until I completed sixth grade.

The second therapist agreed with the initial diagnosis that I had a short, fat tongue. She also tested my hearing. That was my main problem. The hearing test showed that I had a 40% loss of hearing in my left ear and a 60% loss in my right ear. Jokingly, I used to tell people I had a 100% hearing loss. When they looked at me quizzically, I would explain. 40% in one ear and 60% in the other equaled 100%. All told, I figured I had the equivalent of one good ear.

But worse than my overall diminished hearing, there were certain high frequencies I couldn’t hear at all. This made it very difficult for me to distinguish sounds such as a soft “f”, or “th”. For example, “mother” sounded to me like “mudder,”
and “think” sounded like “fank”, so that’s the way I said them. I had a particular problem with many words that had the letter “i” in them.

The therapist wanted to know if I had ever had the mumps. I told her I was the only one in our family who had not had the mumps. I related to her how my mom had been down with the mumps on the day I was born. When my siblings got the mumps but I didn’t, she supposed I must have acquired immunity from within the womb.

The therapist decided I had been born with my hearing defect. It was determined that even a hearing aid would not enable me to hear the high frequencies, which was the primary cause of my speech impediment.

Slowly over time, either I learned to talk better or the kids at Mayfield learned to understand me better. Either way, the ridicule from my school chums subsided.

A lot of the kids at school went to the Baptist church, which I thought was the Babless church because that’s the way I heard the word spoken. That name made sense to be because they babbled less than we did at the Church of God. I was absolutely amazed when in the fifth grade I saw the word “Baptist” in a book and asked someone what it meant. They told me, “Oh, you know that, Stephen. It’s the Babless Church.” I found it hard to believe. In written form, Baptist didn’t look at all like Babless.

It was when I was around kids I didn’t know so well that I had the most problems. One such instance was at church youth camp. I loved camp, and it was a highlight of every summer from the age of 9 through 18. The first year that I was too old to be a camper, I became a counselor. Later, as an adult, I served as a camp director for many years.

One summer camp when I was eleven, I had a particularly traumatic experience. That summer I was housed with about 20 other boys in a large tent with wood shavings for the floor. We had army style cots arranged in a circle around the sides of the tent, and the center was empty, except for the tent pole.

My counselor that year was James. He was a preacher’s kid who was still a teenager himself. James was a hero of mine. He lived just a couple of blocks down the street from us in Cleveland. My buddies and I from North Cleveland had requested that we be put in James’ group because we looked up to him so much. Five or six of the boys in the tent were from our church, but the others were from different parts Tennessee.

There was a little jingle going around at that time which kids enjoyed singing:

Pie, pie, tater pie,
I like good ole tater pie.
P – I – E - E – I – P, pie.
I like good ole tater pie.

Whenever I sang this jingle, my “i’s” and “e’s” sounded exactly alike. “Pie” sounded like “pee”, “like” was pronounced “leek”, and “tater” came out “teeter.” I didn’t like to sing the song because other kids made fun of me when I did.

Every day after lunch all of the campers had to return to their tents for 30 minutes quiet time. We were told this was to let our food digest before we began the afternoon recreational activities. It was during this quiet time that someone in our group told James about the funny way I sang the “Tater Pie Song.”

James ordered me to get up in the center of the group, stand by the tent pole, and sing it. I protested, but he told me he was the counselor and he was giving me an order. “Stand up and sing.”

I had always been taught to obey those who have authority over you, and the fact that James was an immature teenager did not matter. He was my counselor and I had to do what he said. I reluctantly went over by the tent pole and gave my rendition of the jingle.

The boys around me in the circle guffawed and mocked me until I was in tears. For the rest of that week, some of those boys continued to taunt me. Whether it was on the ball field, in the cafeteria, or at the swimming pool, whenever they saw me they would point at me, laugh, and sing, “Pee, pee teeter pee, E leek good ole teeter pee….” It was one of the most traumatic weeks of my life.

At home, my family never ridiculed me for the way I talked, and some of my younger brothers and sisters even talked a little like I did. Dad said it was because they learned to talk, at least in part, by listening to me.

Not only did I take speech lessons at school, but Mother also worked with me at home.

One night during family devotions, while Dad was away, Mom asked me to read the Scripture for the evening. I chose a passage from Philippians 4, which contains the phrase, “think on these things.” The only problem is that I read it “fank of dese fangs.”

After devotions, when the other children were sent up to bed, Mom asked me to stay downstairs and talk for a while. Over and over we worked on that phrase. Again and again I repeated it exactly the way I heard it: “fank on dese fangs.”

And then, in a flash of inspiration, I blurted out, “I’ve got it, Mudder, it’s not ‘fank on dese fangs.” It’s ‘fink on dese fings.’”

Mother cried and pulled me close to her bosom. “That’s better, Son. Now run on to bed. We’ll work on it some more later.”

With lots of hard work, therapy, trial and tribulation, by the time I completed sixth grade I had fairly well overcome my speech impediment. It would take a few more years before I would overcome my extreme shyness. That didn’t happen until about the time I learned to speak in tongues.

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