I'm Just Saying

August 11, 2011
By , Charlotte, NC
I have a complicated relationship with talking. Talking, for my entire adolescent life, and being embarrassed, have pretty much gone hand in hand. Until recently, it has always been a conflict, to talk or not to talk? Do I say my ideas, opinions and thoughts, or do I keep quiet and save myself- or the illusion of myself as someone without a speech impediment? I thought for the majority of my teen life that people we ready to dismiss me for not being “perfect.” All I wanted was to be free of my speech impediment, less self conscious of my less than perfect voice. But lately I’ve begun to see that having a speech impediment has made me look at the world in a different way than if I’d never had it. I can now appreciate that it opened me up to a whole new perspective that I’m lucky to have been able to see

My speech impediment is nothing serious or a deterrent to being able to speak quickly, intelligently, and on my feet. It’s an inability to say R’s like everyone else does. When I was a child, it didn’t really seem to bother me that much. I was always sort of dimly aware of it, but I never let it get in my way. Making it more abstract was the fact that, for whatever reason, I can’t hear my own speech impediment. When I talk, it sounds completely normal to my own ears. I don’t know why, but I just flat-out cannot tell the difference between normal speech and my own. So accepting I even was different was difficult for me at an early age. I hated the speech therapy classes at my school that my parents forced me to go to. I dreaded the moment in my third grade class when my school’s speech pathologist would come to the door and gesture with a polite smile for me to get up and leave class with her. I hated that none of my friends had to do it. It was the ultimate red flag, following me as I made my way as out the door. But as the years went on, the “what’s?” kept piling up, each one chipping away at the easy confidence I felt while talking. I started to re-route my sentences, dancing around what I wanted to say so I wouldn’t have to stumble over any obvious R’s. The dreaded R became my most hated enemy, in my mind the only thing standing in the way of me and perfect, normal, happiness.

That critical summer after eighth grade year when everyone quietly cultivates the fantasy of turning heads and being the new, older, cooler and generally improved versions of themselves on the first day of high school, I set myself on a mission to no longer have a speech impediment by the first day. So diligently, every night, I said lists of words given to me by the speech therapist I had begged my parents for. I stared at myself in the mirror, trying to align my tongue in the way that comes so naturally to everyone else. Whenever people would complain about their fear of public speaking, their shyness, or an inability to talk to a crush, I’d nod sympathetically but on the inside wonder why anyone with a normal voice would ever be afraid of saying anything at all. It never made sense to me what they could possibly have to be afraid of. I wanted so desperately to no longer feel that vague but unrelenting aversion to talking that normal people reserve for annoying but necessary matters like dentist appointments and cleaning the bathroom. I wanted the way people could make their words flow like water through their sounds without a fear of someone interrupting with a staccato “What?” I know it seems dramatic, but it drove me crazy not knowing what I sounded like to other people. I hated not being able to trust my own ears, because then what could I trust about myself? Did the things I liked about myself come off entirely different to others? All summer I practiced and practiced and practiced- only to meet the night before school sitting in front of my mirror with a distinct sense of failure. Rabbit, reader, frozen, river, carrot. I knew with a sinking heart and a mounting sense of dread that I wasn’t “cured.”

Imagine having a secret. Nothing deep or dark, just something you’d be kind of uncomfortable with everyone knowing about you. Now imagine not being able to keep that secret, never being able to put off the inevitable reveal for long. Imagine not being able to help telling that secret every time you spoke. But high school slogged on, and I tried to keep my secret. I thought that if I wasn’t going to sound perfect, then at least I could look that way. It began anew with a Northface jacket. Everyone had them, and so naturally it dawned on me that the answer to everlasting popularity was polar fleece. But when that didn’t really pan out the way I’d hoped, it didn’t stop me. Hunter boots, Seven jeans, BP scarves, the answer was always behind the next high big trend. But what I was seeking never magically materialized for me because I was so sure people would judge me that I was still largely too shy to make any real headway with anyone. Of course, at this time, I had my real friends, mainly holdouts from middle school, who never made me feel weird or awkward about anything. By the end of sophomore year though, I had a wardrobe to be envied and was as stylishly coordinated as any campus fashionista, so why did I still feel like the same nervous freshman? I was terrified that all people saw was someone with the vocal patterns of a five year old who was just trying to fit in where she didn’t belong.

So when I got the opportunity to go to Spain for a month that summer with a foreign-exchange type program, I saw it as a completely new way to start over with people who knew literally nothing about me. But the feverish practicing began to feel less and less important to me. After all, it was only a month of my life, and I knew that I would have fun with or without a speech impediment. All of a sudden, it was like I was just tired of trying so hard for so long. With trepidation and excitement, I boarded the plane and to my surprise, the group of twelve strangers and I bonded like glue. Maybe it was the shared bond of being the only people each other knew in a foreign country, but I have never made friends so quickly. Over that month, we shared clothes, music, inside jokes, secrets, and endless conversation and everything came so easily to me. Even when we had nothing in common, there was never a shortage of things to talk about. My speech mattered less in that month than it ever had since before seventh grade. Having such great friends made me wonder- what was I so afraid of? Why did I even want friends that I thought would judge me for something so insignificant anyways? The idea was liberating, and although it seems obvious after the fact, new to me.
It took the friendship of a wonderful group of people for me to stop fighting against myself and finally realize that people just really, truly, and honestly, don’t care. I saw that people were so much less ready and willing to judge me than I was ready to judge myself. I began to realize that people aren’t just a sum of their flaws, myself included. Having them made me see that that a speech impediment isn’t my defining characteristic. I don’t know who I would be without a speech impediment, but I know I wouldn’t be the same.





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