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Justin Clarke sat with his back straight up against the hard, plastic chair. His thighs were squeezed tightly together and his feet stood flat on the floor. Both his hands sat in his lap, his elbows hugging his hips. His face was still, and did not reveal any emotion. However, inside his head, his mind kept repeating the words his teacher had spoken only minutes ago. The assignment was not a total shock, as Justin’s older brother Kyle had done it the year before. However, Justin had only started sixth grade two months ago, and was not ready to present a speech in front of his entire sixth grade class. For a split second, Justin questioned his decision to come to a “normal” middle school.
He began scanning the class of 24 students. The first person he noticed was Elizabeth Clayton, the pretty blond girl, excitedly talking to Diane Smart, her best friend. Elizabeth’s curly hair seemed to bounce as each giggle bubbled out of the her mouth. The two girls were talking about possible topics for their upcoming speech, and Justin did not see a thread of nerves in the two. Diane sat with a smile that appeared to reach from ear to ear, with a twinkle of satisfaction in her eye, as she listened to Elizabeth talk about her pet bird. The two girls sat in the very front row along with three other students, Kevin Sanchez, Mark Burton, and Emily Echoed. Kevin and Mark were laughing and did not seem fazed at all by the recent announcement. Emily, a straight haired brunette, sat quietly in her desk her right arm moving continuously from right to left on her foolscap. As she appeared to finish the page, she sat up, back straight, and scanned the room with a smirk on her face. Justin knew that Emily had most likely had already planned her idea, and had at least half of her speech written. Justin could tell from the first day he entered the classroom that Emily Echoed was one of, if not, the smartest and prettiest girls in the school. She possessed every quality that one needed to be “popular”. With her bright green eyes, and tiny ears, she seemed irresistible even to teachers. She had straight teeth, which would never need braces, and a contagious laugh. Her voice was always calm and yet always sounded happy. It seemed to Justin that even teachers looked for her approval. Outside of class, Emily was constantly talking, in her soft perky voice. However, during class, Emily did not speak without raising her hand, and therefore was sitting innocently at her desk.
Justin had started at St. Pete’s Middle School two months ago, in September. He was an attractive boy, tall for the sixth grade. He had dark brown hair and dark brown eyes. He had white teeth and a perfect sized nose. Unlike Emily, Justin was not noticed. He did not speak outside of class, and rarely during, unless directly called upon.
Although Emily had a connection with teachers that Justin could only long for, throughout the first term, his marks were at par, if not higher than Emily's. A simple look around the classroom could tell you that Justin was a brilliant boy. The classroom had plain white walls with posters brightening the room. On the front wall a large white board took up the majority of the wall, with roman numerals horizontally placed slightly above the board. On the back wall there were two bulletin boards, evenly placed on each side of the wall. On one bulletin board were pictures of the students being caught “reading in action.” On the other there were coloured pieces of paper with poems in the middle. Each piece of paper had a different pattern using simple colours such as blues, greens, reds, and browns. There was only one single paper that had no colour on it at all, but instead had a checkered pattern using only black and white. This poem was placed at the bottom right hand corner of the bulletin board, and although did not catch your eye, was the most brilliant poem on the board. The assignment signed by Mrs. Duncan, the sixth grade teacher, was to create a poem about yourself each line starting with I am. Mrs. Duncan was a short, plump teacher, with a kind heart. She had short blonde hair, which she spiked. She approached her teaching career seriously, hoping to change the world, a student at a time. The hope of the poetry assignment was for the students to explore themselves creativity. Many of the poems were simple. Clearly stated differently, Justin`s poem began with “Sometimes I am propitious.” With permission, Justin had added a word before I am, and had gone on to describe all different emotions he felt. His poem used words much superior to a sixth graders vocabulary, and deserved the 4+. The only other well written poem, had a beautiful pattern of pinks and purples had been created, with hearts. The artist had arranged the pattern so that little hearts gradually created one bigger pink heart, while the background was a purple colour. This poem also received a 4+. At the bottom of the page it was signed by Emily Echoed. The two were constantly receiving the same grades. Despite Justin’s intelligence many of his fellow students had not heard him mutter a single word. This was about to change.
At the age of four Justin had been diagnosed with 'verbal non fluency', more commonly known as a stutter. Although the speech impediment was permanent, there were schools he attended which specialized in language therapy. In elementary school, Justin had attended Northern Bell Elementary School, known for their LSD classrooms. He attended a 'normal' homeroom, and went to a 'special' class for English and French. In these classes the teacher worked one on one with Justin and practised pronunciation of words and flow. Over the course of his elementary years his speech had improved immensely. However, Justin’s speech was not perfect and was not likely to improve from this point. The summer before grade six, Justin and his mother, Eileen Clarke had sat down and talked about the upcoming year. Justin was to begin middle school and although St. Pete’s was in walking distance from his house, this school was lacking in special classes. It had been Justin’s decision to attend his neighbouring high school, St. Pete’s High School rather than a special high school. The conversation between mother and son had been brief, as Justin felt he was ready to integrate with the other kids. Unfortunately, Justin had not expected to be ignored. He did not make much of an effort to be included, but he had thought classmates would approach him as he was ‘the new kid‘. Now two months into the school year and Justin had not made one friend, and had little communication with his classmates. Isolation was a major factor of why he was so nervous. The other reason was that many of his classmates did not even know of his speech impediment.
The preparation of the speech was not a challenge. In fact, Justin was excited to write. Since a young age Justin kept a journal. It was always been hard for Justin to express himself orally and so he began journal writing. He found that while writing he could express his feelings perfectly without unnecessary pauses. His talent became a passion and it wasn't long before Justin was writing over three pages in his journal, each day.
Mrs. Duncan, left the topic choice up to her student. At the end of the speech, five classmates would ask the presenter a question about the speech. Oddly, the five questions did not create a fear in Justin’s mind, as fast thinking was a breeze. The only part of the assignment that bothered him was the actual presentation.
The remainder of the day lingered on. Justin constantly thought about the speech. When the last bell finally rang, he walked home to his townhouse. His house was small, but warm. When his mother wasn’t home, Justin usually found himself in his bedroom. This is where Justin felt the most comfortable, with all of toys and belongings surrounding him. Justin immediately went up to his room. He decided his speech would be about a person, someone he admired. The list was short, with four names: Wayne Gretzky, Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Thomas Clarke, his father. Immediately after writing down his fathers name, he knew it was the perfect speech topic. Justin realized this was the ideal time to present a speech about his father, the one his father deserved so much. Thomas Clarke had been thirty-six when he passed away suddenly from Meningitis. It was a death which could have been prevented. Justin was eight at the time, but all he remembered was the ambulance attendant refusing to take his father because he said, “It was just a bad case of the flu.” Thomas Clarke was a strong man, and he was a fire fighter but his career choice was not the reason for being Justin’s hero. Thomas lived his entire life, with a speech impediment. He stuttered constantly, and no matter what he did could not make it stop. At a young age, the stuttering caused Thomas to be teased, but Thomas never listened. Justin was told stories about his father’s childhood, and realised that a stutter is not a disability. Justin began scribbling notes and eventually was writing his speech. As Justin sat in his leather chair, with his journal on his lap, the words came easily. In under an hour, the majority of his speech was written. When Justin was exhausted, he took a nap. While sleeping Justin dreamt of Emily Echoed. He dreamt that this perfect girl mocked his stutter and turned the whole sixth grade class against him. He woke up shaking.
Throughout the next week of school, talks on how to prepare of a speech were conducted. On Friday, nearing the end of the day, Mrs. Duncan put all the names of the girls and boys in a hat. One by one names were drawn, picking the order that students would present their speech. The first day to present was set for Wednesday November 20th, a full month away. The day was a Wednesday. It was decided that five students would go each day, during language arts, to allow time for question period. After a name was pulled from the hat, that individual would choose the next classmate. The class was on the fourth day when Emily's name was picked. Mrs. Duncan made her way to Emily and she pulled a name and announced it to the class. As Justin heard his name being called he didn't think much of the order. However, when the day would arrive that he would have to present his speech, he would dread presenting after the well spoken Emily Echoed.
As each day faded into the next, November 20th approached. Each day five nervous students presented their speech. Speeches were about pets, famous people, dreams and legends. The weekend before the Monday, the one where Justin would present, he practised all day long Saturday and Sunday. In front of the mirror, Justin stared at his dark brown eyes in the mirror and repeated his speech. He had chosen to memorize his speech, although cue cards were acceptable. Seeing how his speech was from his heart, he did not feel it was right to read off a script. Twice Justin asked his mother if he could recite his speech. Each time his mother was in tears by the end, and thought the speech was extremely well written. Even with his mother's enthusiasm, Justin constantly thought about his stutter and how nice it would be to be able to say all thoughts at once. The night before the speech, Justin dreamt of being an ordinary boy, with an ordinary voice. The voice was manly and powerful, and never stuttered. When he awoke, he realized that today was the day his class would hear him speak.
When Language Arts period approached, Justin sat at the back of the room with his legs pressed tightly together. He felt exactly the same as he had a month before when the teacher had made the speech announcement. Butterflies flew in his stomach and his fingers would not stop moving. As he stared ahead at the white board he felt anger. The order of speeches ran: Charles, Nick, Emily, Justin, Correna. The thought of having to go after Emily, the most adored girl in school, was unbearable. To make matters worse, Mrs. Duncan loved Emily. Emily often would enter the classroom first after lunch, and instead of making her way to her desk would walk to Mrs. Duncan. There they would talk about outfits or hair or even the newest assignment. The whole class felt envious of the relationship between Mrs. Duncan and Emily, and now Justin had to perform after her. The first speech of the day, Charles‘, seemed short, and Justin couldn't remember what it was about even seconds after it was done. Five questions were asked, and then Charles sat down at his seat. Nick’s speech was on Helen Keller, a miraculous story of a blind and deaf woman, who overcame her disabilities. Within minutes both the speech and the questions were complete. Mrs. Duncan told Nick to take a seat, and then called Emily to the front of the class. As Emily got out of the front row seat she took a few steps to place herself in the centre of the room. She smiled at the class, but it was an uncomfortable smile. She then looked straight down at her black suede shoes. Her hands were in the front of her, her fingers playing with each other. Her fidgeting was taking focus off of her speech and it was something Mrs. Duncan had advised the students not to do. After several awkward seconds, she started her speech off, “Spot almost never came into my life.” As she went on to the next sentence, she started to stutter. “He he he almost di.. ed” Her eyes were focused on her shoes, and her face held a blank expression. Her nerves showed so clearly that the confident, popular girl was almost completely forgotten. As Justin sat in his desk, placed at the very back of the room, he saw this beautiful girl stutter. The stuttering did not make him feel happy and he prayed inside his head that she would regain her confident composure. Slowly, sentence by sentence, the stuttering stopped, and Emily’s voice began to be recognizable. Seconds later, although it felt like hours, she was reaching the second paragraph. By this time, her eyes raised off her shoes, and she began to see the friendly faces of her sixth grade class. The expressions on her classmates faces did not show laughter but hope that she would achieve the greatest speech she could. As Emily noticed that not a person was laughing at her, she realized she could do it. She continued on the rest of the speech without hesitation. When she finished, classmates clapped and asked her questions. No one mentioned the rough beginning, and the stutter did not seem to matter. As the fifth question was asked, Justin hands began to shake. As his name was called, he walked to the front of the class, it was his turn to present.
Justin cleared his throat and began in a soft voice his speech about his best friend, and mighty angel, Thomas Clarke. At first, his hands wouldn’t stop shaking and he stared only at the back bulletin board. However, as he reached the second and third paragraphs he became more confident. He thought of Emily, and how every classmate just wanted her to succeed. With every word Justin’s voice became clearer and stronger. By the middle of the speech, Justin sounded very confident. Although in his head his stutter was all he could hear, his classmates had soon forgot it was there. Justin’s speech impediment did not vanish while presenting his speech to his sixth grade class, but his fears of being laughed at did. Twenty four students listened in awe as Justin told the sad tale of overcoming speech impediments and looking beyond the surface, the lesson his Thomas Clarke had taught him. When the ending came, explaining the loss of a father, the brilliance of Justin's writing was clear. When the final words were spoken, a loud applause broke out. One by one classmates rose to give their fellow student a standing ovation. Justin felt a feeling of acceptance, one he had never felt before. Standing at the front of the class, Justin was proud as he realised the standing ovation was started by the most popular girl in school, Emily Echoed.