At the end of my sixth grade year I ran for student government. The office I ran for was “religious affairs officer” that I would serve during my seventh grade year. The tasks of the religious affairs officer was to collect mission money and say the morning prayer at assembly. My primary goal in school was to always get out of class and collecting mission money was a pious manipulation to spend at least 1-2 hours a week outside of classroom. Time occupied outside of the classroom is always a plus a student with a Learning Disability. Since I stuttered, the morning prayer wouldn’t be a problem either because most people who stutter do not stutter when they recite a poem or speak in unison with a group. The speech I constructed for the election campaign excluded all words that I thought I would stutter on with sentences constructed to reduce any chances of stuttering. When I won the election I didn’t know what other speaking situations would be forced on me because the pre-planning of an 11 year old isn’t very good. I won the election although there was some objection to me winning. The candidate I ran against objected because she felt that I bribed the grammar school constituents by handing out Tootsie Roll suckers with my name on them. I drove a competitive campaign.
The next academic year, the new student council needed to be sworn in. It being a Catholic school, and taking itself much too seriously, over celebrated with a ritual. During the initial rehearsal for the inauguration, Ms. Casquera lined us up on stage to run through the ceremony. In spite of it being the mid-1980s, Ms. Casquera looked like the square villainess from a retro Frankie and Annette beach movie . Polyester blue suit, comfortable nun-like shoes, dark loose fitting nude pantyhose, a dyed black bouffant hairdo and, to top it off, cat eyed glasses. I remember once staring at her during a windy lunchtime recess. Garbage was blowing everywhere, but the wind could not penetrate her beehive hairdo. Not one hair was out of place! Even though she sounds like she would be potentially awful, she was actually ok in the quiet sort of way.
During the rehearsal, I learned that each student had to state, “I (insert name here)” before reading the oath in unison. Of course no one had a problem with their name. When it came to me I naturally stuttered on Nina. The combination of the “I” before my name along with my name made it a stutterpalooza. You should understand that most of us people who stutter, stutter on our own names. There is no substitute for our name, unless we straight up change it, which some of us might to from time to time. But this wasn’t a Starbucks order where I could slyly say my name is Enid instead of Nina. I had to say “I Nina G.” When I stuttered in the rehearsal it resulted in laughter for the mostly 7th and 8th graders who were there “leadership qualities”. What really pissed me of was that one of the girls laughing had a very mild stutter. Apparently, there was no solidarity in the stuttering dog eat stuttering dog world of the middle school during the 1980s. Ms. Casquera attempted to intervene by telling the students to shut up, but it didn’t work. I left feeling defeated.
There was one of my fellow student representatives who didn’t laugh like the others. He was in the 8th grade and tended to be on the hyperactive side (I have always connected to hyperactive men and boys. The potential to get into trouble with them is just too wonderfully overwhelming!). I remember that same year this boy dressed like a 1970s Fat Elvis in a white jumpsuit and tiny toy guitar which I saw as evidence of his integrated weirdness, which I was impressed with. The rest of the year I called him Elvis, thus forgetting his name forever, so from here on out he will be referred to as “Elvis”. After rehearsal, Elvis approached me and asked, “can you say ninja? Because if you can say ninja, you just switch it over to Nina instead.”
When you stutter, or have any kind of disability, suddenly everyone becomes an expert on your type of disability. Advice like “just slow down and breath” is common and recommended with great hope that this will be the solution to all your problems, making them your abled bodied savior. Gee, I guess I NEVER thought of slowing down when talking and this entire time I guess I have not been breathing! (Really, breathing?) There was even the time when I educated a psychologist about stuttering. I explained to him that it is a brain based disability in the left frontal-temporal hemisphere. I went on to share that Marilyn Monroe stuttered which was why she talked in her whispery-sexy voice. I demonstrated it as well. His reply? “That is very sexy, maybe you should talk like that all the time.” Really Mr. Dr. Psychologist? Because people will take me much more serious if I talked like a baby! Way to empower women! That’s ok, I think I’d rather stutter.
At the time though, the advice coming from this 8th grade Elvis boy was actually ok. He was attempting to be an ally where I thought I didn’t have one. Plus he was kinda cute. Funny how that can get you a pass, even on shitty speech therapy advice. I did appreciate his attempt to help and I felt that I had at least one friend.
All that week I practiced my name alone in my room. I practiced it with my parents who even drove me an hour away so I could practice my name in front of my speech therapist. It is funny that my parents would let me take a sick day at a moment’s notice but never introduced this as an option for the inauguration ceremony. Instead it was assumed that I would attend and participate.
Finally the day of the inauguration came. All the student body officers were in their school uniforms and wearing white gloves to convey the formality of the event. The program started with the student officers sitting on stage with all the girls crossing their legs at the ankle as instructed. We sat across the stage from the principal, Sister Theresa, Ms. Casquera and the parish priests. The entire school was in attendance as well as some interested parents and the local newspaper. You would have thought it was the frickin’ Kennedys being sworn in!
The ceremony started with the priest saying an opening prayer. We then proceeded to the oath where each of had to say “I (insert name here).” Again and again I practiced my name along with my speech techniques in my head. It was my turn to say “I, Nina G” and I proceeded to stutter, “I N-N-Nina G.” “Did I really do it? Did I really just stutter on my own name?” I thought to myself. In my seventh grade girl mind I knew my life was over. That was it! I would need to transfer schools, maybe even move. I mean the newspaper was there! I immediately saw the headline, “Girl stutters on her own name in front of entire school.” Keep in mind, this was before the Upworthy website could turn my traumatized experience into a one sentence blurb to inspire people.
As I got off the stage I expected a repeat of the rehearsal where the other officers made fun of me except this time it would be times ten because I was exposed to the entire school. That was when I walked by Sara, a girl from my class. She said, “Nina, good job.” I was a bit stunned. I initially thought that she was being sarcastic, but then I realized that she was just being nice. “That’s weird,” I thought (luckily Sara is now a teacher in the inner city!).
I proceeded with my day waiting for the next person to start making fun of me. I had not yet had recess so I was expecting I would get it then. During recess I was talking to Elvis, the 8th grade boy when a second grader who had seen the older kids make fun of me approached us. He came up to me and said, “Hey, N-N-Nina” as if to impress the older boy. This is a comment I still get today. Assholes of the world–please note, this is hack stuttering material! Even if it is in the tune of the Chia Pet jingle–I have heard and whatever I say back will sting ten times that. If you want to make fun of me, come up with something new. This time was different than the 7 million other times I was made fun of because Elvis did something I had never seen. He gently knelt down to look the second grader in the eye. He told him, “If I ever hear you say anything like that again, I am going to tell everyone that your penis is this big” and indicated with his thumb and pointer finger half an inch.
Naturally, I thought, “this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me!” I don’t think anyone ever stuck up for me, besides my parents, before this point. I always had to deal with assholes, big and small, on my own. My friends never said anything when I was made fun of, especially in middle school where kids didn’t want to stick out their neck in opposition to group think. This was a truly exceptional moment in the life of a seventh grade girl. How does a girl process this event? She has a crush on the boy for the rest of the year, and maybe even researches where he might be when she is in her 30s and single (can’t find him since I don’t know his name).
Besides harboring affection for this individual, I learned some important things that day. The first is that I learned that I could stutter and live. Before that day, I thought that I had to be fluent and there were no other options. My speech difficulties are not severe but it is significant enough that if I chose to let it stop me, people might rationalize that this was ok for me. In fact, it has stopped me from answering questions in groups, flirting and at times ordering at a fast food drive through window. Stuttering in front of my entire school was the first time that I experienced that I could stutter in front of others and it could be ok. I am sure it was difficult for my parents to allow me to participate in the ceremony, but they did and I am thankful to have had this experience.
The second thing I learned was that I had allies outside my parents and a few wonderful speech therapists and tutors. My peers could be allies because they had my back. I didn’t have to be the one who always stuck up for myself. You really don’t know what this feels like until it happens to you. It is a shock to know you are not alone in this way and since this time I have sought allies, although it has sometimes been a struggle to remind myself that this can be an expectation to have in a relationship.
Lastly, I learned something else that day about comedy. If anyone, and I mean anyone, makes fun of me. I do what Elvis taught me that day. Tell them they “have a small penis.” And no matter how touching and life changing a story might be, be a good comedian and end with dick joke!
Picture of the ceremony.