Like the Oscar voters who named The King's Speech the best movie of 2010, I loved the movie (which just released to DVD) not just for its excellence, but for a particularly poignant reason: I am a stutterer. And I'm a pastor, which means my problem, like the king's, is often quite public.
I prefer "stutterer" to "stammerer" because of the onomatopoeic irony: the word sounds like the sound. It's a term fraught with consonant-rich pitfalls for those inflicted with the impediment. You can tell a lisper by how they "lithp." You can tell a stutterer by how they "st-st-stutter"—and sometimes that yields embarrassing and painful moments, especially for a child.
I remember in school when we were all required to read aloud. I cannot express the dread that would sit, knotted and grotesque, in the pit of my stomach as I waited for the death knell signifying my turn to read. Usually, I was mercifully given small parts, usually one sentence, but they grew all out of proportion in my mind, becoming the enemy. I would flip forward in my book, counting the pages till my part, inwardly pleading for the bell to ring—signifying the end of class and my reprieve from a fate worse than death. In one class, there was a boy who delighted in tormenting me because of my stutter and the ensuing facial contortions. His impersonations weren't that great, but still they were like a knife to my heart. One time he mocked me and, driven by irrepressible rage and impotent outrage, I punched him. The manliness of my just onslaught was somewhat offset by the fact that I was crying like a baby. But beggars can't be choosers. And even though I hit him, he got in trouble. For that instant, life was sweet. (Plus, girls thought my stutter was cute. Which would both thrill me and infuriate me.)
Oh, and I hated my name. I wished I was Oliver or Sam, a name that lacked the curse of the hard first syllable. While others dreamed of being a celebrity or a Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger, I dreamed of simply saying, "Hi, I'm Sam." I dreamed of speaking without facial contortions, tricks, or run-ins to say what I wanted to say.
Crashed and burned
It's ironic that I'm now a preacher [assistant pastor at Cornerstone Wesleyan in Ontario]. That I can stand in front of people and speak, read, enunciate, articulate, and express myself is a gift I revel in and do not take lightly. Stutterers often have a good vocabulary; it helps to be a veritable walking thesaurus of all the alternate, and easier, ways of saying things.
I've always been the witty one, the one with insight and the clever comeback. But no one knew it except me. As a stutterer, I am like an extrovert trapped inside an introvert's body. I've been imprisoned behind my own tongue, making Psalm 51:15 more than mere metaphor to me. It's more like a literal scream of desperation: "Loosen my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise."
Of course, the pain and embarrassment of stuttering don't fade away with childhood. When I stand before our congregation, I treasure this gift of (mostly) fluency, but it's not always smooth sailing. A recent Sunday was my worst, eloquence-wise, in a long time. I was tired (strike one), I was nervous (strike two), and I took on too much responsibility in the service (strike three).
After leading worship, I began reading the text from which I was preaching. I stumbled over one word and, like an over-extended runner, I began to trip, flail, overbalance—and I eventually fell gracelessly to the proverbial verbal ground. Then it went from bad to worse. I must have stuttered every sentence. I clawed my way on all fours toward the finish line, and when the final word of communion was u-u-u-uttered and the congregation dismissed, I sat exhausted in the sanctuary, too emotionally frail to meet my friends' concerned smiles or well-meaning encouragements.