Embracing My Uniqueness

Embracing My Uniqueness

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

Embracing My Uniqueness

The one thing I’ve learned is that stuttering in public is never as bad as I fear it will be.

~John Stossel

My grandfather stuttered, as did my uncle. My brother stuttered, too. And, at forty-one years old, I still stutter.

I’m fine with it now but that wasn’t always the case.

It wasn’t too terribly difficult the first couple of years of school. In fact, I don’t recall being made fun of at all, although there was a great deal of curiosity about my abnormal speech.

In the second grade, one of my classmates asked me why I talked funny. With a straight face, I told her that I had a piece of meat lodged in my throat, which caused my words to get stuck. She believed me.

Several years later, she asked me if I still had that meat stuck in my throat.

To this day, stuttering can be difficult, in more ways than one, to explain.

Less than one percent of the world’s population stutters; however, there was only one stuttering kid in first grade at Jeter Primary in Opelika, Alabama, and that stuttering kid was me.

Kids love recess, naps, and show and tell, and I was no different. Recess and naps came easy, and in spite of my speech disorder, I still took part in show and tell just like all the other kids. I just did a whole lot more showing than I did telling.

At the time, I didn’t like being different. I felt that I stood out for all the wrong reasons.

It’s never easy being a kid, but it’s especially tough when you’re different. Just imagine the pain, shame, and embarrassment of not even being able to say your own name. I would often give fake names when meeting new people, because it was easier. It was not uncommon for me to be Jason or Mike, Chris or Kevin or just whatever sounds I was confident I could say at that particular moment.

Most little boys are shy when talking to girls, but I was downright terrified. I can probably count the number of times on one hand that I talked to a girl in elementary school. Years later, many of those same girls told me they thought my stuttering was cute. I wish I’d known that then.

As I got older, some kids started getting meaner and the teasing started. Unfortunately, I let it bother me. I shouldn’t have, but I did. I put more stock in what they had to say rather than being thankful for the overwhelming majority of kids who treated me with kindness, respect and compassion. In hindsight, I know that it was a reflection of them and not me. Again, I wish I’d known that then.

I had sessions with Ms. Watson, my speech therapist, biweekly. Although challenging, my time with her was special. While in therapy, there was no pain, shame, or embarrassment. I could simply be myself and work on my speech at the same time.

Class was a different story altogether. It was a constant struggle.

It was not uncommon for me to know the answers to questions, but it was quite common for me to remain silent out of fear of being ridiculed.

Reading aloud in class was pure torture. The buildup and anticipation of being called upon created more stress and anxiety than I am able to put into words, which often resulted in tension headaches.

When it was my time to read, I would lower my head, focus, and stop breathing. I would instinctively hit my thigh with my fist over and over to literally beat the words out of me, whereas other times, I would hit the underside of my desktop. This technique helped me get my words out but there was also a shadow side to it. When talking to my friends, I would often beat their arms until I finished saying what I had to say.

Could anything be worse than that? Yes, it could.

Giving an oral presentation in front of the class was the ultimate challenge, which usually resulted in ultimate shame. There was nowhere to hide. All eyes were fixed upon me as the secondary effects of stuttering stole the show. My eyes closed and my face contorted as I struggled to get out each word. There was no desk to pound and beating my leg in front the whole class was incredibly awkward.

Kids were mean and I let that bother me. There were very few days this future soldier didn’t find himself crying by the end of the day. I didn’t like who I was and didn’t want to be me. The pain, shame, and embarrassment were too much for me to bear, or so I thought.

The funny thing, though, was that it wasn’t the stuttering that caused any of the negative feelings I had, and it wasn’t the bullies, either. It was my reaction to both the stuttering and the bullying.

I let it bother me, but it didn’t have to be like that.

Sometime in the eighth grade, my attitude changed. I don’t recall exactly when, where, how, or why, but I turned what I’d always perceived as a negative into a positive.

I wasn’t a star athlete and I wasn’t a genius. I wasn’t in the band and I certainly couldn’t sing, but everyone still knew me, because I stood out, and that was a good thing. I was different and I finally embraced that difference and ran with it.

Instead of waiting in fear for the teacher to call my name, I raised my hand when I knew the answer to a question. I always volunteered to read and even used oral presentations as an opportunity to showcase my comedic talents.

I was in control and would not allow the anxiety or insecurity to control my feelings, attitude, or behavior.

In subsequent years, I’d go on to speak in front of the entire student body on multiple occasions.

Being in control eased most of the tension; inevitably, there were fewer headaches, secondary effects, and, to a degree, stuttering.

I surrounded myself with good kids and didn’t overly concern myself with the occasional wisecrack. At this point, I knew it was a reflection of them and had no bearing on my character whatsoever. Besides, my own wisecracks were much better than anything they could dish out.

Self-acceptance is crucial to happiness and success in and out of the classroom. It doesn’t mean we can’t strive to improve upon our so-called flaws, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love ourselves and embrace our uniqueness either.

Individuality should be celebrated, not suppressed, and certainly not mocked.

I went from a stuttering kid who seldom spoke a word to a stuttering man who now speaks for a living. Self-acceptance continues to be essential in the success I’ve experienced as a speaker, comedian, writer, and soldier.

My lone regret is that it didn’t happen sooner.

It’s never easy being a kid. It’s especially tough when you’re different, but it doesn’t have to be.

The time to embrace your uniqueness is now.

~Jody Fuller

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