My heroes have always been stammerers. When I was a kid, I loved timid, sputtering Porky Pig. Now, I worship This American Life’s Ira Glass who falters earnestly into his microphone each weekend, along with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, who’s made verbal stumbling an art form. Understand that I’m not talking about the medical condition of stuttering; the stammer I refer to is in some cases, I suspect, cultivated with charming deliberation.
I was scrubbing the kitchen floor the afternoon Ms. Gross interviewed actor Christopher Plummer and complemented him on his excellent diction. “You know, in . . . in . . . in your movies, you have such proper diction in some of your roles,” she said. “I . . . I almost thought you were from England (you’re . . . you’re from Canada). Is the diction the result of theater training? Is it a class thing?”
I stopped scrubbing as Mr. Plummer took her to her to task with all the ferocity of his Captain von Trapp from thirty years ago. “No,” he enunciated. “It’s to do with my family. We speak well in Canada, as well as they do in Great Britain, may I remind you.”
He may. I teach Journalism to college students who want to write for magazines. Over several classes, we discuss interviewing techniques. “What if some ninety-year old woman who used to be a Zeigfield Girl asks me to feel her butt, so I can see how firm her glutes are,” a young woman asks.
“Feel her butt,” I reply.
“What if the man I’m interviewing has no right hand?”
“Shake his left.”
“What if I get nervous in a phone interview and stammer?”
It’s the last question that gives me pause, term after term. I find stammering quaint and endearing. Especially on radio, it conveys the interviewer’s humility in the unparalleled audio presence of someone such as, say, Christopher Plummer.
“A little vocal fumble goes a long way in warming up your interview subjects,” I tell my kids. “At the very least, they’ll take pity on you for being rendered inarticulate by their presence.”
But stammering has gotten me in trouble as of late. On assignment for a magazine, I called a prestigious professor who edits a well-known literary journal. “I . . . I . . . I want to thank you right away for your time,” I said into my phone.
“May I ask you a question before we begin?” the academic said. “How old are you?”
I’m thirty seven, old enough to stand by the strength of my convictions on paper. But vocally? That’s a different story. In class, I’m not technically supposed to voice my political views. This makes them all the more fascinating to my students. “How do you feel about the war?” they demand. “What are your views on same-sex marriage?” “What can we do about global warming?”
“I . . . I . . . I . . .”
First-person singular threatening to choke me, I mumble “Furious,” “Necessary,” and “Drive less, you idiots.” My kids beam, enchanted by their seemingly absent-minded professor. But the truth is, my mind is very much present on the issues about which they speak.
“Less charm, more substance,” one of my students wrote last year in his evaluation of my teaching. I gathered from his comment that he needed more useful information in my class. But perhaps he was referring to my bearing, as well. Can we truly put our faith in a teacher, in an interviewer or presidential candidate who falters in speech?
Mr. Plummer noted in his Fresh Air interview that his family “were educated and well read and they spoke beautiful English.” I come from a family of mumblers, of people who stammer their opinions if they share them at all. Still, it may just be possible to train myself, after a lifetime of hesitating, to speak my opinions with clarity.
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