A Pencil to Hold

William - Alma, Michigan
Entered on February 27, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
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My mother didn’t know what to do. I stuttered. A doctor advised her to give me a pencil to hold when I spoke. It didn’t work, she said. But it did. I believe some gifts take years to realize.

In grade school kids made fun of me. The worst moments were reading round-robin. I dreaded waiting my turn, knowing I would block on the first word. I tried to squeeze the trigger of my mouth but nothing fired.

But school also helped me express myself. In fourth grade my teacher assigned us to write a poem. She asked me to recite mine in a tape recorder for parents’ night. After school she handed me a small mic and I read the poem, each word whole, each line complete.

“Have you ever wondered about the sky?

What makes it so blue, what makes it so high.

Have you ever wondered about the sky?

What makes it so beautiful for you and I.”

Then I looked up and saw my teacher’s hands unclench themselves from her mouth, her face radiant.

In college I grew as a writer. The more I studied making sentences, the more control I felt with my own speech. Because writing helped me, I decided to become an English teacher.

But during my senior year I called the campus radio station to request a song and couldn’t get the first word out. What if I stuttered and students made fun of me? At a speech clinic I met with a therapist who stuttered. His advice surprised me: the more you try not to stutter, the more you stutter; therefore, try not to care if you stutter. His advice helped.

Despite my progress, I continued to have trouble on the phone, especially with my father. When I called him on his birthday or Father’s Day, I fought to say hello: a tree grew in my mouth and I talked through branches that trembled. Then he did most of the talking.

But words weren’t always needed between us. When my father was in intensive care following surgery, I wore a tie to show respect. Hooked to a respirator, he couldn’t talk. One afternoon I stood beside his bed, and he grabbed my tie and pulled me close. I hugged him. Later that day he died. He didn’t need words to show me his love.

Called to teach, I help students who are afraid of writing the way I used to be afraid of speaking. We sit in a circle and often read round-robin. I tell students it’s all right to trip on a word. When they experience writer’s block, I tell them this: try not to care; accept whatever words come; if words don’t make sense at first, after a while they will.

Some gifts take years to realize. Through stuttering I found writing. It is the pencil the doctor advised me to hold.