I’ve always known I had a lisp. In elementary school, I went to speech therapy for it. I don’t remember much about the therapy. The therapist would always give me some sort of candy afterward, usually, a mini Hershey’s bar or a Dum Dum lollipop, and whenever I went back to class, I would be the envy of my classmates. I didn’t really stay in therapy for very long, perhaps a year or two. The therapists and my parents decided that since my speech impediment didn’t bother me or heed my progress in class, they would let me be. Also, in elementary school, nobody really cares what you sound like. I had my friends and my sports, and nobody ever told me I talked funny.
It all changed in middle school. My parents moved us to a different town after sixth grade. These were the days before the internet and cell phones, and it was like starting over. I left my friends and everything else behind. The teasing started during sixth-grade language arts class. We had to write about ourselves and read it to the class as a bonding activity. When it was my turn, I started to read my piece aloud and the snickering started as soon as I started saying “I liked to play soccer.” The teasing never stopped. People started making fun of the way I talked and would bully me for no reason. That’s when I decided I was never going to participate in a class ever again.
I did manage to scrape by middle school and high school with this strategy. I wouldn’t say I was an outstanding student or anything. I was an excellent note-taker and a visual learner, so I passed my classes. I was a decent writer, so my essays and reports were good. I was able to read at a sixth-grade level when I was three, so I would just read my textbooks from beginning to end, if there was something I didn’t understand in a lecture, as opposed to just asking a teacher a question. My grades were not stellar or anything. There was no way I was ever getting into an ivy league school with my grades or SAT scores, but I managed to graduate high school. I even got accepted into a college without participation. I decided to be a psychology major.
The summer before college, my mother made me work at my brother’s sleepaway camp because she thought I needed to learn to be more independent. I was relatively young, I didn’t turn 18 until September of my freshman year at college, and was not old enough to be a counselor so I worked in the office. For the most part, I enjoyed my office job. I had a lot of downtime so I had Tetris tournaments with the head counselor, wrote letters to my friends, and read books. However, part of the job included using a walkie-talking to contact other counselors and staff throughout the day and making daily announcements over the PA system. I cringed whenever I had to call somebody on the walkie or announce something to the camp. I could hear myself echo back, and my speech impediment seemed magnified one thousand times with every word. However, nobody ever said anything or made fun of me for how I sounded, so for the first time in a long time, I was accepting of my voice.
That all changed during Color War.
For those of you unfamiliar with camp traditions, a Color War is when the camp is divided into two different teams, usually gray or white and a blue. For several days after Color War breaks, the two teams compete against one another in various activities from sporting events to art projects to sing-alongs to dramatizations. The team with the highest total points at the end of three days is the winner. Color War is a BIG DEAL at all the camps I’ve attended and worked at. Campers and counselors look forward to the event the entire summer.
During Color War, I was a judge. I helped umpire the swim meets. All that meant was I stood at the end of the dock, where the race finished, and watching for the first-place swimmer and told the referee so it could be recorded. On the first morning of Color War, I was walking down to the waterfront. There was a group of older campers standing in front of the office, my brother included. They were doing the daily skit that got judged. Two of my brother’s cabinmates were talking. I stopped to watch, mostly out of curiosity.
“Counselor Shane come to the office,” the boy said. He exaggerated every syllable, spit purposely afterword, and made the s noises sound like th noises… That’s when I realized he was making fun of me in the skit. I couldn’t help it, I started crying, it didn’t matter that this was a fourteen-year-old camper, and I was about to be a college freshman. It hurt. I ran into the office, locked myself in the sports ball supply closet, and refused to come out. Even when Austin, the boy’s counselor came to apologize and tell me that he had punished his camper, I stayed put. That’s when I decided I was done talking again and refused to make any more announcements for the rest of the summer.
When I got to college, it was easy to disappear and be invisible during class. Most of my classes were in lecture halls with anywhere from 20 to 60 students. The professors never really demanded participation. There were a few students, who were more than happy to partake in class discussions, but there was also a good amount, who just took notes and attended lectures, and never said a word. I was one of them.
However, passing college was not as easy as passing middle and high school. I struggled with a lot of the material I was taught, mostly in math classes and humanities classes like art history. I didn’t want to ask questions in class because I was pretty sure that everyone would judge how I sounded and laugh at the way I talked and said my “s” and “z” sounds, and it would be just like middle school, high school, and sleepaway camp all-over-again. I did graduate college in four years, but by graduating, I mean I barely squeaked by with a 2.3 GPA.
I spent the next two years after graduation trying to figure out what I could do with my life. My undergraduate GPA and GRE scores weren’t impressive enough to get into a graduate program to continue my study of psychology. I didn’t want to apply for jobs at places where I would have to talk to customers like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. I eventually got a job as a TA in an autism class.
I excelled at my job. I loved working with the students, and for the first time, I actually worked with mature adults. My coworkers became my best friends. They never said anything about my speech impediment, and when I brought it up to one of them, several years in the future, she said she didn’t even notice it. I finally felt accepted. My coworkers encouraged me to go back to school. They said getting into a graduate program didn’t matter, and I should try undergraduate again, and study special education because of how much I loved the students and how they reacted to me. With their support, I applied to college, again. The university I applied to accepted me as a second undergraduate degree student. At the end of the school year, I said a teary-filled goodbye to my co-workers and prepared to go to college again. But this time, I was more motivated.
The first day of my second attempt at a college, I decided things were going to be different this time. I was determined to not suck at school like I had all the years before. But I was still afraid to talk. It seemed every time I finally gained some confidence, something happened that made it all vanish.
My first class was an Introduction to Critical Writing. As soon as I walked into the classroom, I knew this was going to be a different sort of class. The desks were arranged in a circle, not rows. The professor, Dr. Marshall, sat at one of the desks, along with the students, who had already gotten there. I sat down and we waited for the rest of the students to show up. When they call got there, Dr. Marshall stood up and told us that “this wasn’t a regular class.” He went on to say that he didn’t give lectures, he didn’t give notes, and he didn’t give tests. We were the ones, who taught the class. Every class was taught by a student, who would research the article assigned, and they would be the ones prepping the lectures. We HAD to participate or we were not going to pass his class. There would be no exceptions. That was when I knew I had to finally speak and for the first time ever, since elementary school, I raised my hand to participate in a classroom discussion.
I ended up excelling in Dr. Marshall’s class. Once I started talking, I never stopped. My classmates appreciated my ideas and thoughts. I led the lectures I was assigned with glee. There were certain times throughout the semester when Dr. Marshall would ask me NOT to talk because he wanted to give other students a chance to express their ideas and thoughts, and I along with other outspoken classmates dominated the class.
One day, I was exhausted because I had been out babysitting until three am the night before and I was too tired to talk. Dr. Marshall ordered me to go to the cafeteria, get coffee or caffeinated tea and not return to class until I was awake enough to talk because my words mattered.
I graduated magna cum laude. I excelled in all of my classes. Everyone in the English department and the Special Elementary department knew me. I led study groups. I was the person that everyone went to when they needed help with a presentation or assignment. I was smart, my words mattered, and nobody cared what I sounded like.
To this day, I still keep in touch with Dr. Marshall. We exchange Christmas cards every year and send the occasional email. When I visit my family in NJ, I will sometimes drive to my old university to visit him. I hold him accountable for helping me believe in myself. He helped me realize that I was smarter than I had ever given myself credit for, and gave me back the self-confidence that had been lost then found only to be lost again so many times.