In 1964, Headmaster George Stevens had the bold idea to make good use of the summer months and open an empty campus to under-resourced students.
I wasn’t always aware of my stuttering. Neither were my parents. At first, my parents thought stuttering was a result of my confusing Spanish and English. They blamed themselves, thinking they should have taught me one language at a time. I guess you could say they were in denial. They hoped I would grow out of it.
For as long as I can remember I have been in speech therapy. At first, when I was very young, it didn’t feel like therapy. I never heard the words "speech therapy." I just knew that I was pulled out of class to go play and talk with a cool teacher. When I turned six, I began realizing that there was something wrong with me. I began to question what I was doing there. My two speech therapists made me talk a lot, which I didn’t like. It never felt like therapy was about me. They made no effort to get to know me; they just wanted to fix me. I felt slow, my mouth tense, my body twitching, my eyes blinking often and quickly.
Around the age of six, I was moved to a new elementary school. Everything was different there. Before then, my mom had never mentioned the word ‘stuttering.’ I wasn’t aware what that word meant, or that stuttering was something I did. At this new school I met Ms. Ruiz, my Spanish speech therapist, and Ms. Green, my English speech therapist. Since the age of three, I had been seeing them, but I just thought they were my regular teachers.
Beyond something to do with talking, I didn’t know what a speech therapist did. But Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Green introduced me to this new word: stuttering. It was a strange and cold word. At first I didn’t pay too much attention to what they told me, but I knew that I was welcomed and I knew they were going to help me, even if I didn’t know how.
As my daily sessions continued, I began to understand why we didn’t do anything else but talk, why we didn’t do class work. For one hour every day all I did was listen and talk. I realized that I talked differently. I took longer than everyone else. They made me talk to help me understand that I stuttered. Outside of the therapy room, I began to see the looks my classmates gave me. I saw the worried looks my parents gave me when my speech took longer than it should. I learned that I stuttered.
It was lonely. I didn’t have anyone else like me. My parents were trying their best to help and understand, but they couldn’t. My mom would bite her lip and quickly turn her worried frown into a small smile. My dad just nodded his head, trying to understand. He would sigh, looking at my mom, hoping she understood. But they didn’t.
I began seeing the color red. I saw it when I avoided people’s gaze in conversation. Red meant "stop," stop talking. I wanted to talk without feeling my body shake, without blinking rapidly, without feeling like I was gasping for air. I wanted to talk without stuttering.
By the time I reached second grade, the topic of my stutter was never brought up. I knew that my brother, Axel, wondered why I sounded like I was gasping for air, but he said nothing. It sounded like I’d been running for hours when I spoke.
I always believed that my mom and dad were the strongest people alive. As a kid that’s what you think, that nothing could ever make your dad or mom sad or make them cry. You think they have solutions for everything. But my mom and dad didn’t have the solution to my stuttering.
It didn’t hit me until I saw my mom really frustrated with me one day. She had asked me what I wanted for dinner and it took me two minutes to say the first four letters of the word lasagna. I saw her sigh and her eyes water. She placed her face into her hands and breathed heavily. I cried that night, thinking I had broken my mom. I made her cry. Good daughters didn’t do that.
So, I began trying harder to not stutter. I learned tricks not to stutter so much. I avoided words that I would normally stutter on. I acted out my words, instead of saying them. By the time I was eight years old, I was completely focused on trying not to stutter. But it was for my mom, not for me. That same year, my speech therapist told me about a camp for kids who stutter: Camp Our Time (now Camp SAY).
I was excited to know that there were other kids who sounded like me, who stuttered for real rather than the pretend stuttering my speech therapist did when we had our sessions. I never wanted anything more in my life. I craved the experience of listening to someone truly stuttering. I was curious to see how other people like me sounded. I wanted to be somewhere where I didn’t have to cut myself off.
It sounded amazing, but my thoughts kept drifting back to my parents. In their eyes I seemed to be doing better; they would mention it to me during dinner. I badly wanted to tell them that it wasn’t true, that I was just trying not to make them sad again. I wanted to tell them that I was getting better for them, not for me.
I met Taro Alexander, Our Time’s founder, a few weeks before camp. I wanted to cry when I met him. He stuttered, like me. And he seemed happy. He stuttered and didn’t stop or start his sentence over. The only other person I had met who stuttered was a boy called Ricardo who had been at a group session my speech therapist had organized years ago. He hadn’t wanted to be in therapy. I remembered that he avoided using the word “stutter.” He was the happiest person alive outside of speech therapy, but he was miserable in our sessions. I felt like he was angry about his stutter.
The people I met at camp in 2009 were different. They had "normal lives." They were happy — some of the happiest and most positive people I’d ever met. They made me feel free and comfortable listening to myself. Most importantly, they encouraged me to accept my stutter.
Returning home, I took everything I had learned at camp to my parents. I told them that I had friends like me. My parents just smiled as I talked and talked. I talked for four hours straight. I had never spoken to my parents for that long. As I was finishing up my story I saw my mom begin to tear up. I was scared that I had overwhelmed her with my stories, my talking and my stuttering. I forgot that I wasn’t at camp anymore. I began to apologize, but she shook her head and kissed my forehead saying, “No, Joanna, I’m not upset. It’s just you’re so happy and you’re talking even though you’re …”
“Stuttering Mom, I’m stuttering.”
Mom and Dad looked at each other, nodding their heads. The room grew quiet. I remembered that one of the most powerful things I learned at camp was bravery. So I took all the courage I had in me and spoke up: “At camp we talk about being patient. Everyone has as much time as they need to say what they want to say.” I looked up, making eye contact. They smiled back and reached across to give my hand a squeeze. For the first time it felt like my family actually understood me and my stuttering. From then on they seemed more relaxed. I didn’t feel rushed. They didn’t seem frustrated. They began to be truly patient with me.
Accepting my stutter was the end of being told to “hurry up” and “slow down.” It was the beginning of my parents seeing stuttering as a part of me, not a problem. It was the end of feeling pressured and avoiding the subject. Although my parents didn’t know how to address my stutter at the beginning, they did eventually. All it took was patience. We both learned together how to be patient.
- story by Silvia Joanna Soriano
“This project gave me the opportunity to explore what it is like to have a child who stutters. Sometimes growing up, I believed it was only hard for me, for the people who stuttered, but I never thought about how hard it was for everyone around me. This project gave me the chance to write about the parents and the adults in the lives of children who stutter, the ones who love them endlessly and are always there for them. Thank you SAY for letting me write about my supportive parents!”
The Stuttering Association for the Young is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that empowers, educates, and supports young people who stutter and the world that surrounds them.Learn More
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