Those words, like a festering wound, would echo through my being and cause a mental pang that left me enraged and unsettled.
I guess some would say that I was oversensitive – I mean they were just words. Silly, stupid words that I should have been able to let roll off my back. At least this is the coping advice I was given my whole life (drastically easier said than done, mind you). The memories however, the ones that crawled into my mind when I heard such words, were unavoidable and couldn’t be easily forgotten. What are you really supposed to do when words such as these, are used to define your differences?
You see, growing up was riddled with an assortment of various physical and educational therapy. None were more pressing (and depressing) however, than my seven-year stint in speech therapy.
I still remember that small whitewashed, windowless closet that my middle-school tried to pass as a Speech Therapy room. Tucked next to the Nurses Office, where I often made up maladies in order to hide away from the other kids, and across the hall from the Library - my sweet, personal refuge where I gladly took to the No Talking rule. There I sat, squeezed in a single row with three other students, slowly stammering my way through wave after wave of flashcards with morose images of simple objects.
Believe me when I say, nothing is more frustrating than having a mouth full of garbled words and a lazy tongue that fails you. And nothing is more humiliating then being coxed to pronounce words like “radio” or “chair” when all of the “r’s” sound like “w’s”, the “ch’s” like “s’s”, and the remaining words lost in a stuttering cyclone.
Like a skipping record trying to gain momentum, every letter that would drop lifelessly from my mouth, tried in vain to build itself into a tangible full-blown sentence, only to get caught in a repetitive stutter. Panic would then strike and defeating thoughts would burst into my then five year old head, ‘Why can’t I speak right? Did they understand me? What does cripple mean? They’re looking at me weird again and ignoring what I’m saying... Why are they mocking me? Why are they calling me retarded? I can read it, I just can’t say it!”
Then the inevitable would happen, the look of pity from strangers, the heavy sigh of annoyance from teachers, the mocking taunts from students and the cautioning mantra of “Easy speech down”. This was the mantra offered by my speech therapist. In her affected southern belle, east Texas accent, my therapist would encourage me to speak slower. It would take my Chicago raised parents years to rid me of remnants of that accent.
As I got older, the day arrived when I to came to the realization that it in our struggle to find our voice (both literally and figuratively) no matter who we are or what our age, the world will inevitably try to demean and overlook you. In the bullying, my significance as a person was overlooked, and the rest of me was prime meat for the vultures. Spanish philosopher George Santanya said it best, “All living souls welcome whatever they are ready to cope with; all else they ignore, or pronounce to be monstrous and wrong, or deny to be possible.” And the truth is, for those who find themselves on the “wrong” end of the spectrum, being labeled hopeless and flawed, leaves behind deep track marks of societal battle scars.
After admitting to myself that my physical voice could not raise up the protection of words, I chose the abstractness of art to do my talking. I eventually became good at painting and found that all of the people, who doubted and ignored my strength as a person, were now switching the terminology that they used to define me. Creative and unique started to replace retarded and worthless. There is no struggle greater then trying to prove your worth against the maliciousness of words.
Finally, that ‘Aha!’ moment of communicating that I never truly received from speech therapy came about many years later, when in college, I learned sign language. Even though my speech had drastically improved, I would find the same type of solace in learning sign language, that I had found in creating art. Conjuring up vivid images with the dramatically poignant eloquence of signing, no truer beauty is there then describing the universe and stars without a single spoken word. Expression transforms into a geyser of emotion at the flick of the wrists; broken speech a passé problem. A voice to help carry me through the struggles of communicating with the world. Furthermore, being listened to and understood by a community that passed no judgment on the way I sound, at last gave peace to that bruised, ignored child inside.
At the end of the day, it should be remembered that if you are different, there will always be at least one adversary and advocate in your corner. The group who ignores and the group who accepts you as you are. And the ignorance from those who fail to understand your voice will only be overshadowed if you have self-resilience. No negative labels or words can penetrate a confident soul.