Growing up, I knew a small handful of other kids who stuttered. Granted, this was during a small support group that meant once a month. But we never established any friendships outside of that group. Suffice it to say that my exposure to others who stuttered was sparse, at best.
In recent years, though, both in person and online, I’ve met a plethora of adults who also stuttered, coming from a myriad of age ranges, professions, and upbringings. However, I hadn’t met any children who stuttered.
That changed in Philadelphia last month when I was chosen as a mentor/speaker at Temple University’s Speak Now Camp.
While it was largely because I love visiting the City of Brotherly Love, I was very excited for this opportunity. Heck, when it became official, the first thing I did was check the hometown Phillies schedule to see when they were playing at home. Unfortunately, the only time I could go was when the Phillies were on the road. Still, minus a baseball game and visiting beautiful Citizens Bank Park, my excitement never wavered.
Knowing the chaos that surrounded long lineups and backed up flights at the city’s Pearson Airport, I chose to fly out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport — or “the Island airport.” I chose well. I never felt more relaxed waiting for a flight.
But I digress.
I flew into Philadelphia later that afternoon (a Monday), found my hotel across from the Temple campus with relative ease. I think ordered a Philly-style pizza and prepare myself for the next day, going over what I wanted to say.
I went to bed early but I was sort of too excited to sleep for long periods of time. The feeling didn’t quite match up to Christmas Eve as a child but it definitely ranked up there, battling for position with the eve of a holiday trip or the Kings or Red Sox on the verge of winning a championship — something I’ve experienced six times already.
I got on the shuttle with about 10 others. Some of them had introduced myself because I’m very shy. That goes especially when my wife, Shannon, isn’t with me. She has the gift of initiating conversation with almost anyone. Me, not so much. Nevertheless, we got to the camp in Ambler, just outside of Philly, and I met everyone.
Walking in and seeing all the kids was admittedly overwhelming, but I got more comfortable as the morning went on. More importantly, though, I had met so many kids who had also stuttered, which brought me back to my own childhood. So, when I got up to speak to the class, I made a point of emphasizing just how wonderful these types of camps were.
I had preceded to tell everyone that I didn’t really become introduced to the stuttering community, if you will, until I was in my 30s. Time-wise, these kids had a huge advantage, prompting yours truly to remind them not to take it for granted. After all, while meeting the stuttering community has given me a significant sense of belonging, I did admit that I felt lonely and isolated growing up in this particular sense. But while I would like to change a time here and there along the way, I am confident in saying that I wouldn’t change my overall life experience for anything in the world.
The feelings of exclusion, hurt, and even anger from the teasing, bullying, and overall ignorance, I experienced, was unpleasant. There’s no need to sugarcoat that: it sucked. However, without those feelings, I don’t believe my story would be as good or, heck, as inspirational.
So, here I was: speaking to a new generation of stutterers, and even taking questions — insightful ones, at that — from a few of the kids who weren’t afraid to let the possibility of stuttering quiet them. This is something I continue to struggle with, so anyone who can push past this — children, especially — the more power and respect to them.
After my speech, I signed copies of my book, “All the Right Words: My Journey as a Sportswriter Who Stutters.”
If they choose to read my story, wonderful; but if not, that’s okay, too. After all, on this day, my mission was to remind these children that no matter what time of ignorance they’re faced with, that they can accomplish anything. Whether they want to be teachers, doctors, mechanics, auctioneers, anything, show skeptics — as well as those who support them — that a stutter isn’t going to stop them.
Personally, I like to think of someone who wronged me in the past in whatever circumstance, and imagine how they’d feel when I accomplish something great. Realistically, most, if not all, who wronged me have forgotten about me — and that’s okay — but sometimes, that type of mindset can do wonders.
For these children, I hope they continue their lives believing that they can accomplish whatever they set their mind to. And I hope that I was able to play a small, small part in helping them along the way.