One of the major events of my life was taking speech therapy when I was six. More than any other event, it is responsible for me becoming a writer. Probably, too, it is responsible for my sometimes bloody-minded tenacity and wish to prove myself.
My problem was that I pronounced a hard “k” sound as “t,” so that that “cat” came out as “tat.” It wasn’t much of a problem in kindergarten, although I once overheard someone’s mother asking if I was “retarded” (as the term was in those unenlightened days).
But Grade One was another matter. The class was divided into groups for practicing reading. The groups were named for colors, but, even at six, I could tell the group that I was dumped into was for slow learners. One girl in my group later struggled along for several grades before leaving for a school for the mentally challenged, while another boy was notoriously slow all through school.
Young elitist in the making that I was, I resented being lumped in with these people. And looking back, I’m appalled – how does a pronounciation problem come to be associated with a lack of intelligence? But I was also an overactive child, often charging about and speaking too quickly, and often my left-handedness left me clumsy. So possibly there was more behind the diagnosis.
Still, at least my parents and teacher, or some combination of them, decided I would go to speech therapy. So, after school, I started going regularly to a speech therapist, a pale-skinned woman with a haircut like Jackie Kennedy’s and what I remember as endless patience as I struggled through the verbal exercises she gave me.
The outing was an exciting chance of pace, but I just could not get what the therapist was trying to tell me. I tried to position my tongue and other parts of the mouth the way she showed me, but somehow I just couldn’t. Even when she held my tongue down with a tongue depressor, I didn’t have much luck.
By the accident of being at the right place at the wrong time, I became the poster-boy for that year’s March of Dimes, imitating a deaf boy with a headset so I could hear myself speak. But I still had the speech defect. Nobody said anything, but I could sense the concern in the discussions after each session between my mother and the therapist. Somehow, I wasn’t measuring up.
Then, suddenly – I could do it! I could hardly wait until the next reading practice to demonstrate my newfound pronounciation ability. Opportunely, the piece from the reader I was given was given over to the adventures of ducks, so I had plenty of chance to show off.
The experience left me with a preciseness of speech that sometimes gets mistaken for an English accent, as well as the abilty to enounciate clearly while barely moving my lips. Both traits survive to this day.
More importantly, it left with the feeling that I had to make up for lost time. Within a couple of months of correcting my speech defect, I was devouring the Hardy Boy series, and sitting in the advanced readers’ group. At the year’s end, when I was recognized as top student, the book I received – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – was already seeming a little slow to me (It was only later that I learned to treasure it).
That summer, I tried my first story, written in a notebook and concerninga pack of wild dogs. Its plot, if I remember correctly, revolved around dog thieves, and one exceptionally bright dog’s ability to remember the last three digits of the serial number of the van used by the thieves to carry out their dirty deeds. By the next school year, I was well into Alexander Dumas, and not looking back.
Books had always been a part of my life, and my mother had spent long hours reading to me. But, looking back, it was the inability to communicate properly that really roused my interest in words, and the unspoken shame of being in the slow readers’ group that made me determined to not only master reading and writing, but to excel in them. Although I soon stopped comparing myself to anyone else and gave myself over to the pure delight of language, the fierce joy of those drives, once created, never diminished. I wouldn’t have been an English instructor, a technical writer, or a journalist without them. Maybe, too, I wouldn’t have had the tenacity to become a long distance runner, either.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had a pronounciation problem. Would I still have developed along the same lines? Or would I have gone in a different direction, or even coasted?
It bothers me, too that so much of the direction of my life should be due to over-compensation. I mean, surely I could have found direction without going through unpleasant experiences. Did my life really have to be so Freudian? Or did speech therapy simply awaken inclinations that were already part of my brain-patterns?
But it’s not as though I was aware of any choice at the time. All I knew at the time was that I was going to prove everyone wrong about me – and, ever since, I haven’t been the same.