When I was in the first grade, I took speech therapy lessons. I sometimes think that is the single most influential fact in my life.
I had two main problems. First, I pronounced a hard “c” as “t.” For example, I would say “dut” for “duck” and “tind” for “kind.” Second, I spoke so quickly that I often slurred my words.
These two deficiencies were more than just inconveniences. They were major factors in how people regarded me. I’m told that, when I was in kindergarten, some of the parents dismissed me as mentally retarded (to use the term of the times). More than once, I was aware that an adult to whom I was talking didn’t understand me. These deficiencies were also the reason that, in Grade One, I was assigned to the slowest reading group, along with at least one child with Down’s Syndrome, although what relation my speech patterns had to my reading ability eludes me to this day. But they were major reasons to ostracize me, and I knew they meant something was wrong with me, although I didn’t know exactly what.
To correct my problems, my parents started sending me to speech therapy once or twice a week. For a long time, I struggled through the pronunciation drills, feeling increasingly inadequate, since it was obvious that I wasn’t giving the right response. Being poster-boy for that year’s March of Dimes campaign, pretending to be deaf, helped a little, but even that, I realized, was not an unalloyed honor.
Then, one day, I managed to make the hard “c” sound. Over the next few months, I learned to make it consistently where I needed to. I also learned to pronounce more clearly in general. Slowing my speech down, however, was a lost cause – decades later, I still speak too fast unless I make a deliberate effort.
To say that this experience changed my life is an understatement. Now people understood me, I was soon in the most advanced reading group. Before long, I was leaving most of my class mates behind.
But the experience also affected me in other ways. Having listened on head phones to my own endless efforts to pronounce words correctly, to this day, hearing my own voice makes me remember feeling like a failure, to the point that I wince at the sound. I dislike being judged and tested as well, knowing how fallible those doing the judging can be. And I still speak with a deliberateness that makes me sound far more serious than I am, and that many people – at least in North America – mistake for an English accent.
More significantly, I was left with an unshakeable sympathy for those who are easily dismissed the same way that I was. My social and political feelings, as well as my feminism, come directly from the sense of injustice I automatically feel when I see someone who has been judged less than mainstream. Nor can I ever feel comfortable being part of an elite, knowing how superficial the membership requirements can be.
Even more importantly, I became obsessed with language. My reading ability, which had always been advanced for my age, improved so dramatically that, by the time I was awarded a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories for the best student in my first grade class, it seemed too juvenile for me (I only learned to appreciate it as an adult). That summer, I read the entire Hardy Boys series. By the time I started Grade Two, I was reading translations of The Three Musketeers, and my mother was worried what I might come across in my readings.
Meanwhile, on the side, I was starting my own first efforts at writing. Borrowing a few ideas from my father, I wrote a long story about discovering a prehistoric world inside the local mountains.
Another early effort involved a pack of wild dogs that were being rounded up evil men in a van. I was especially proud of the fact that, while I understood that the dogs couldn’t read the entire license plate on the van, I had the canine protagonist remember the last few digits, which seemed much more probable to me.
Such efforts led me to teaching English, and eventually to publishing manuals, articles, stories, and poems. In a very direct sense, speech therapy gave me my vocation.
But, just as importantly, speech therapy gave me my personal myth. It gave me a narrative of starting from behind, and then succeeding through persistence. At an early age, it taught me to endure and to keep trying, and to ignore the opinions of the skeptical as I worked towards my chosen goals. Perhaps, it even gave me an early orientation to goals.
I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t needed speech therapy. Would I be a political lefitst? Place the same value on endurance? Be a writer? I might have still been and done all these things, but not, I suspect, as strongly. If I had had things easier, then probably I would be a much milder, more innocent person than I am today, even if my general tendencies remained the same.