Posts Tagged ‘speech therapy’

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.

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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.

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