By Jennifer Berney
This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases.
My son was four years old when he first expressed embarrassment about the way he talked. It happened one morning, as he played blocks on the floor with a friend and I sat in the background, reading. My son was narrating as he played, telling her that this giant tower was just part of what would become a “really cool world.” It was clear to me exactly what he was saying, but his friend just kept asking “What?” over and over, because all she could hear was “weally cool wowld.”
“I can’t understand you!” she said, giggling.
My son got up and sat next to me. He leaned in. I translated. “He’s making a really cool world,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, unfazed.
“Are you okay?” I whispered my son who was now resting his head in my lap.
“I think—” he said, “I think it’s just that my voice is a little funny.”
This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases. My son might explain to an adult friend that he had dreamed about a red-eyed creature who chased him through the forest. “Is that right?” the friend might respond. “A wed-eyed kweecha, huh?” My son would look confused for a moment and then resume his monologue.
“Oh honey,” I said now, drawing him as near as I could. “Your voice isn’t funny. You just have a hard time with the letter R. Lots of kids do.”
Some minutes later, he returned to his blocks. He built now in silence, no longer speaking of his really cool world.
Over a year later, our family doctor asked if we’d consider bringing him to a speech therapist. She acknowledged what I already knew: that most kids with a delayed R acquire it naturally before the age of seven. “But,” she went on, “you might consider whether it would help his confidence to address it before he starts kindergarten.”
I thought about how lately any time someone asked his name he would lean into me and whisper, “You say it.” At first I assumed he was simply being shy. “You can tell them!” I’d say. “Hah-lan,” he’d tell them, and inevitably the person would give him a puzzled look. “Hollin?” they’d say, looking to me for guidance. “Harlan,” I’d correct.
We met with the speech therapist the following week. She was a gentle woman, gangly and tall with long hair, who played card games with my son and sent him away with stickers. Under her guidance, he became an expert at distinguishing Rs from Ws. He could hear the difference between weed and reed, between walk and rock, no problem. But this didn’t mean that he could pronounce his Rs. Instead he paused at R words; he gave them his full attention and came out with a sound that wasn’t quite W, but was still quite far from a recognizable R.
After six months of speech therapy, his therapist wanted to talk to me about his progress. She had recently tried recording my son so that he could hear his pronunciation. He’d been enthusiastic initially, but when he heard his recorded voice, his face grew red and his eyes welled up. He insisted that the recording machine was broken, that it made him sound weird. “Wee-ahd.”
“We can keep trying,” she offered, “But he might just need a break.” As we left her office that day, I felt relief at letting go of this one thing—a small thing really, a single letter of the alphabet. I was hopeful that after a few months my son might find R on his own.
He didn’t. He started kindergarten and made new friends, and built elaborate structures out of Legos, and learned to read, and basically did all of the things that you would want a happy, healthy kindergartener to do, only he still didn’t like to say his own name, and if you asked him who his teacher was, he didn’t want to say “Mrs. Brown.”
At the end of the school year, my son’s class put on a recital and in the days leading up to the event, my son confided that he was nervous. “What are you nervous about?” I asked him. “What are you going to do?”
“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.
When the evening of the recital arrived, the gym was packed with at least sixty parents and siblings and neighbors and relatives. At the last moment, I remembered to stuff my pocket with tissues. My son stood on the front riser, dressed in his brand-new Minion t-shirt and freshly laundered shorts, his version of a fancy outfit. The whole class sang The More We Get Together, and then Mrs. Brown handed the microphone to the girl sitting at the edge of the front row. She spoke with absolute confidence: “My name is Hailey and my favorite thing about kindergarten is reading corner.” She handed the mic to the boy on her left. It wasn’t until he began to speak, that it hit me: my son was next in line. In just moments, he would take the mic and have to introduce himself to a crowd of near-strangers. My heart sped. My face flushed. My son took the mic, looked out at the crowd, and gathered his breath. I swear, he took forever to speak, but once he started he didn’t pause. “My name is Hah-lan,” he said. “And my favowite thing about kindahgahten is computahs.”
The audience clapped politely just as they had for the two proceeding children. No one else knew that my son was likely terrified, that they had just witnessed an act of significant courage. But I knew. I sat there with my tissues, snotty and teary and beaming, grateful in a strange way for that impossible letter R for teaching my son that it’s okay to say your own name, to claim what you love even if you can’t say the words perfectly.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.