Learning To Love My Son’s Southern Accent

Learning To Love My Son’s Southern Accent

A cute little boy in a field of green grass in the park

By Aubrey Hirsch

It didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my family started teasing me about it. When I told them I’d accepted a job in central Georgia, and after the “congratulations” had dissipated, my mother pointed to my two-year-old and said, “I bet he’s going to get a little Southern twang.”

I smiled, politely, and shook my head. “I doubt it,” I said.

My Cleveland accent had persisted through a decade of relocations to Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs. I’ve come to accept that my high, nasal a’s and sharp-edged o’s aren’t going anywhere. I assumed the shapes of my son’s vowels were locked in as well, perhaps even inherited.

I continued to think that for the first two months we lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, until the morning my son woke up and, overnight, had taken on a melodic Southern drawl.

I recognized it immediately. “I don’t want breakfast,” he said. “I want a snack.” Only the word “snack” had two syllables. “Snay-ack.” When I set his milk down slightly out of reach, he said, “Can I have thay-at?” And then, when my husband disappeared to change our younger son, “Where’s Day-addy?”

I was, frankly, stunned. My instinct was to correct him, to say, “You mean ‘Daddy,'” emphasizing the inland north “a.” I didn’t want him to think he was doing something wrong, but still, the difference was so stark and so sudden, I felt I had to say something. I aimed for neutrality, remarking that he was starting to sound like his friends at school. He ignored me, diving into his breakfast.

On the drive back from daycare, I tried to examine why this was bothering me so much. Certainly it was jarring, to tuck him into bed one night and have him wake up the next morning speaking in a voice I didn’t recognize. It was like some foreign spirit had taken hold of him.

But it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t just the strangeness of the voice, but the particulars of the accent itself. After all, we’d had a Costa Rican babysitter for almost a year when he was small. If he’d come home with her accent, I would have found it adorable.

No, it wasn’t just the change, it was what this accent represented to me that I had trouble with. The speech affect in middle Georgia is not subtle or gentle. It’s deep, rattling. These stretched vowel sounds come from the speaker’s backbone, his gall bladder, his shoelaces.

And here’s where I must confront my own prejudice. Because when I heard my son say “snay-ack,” I heard him say it in the voice of the oppressor. He sounds like “those people,” I thought. Those people who care about success on the football field more than success in school. Who want to regulate my uterus more strictly than semi-automatic weapons. Those who would stifle marriage equality, raise confederate flags and forge purity rings in the stifling fires of gender expectations. People without a sense of justice, without imagination, without ambition.

The problem was that when I heard my son speak, he sounded like that.

It reminds me of when I first moved to Pittsburgh. Growing up in Cleveland, I had two things tattooed into my brain: hard-nosed optimism, and hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were not just our rival football team; they were the bad guys. It was as simple as that.

I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained in me this had become until I was walking around Pittsburgh. Every time I saw someone in a black and yellow jersey, I had this completely instinctual reaction where I would look at him and think, That is a bad person.

Of course, this is a ridiculous way to think. It’s also ridiculous for me to think that people with Southern accents are uniform in their beliefs and priorities. If you had asked me outright, I never would have said that I bought into these stereotypes about the deep South. That is, until I heard that voice come out of my child and panicked.

But now that I know it’s in there, lurking somewhere beneath my skin, I can eradicate it, willfully. I can remind myself that good-hearted, open-minded people wear black and gold on Sundays and pronounce “snack” with two syllables.

And who better to help me remember this than my kind, curious, whip-smart two-year-old? Whose tender heart I recognize beating through every syllable, every new rhoticity and back upglide and chain shift. Who proves his inner beauty with every single word.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Rumpus and The New York Times. She currently writes a parenting advice column, “Ask Evie,” for the website Role Reboot.

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

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.

Fighting Words

By Elissa Wald

My daughter’s trouble began with the word Mommy. One day I noticed that her name for me had become prolonged, so that it sounded like “Ma-ah-my.” And I guess it was wishful thinking, but at first it seemed as if she were nursing the word, drawing it out on purpose, perhaps out of pleasure.

This special rendering of Mommy went on for a few days before another development surfaced. Charlotte began to repeat the first syllable of whatever she had to say: “I-yi-yi want to go outside.” I thought nothing of this either. Every excitable child sounded like that sometimes.

Then the repetitions became more frequent, sprinkled throughout her sentences. Two or three echoes each time, with not much notice on her part. “Are you hearing this?” I asked my husband. “This speech pattern?” He didn’t, and then he did. We consulted What To Expect: The Toddler Years, and right in the section corresponding with her age, there was a paragraph or two about stuttering. It was very common, the book reassured us, for children her age to experience a period of some disfluency. I told myself not to let my family history distort what was going on here. Her repetitions were few and brief; she was in no apparent distress; it was just a little hitch that she would surely outgrow.

And then came the moment during story hour, just before Charlotte’s bedtime. She was asking for one of her Frog and Toad books when I finally understood exactly where we were. “Fr … fr … fr …” she said. “Fr … fr …  fr …”

She stared at me as she tried to talk. She was wide-eyed, as if something had her by the throat.

“Fr … fr … fr … fr …”

I held her gaze without flinching, even as I waited to be able to breathe.

Stuttering is a mysterious affliction that even the most informed experts don’t understand. The disorder affects more than three million Americans, about one percent of the population. Long thought to be a manifestation of psychological and emotional issues, it is now recognized as a neurological phenomenon with a genetic component (about two-thirds of people who stutter have at least one other relative with the impediment). Stutterers are usually fluent when they whisper, or sing, or impersonate another voice, or speak in unison with other people. They rarely stutter when they talk to animals or to themselves.

In my mother’s family, stuttering has surfaced in every generation as far back as we can trace, affecting her great-uncle, one of her maternal uncles, her cousin, her son (and my brother) Eric, and now her first grandchild. Because of my brother’s lifelong struggle with his speech—which is still with him at the age of thirty-nine—I grew up as a witness to what stuttering can do to a life. I know about the fear of introducing oneself, ordering in a restaurant, picking up the phone, or being called on in class. I know about the weeks or even months of dread that may be inspired by having to deliver a spoken presentation.

While growing up, Eric was resourceful in the ways that stutterers usually are. When his fourth-grade class put on a pageant portraying the history of Pittsburgh—our hometown—Eric imitated the speaking style of sportscaster Howard Cosell while reciting his part about the Steelers. Whenever we went out to eat, he would avoid attempting a hard “c” by asking for a Pepsi.

“We don’t have Pepsi,” was the usual response. “Is Coke okay?”


He never went so far—as so many stutterers have—as to order something he didn’t like, or to incur major inconveniences, for the sake of word substitution. In his memoir Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words, Marty Jezer describes buying train tickets to Hartsdale rather than his true destination of White Plains, because the letter “w” was his nemesis: “There were no buses or taxis from the Hartsdale train station, but walking four miles home was preferable to stuttering in front of the ticket seller.” Jaik Campbell, a stutterer who does stand-up comedy, once joked that he was performing for the British Stammering Association when a would-be heckler yelled out: “You’re sh … you’re sh … you’re quite good.”

Eric also never went to the lengths that other stutterers have described in order to avoid speaking. “Often I would make myself physically sick so that I wouldn’t have to talk to or be around people,” prominent zoologist and wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz has confessed. “Once I stabbed a pencil through my hand and had to be taken to the hospital so that I wouldn’t have to read in front of the class.”

Still, there was the time Eric was trying to order in a diner, unable to get the words out, when the waitress sighed with impatience and stalked away. There were the phone calls he made, in which he couldn’t respond to someone’s hello and the person who’d answered would hang up, thinking no one was on the line. There were the taunts on the playground: “W-w-what’s wrong w-w-with you? W-w-why can’t you t-t-talk?” There was the time that even a friend—angry after losing to Eric in a basketball game—called him a stuttering monkey.

And there is also one of my worst memories:

My brother and I were with our grandmother at a McDonald’s in Florida. I was eleven and Eric was nine. We had brought our trays to a table when my brother asked me to get him one of the little packets of salt that they kept behind the counter.

“Why can’t you get it yourself?” I asked.

“You go and get it,” my grandmother told me.

“Me?” I said. “He’s the one who wants it. Why do I have to get it for him?”

“You go,” she said again.

I turned to Eric. “Why can’t you get it yourself?”

“Forget it,” he said.

“No, tell me. Why can’t you?”

“Why are you being this way?” my grandmother asked.

“Being what way?”

“Why are you being mean?”

“How am I being mean? If he wants salt, why doesn’t he get it for himself?”

“You know why,” she said.

“No, I don’t.”

“You know he doesn’t want to ask them for it. Because of his speech.”

I looked at my brother in surprise. (I don’t know how to explain, even to myself, the fact that I was startled at that moment. How could I have failed to understand what his reluctance was about?) He was glaring at me and his eyes had filled with tears. He had to take off his glasses to swipe them away. His little paw was grubby and left faint smears of dirt on his face

After my daughter started to stutter, nearly everyone I knew felt compelled to tell me, “Well, it didn’t hold your brother back.” And certainly that’s true. Eric is now married to a lovely and accomplished woman with whom he has a beautiful son. He is respected and successful, a pediatrician and intensive care specialist, and I believe he brings a special integrity and compassion to his work. Though he puts in long hours and is often exhausted, I have never heard him speak to a child without empathy or warmth. No one would have guessed the words that came to him in response to a young patient’s recent remark.

“You talk funny,” the boy told him.

Yeah, well, my brother refrained from saying, that’s not as bad as having Crohn’s disease, you little bastard.

Because of Charlotte’s physical agility, her intrepid nature, and her ready joy, I had assumed a certain social ease would always be hers. That notion has since deserted me, along with certain traits I’d thought inherent to her character. Within days of beginning to stutter, my little chatterbox seemed to go silent. She no longer prattled in the car, no longer supplied the words she knew in familiar books, no longer tried out every new word she heard me say. Suddenly the most commonplace parental request—”Can you say please?”—was laden with danger. (“P-” she began gamely, the last time I tried that. “P-p-p-…”)

What had been the most empowering part of her life—her ever-increasing speech skills—has become something that frustrates and inhibits her. It’s as if her small body has already betrayed her.

Soon after her speech became affected, I picked Charlotte up from preschool and found a bright orange envelope in her file folder. Inside was an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party. Charlotte had been invited to plenty of parties in the past, but never before had it occurred to me to do what I did then, which was to glance through all the other children’s folders—twelve in all. There were only two other orange envelopes among them. And suddenly I found myself in the midst of an anxious little analysis: Okay … it’s not that they invited every kid in the class. Not even close. And we’re not friends with his parents either. So he chose her; he must have. And standing there, I was overcome by a rush of love for this child. A rush of gratitude, even—gratitude to a three-year-old. Of course this was not only pathetic but far from rational: These kids were too young to discern anything amiss in one another’s speech. But somehow it felt like reassurance that Charlotte would continue to be invited, to be included. I went shopping for the birthday boy the very next morning and spent too much on his present.

Most websites devoted to stuttering post a list of famous people who have struggled with the disorder. When Charlotte joined their ranks, I looked these people up and read about how stuttering had affected their lives. A fairly reliable pattern emerged: early on, stuttering was a source of pain, humiliation and inhibition. The famous person was teased, bullied, silenced, estranged. Then an art form or other calling presented itself—usually as an antidote to, or reprieve from, stuttering—and transcendence was achieved. Stuttering is usually cited as the most essential part of this alchemy.

“I was in a play and when I got onstage I stopped stuttering—I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the reason the stutter stopped was because I was acting.” (Bruce Willis)

“The written word is safe for the stutterer. The script is a sanctuary.” (James Earl Jones)

“Animals were the only things I could talk to as a child.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

“I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering.” (Carly Simon)

“It’s a funny thing to say, but even if I could, I wouldn’t wish away the darkest days of my stutter. [It] ended up being a godsend for me … the very things it taught me turned out to be invaluable lessons for my life and my career.” (Joe Biden)

“Scatman” John Larkin, a jazz musician and poet who stuttered, referred to his creative shift into scat singing (a vocal art form comprised of random syllables, nonsense words, or no words at all) as a process of “turning my biggest problem into my biggest asset.”

It would seem that as a culture, we are deeply invested in this particular narrative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that everything happens for a reason; that every problem is an opportunity. Those in whom I confided about Charlotte responded much in the same way.

“Maybe she’s meant to do something really introspective, like writing, and this is the experience that will draw her inward,” one of my closest friends suggested. (If an axe had been handy, I might have split open her skull. Writing? A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Inward? This is my boisterous little spirit, who loves to make noise.)

“I’ll just say—without trying to downplay the difficulties stuttering will create for her—that our troubles and strengths are usually interlinked,” another wrote in an e-mail. This insistence—that the affliction and the gift are inextricable—is reflected even in songs about stuttering, even in jokes:

Everybody’s sayin’ that the Scatman stutters,

But doesn’t ever stutter when he sings.

But what you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you right now:?That the stutter and the scat is the same thing.? (“Scatman” by John Larkin.)

A man asks his doctor, “C-c-can you c-c-cure my s-s-stutter?” After a thorough examination, the doctor says, “I’ve discovered the problem: your penis is too big. If you’ll consent to have half of it removed, your stutter should disappear.” The desperate man agrees to the surgery, the operation is a success, but a few weeks later the guy’s back in the doctor’s office. “I can talk with no trouble now,” he reports, “but my wife and my mistress have both left me. I want you to reattach what you cut off.” The doctor replies: “F-f-fuck y-y-you.”

A scene from the week that Charlotte started to stutter:

It is the middle of the night, and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m in bed beside my sleeping husband, staring at the ceiling. It has been a terrible day. Charlotte had trouble with almost every word she said. I’m picturing her in some future schoolyard, surrounded by jackals. Tears are sliding down my face and into my ears.

This isn’t the worst thing; I know there are far worse things. But I’m heartsick and afraid. I can’t bear the thought of other kids making fun of her, the idea of her singled out and set apart. I feel as if I can’t draw a deep breath and can’t get warm. I’m trembling beneath every extra blanket in the house.

When people attest to having received a divine message, they usually describe it as happening during moments like this. I’m not a believer, but in the deep of this night I find myself overwhelmed by a desire to pray. The only way I can ease into the endeavor is to think of it as an exercise: If I were a person who prayed, what would I say? For that matter, what kind of God would I seek to address? Not some omnipotent magician who might lift the curse—that’s so far afield for me that prayers of this nature would feel worse than useless. But what about just … some source of otherworldly sustenance … some current of gentleness and love, to be accessed on Charlotte’s behalf? I lie there trying to visualize this presence and the closest I can come are the faces—some living, some dead—of the kindest and best people I’ve ever known. I try to hold their images in my mind, but they blur and fade and burn out. Before long, I’m left with only a sense of their collective essence, but it occurs to me that I’m not cold anymore. And then toward four a.m., a message does in fact present itself, like a lone hold high on a rock wall, and I close around it and cling for all I’m worth.

The whole world is hurting.

It would be hard to explain the comfort I took from this idea. It went beyond misery’s love of company, beyond an inventory of the ways that others have it bad or worse. It was more like a sudden and visceral conviction that stuttering did not truly place Charlotte outside of anything. In his song “Scatman,” John Larkin says, Everybody stutters one way or the other. It’s not an insight that adversity and suffering are inevitable, no matter who you are; this is something we all know. But like the fact that one day you’re going to die, it’s one thing to know it in the abstract, another to wake alone in the middle of night and know it in your bones.

My parents used to tell my brother that everyone had problems and struggles and pain, whether it was apparent or not. This seemed like just another lie that adults not only told but appeared to believe. Well, I recall thinking, maybe a few other kids do, but most don’t.

It occurs to me that I know better now; that in fact, the reverse is true. There might be a few kids who are truly (and temporarily) untroubled, but most aren’t—and undreamed-of grief can lodge beneath a faultless surface.

I think of the seven-year-old son of my former boss: The boy might have been a poster child for Aryan supremacy. Once I overheard his father talking to him on the phone. You’re a pussy, he told the kid. You’ll never do the right thing.

And there’s the situation related by my friend Amy, who has chosen to maintain an open adoption policy for her two grade-school-aged sons, Samuel and Matthew. Samuel’s family of origin is eager for regular involvement in his life, but Matthew’s biological mother refuses contact with him. Matthew is tall and good-looking and plays several sports. His birth mother’s ongoing rejection of him is a deep and secret sorrow, of which his classmates have no clue. In fact, he looks so much like Amy that no one would even guess that he’s adopted.

I remember a classmate of my own, from middle school: a talented actress even then, with a flair for comic roles. I didn’t find out until well into adulthood that her father committed suicide when she was in the third grade. He hanged himself in the basement, and she was the one who found him.

Then there are the children whose parents are divorcing, or fighting every day, or just mired in separate miseries. Kids with parents who are gone, or sick, or just terminally preoccupied. Children of alcoholics and drug addicts, kids who are abused and neglected. Driving around, listening to the country music that dominates the airwaves where I live, I hear songs about orphans, unwashed and unwanted children, dirt-poor and hungry children, cowards of the county, boys named Sue.

The whole world is hurting.

My husband and I spend a lot of time reading the current stuttering literature, which tells us there are things we can do to help Charlotte. We can slow our own speech as much as possible, pause often, take turns talking and refrain from interrupting. We should try to do all this not only in conversation with Charlotte, but even with each other when she is present.

These changes, it must be said, do not come naturally to me. I talk too fast; everyone has always said so. I cut in when other people are speaking. I ramble and rant.

We consult a speech therapist, who confirms that these changes are difficult, and that they won’t happen all at once. She suggests that we start by trying to implement them for just five minutes a day.

There are other efforts we can make as well:

Hold her gaze while she’s talking, even when she’s having trouble, despite any temptation to avert your eyes.

Resist the urge to supply a word for her, or finish her sentences.

Listen to what she says, not how she’s saying it.

This last directive is startling, and I wonder what would happen if I tried to heed it in every interpersonal exchange. What if, say, I could listen to a friend’s relentless stream of self-promotion and instead of hearing him say that he’s the greatest, I could hear that he needs affirmation more than he does his next meal?

With the therapist’s advice in mind, I decide to try this for just five minutes a day. The effect is immediate and profound. Right away it’s less manifest that people are power-hungry and greedy and obnoxious and hostile, and more apparent that the whole world is hurting.

On that list of famous people trotted out by the stuttering community, there is one man without a whiff of gratitude about him, and that is John Melendez of The Tonight Show (formerly known as Stuttering John during his time with The Howard Stern Show). In a wildly ironic inversion of the usual scenario, Melendez was one of Stern’s many interns when he was chosen—sight unseen—by the master provocateur to conduct celebrity interviews. (“He stutters?” Stern said. “Hire him.”) Stern was delighted by the possibilities posed by a stuttering interviewer: the tension inherent in every exchange; the idea that celebrities would be afraid to look heartless by snubbing him; its consistency with the “freak factor” that is the show’s trademark.

“Stuttering’s a great defect for radio,” Stern mused on the air to Melendez the day the latter joined the team, “because obviously, we have a guy with no arms or something, no one can see it and … only we enjoy it here in the studio, but stuttering … we always wanted a stutterer. I mean … you’re priceless!”

And Melendez did not disappoint. While on camera, he peppered dozens of celebrities with insulting questions, asking Oliver North if he’d ever had a nightmare where his penis got caught in a paper shredder, Gennifer Flowers whether she would be sleeping with any other presidential candidates. To Imelda Marcos: “If you pass gas at home in front of others, do you blame the family dog?” And to supermodel Claudia Schiffer: “Who’s smarter, Christie Brinkley or Forrest Gump?”

I’m not sure why, among the dozens of other famous people on these lists, Melendez was the one who mesmerized me. Maybe it’s that my brother’s experience of stuttering is the only one I’ve witnessed intimately, and his main response to it seemed to be anger, and John’s chosen line of work was arguably an angry thing to be doing. Or it could be the fact that Melendez is one of the only celebrities who has stuttered mightily in the public eye. Those who identify stuttering as a gift tend to do so in fluent voices; they are usually the ones who have “conquered” the disorder, at least to the extent of controlling it on camera.

On Melendez’s website, along with his bio and blog and event calendar, is a list of tips for stutterers. Over the past several months, I’ve seen many such lists, without much variation among them. But Melendez offers tips that I haven’t read before:

“Know in your heart that whomever you are talking to is no better than you.”

“Laugh at it, let people make fun of it … don’t let it define you, it’s something you do, it’s not who you are.”

And perhaps the one that is most interesting to me: “Get angry in your mind when speaking.”

Late one night, researching Melendez online, I stumble across an interview he did for a radio program called Stuttertalk. Has every parent of a child with a “challenge” flashed on their own version of this fantasy? Let’s find a place where everyone stutters; let’s move there immediately. This channel creates an illusion that there is such a place: Let’s call it The Isle of Stuttering. Everyone on it stutters: the moderators, the guests, the voices on the promotional clips. As on any other radio station, there’s a little riff where a succession of guest stars introduce themselves, saying some version of: This is J-j-joe Blow, and you’re l-l-listening to Stuttertalk. Most dramatically, one woman says, “This is…” and more than ten tortured seconds elapse before she is able to say her name. In this interview, the show’s two stuttering hosts talk at length with Melendez. Listening in the dark to three stuttering voices feels a little surreal, even a little eerie, as if I’m standing in the shadows beside some house on the Isle of Stuttering, eavesdropping beneath the kitchen window.

Toward the end of the interview, Melendez is asked whether he has ever used his stutter to help him pick up women. He seems truly bewildered by the question and says no, if anything it has been a hindrance to picking up women.

The next query, by now, seems inevitable to me.

“John, do you think of your stuttering as a gift? H-h-has it been a gift in your life?”

“A gift?” John repeats. His tone is half incredulous and half uncertain, as if he suspects he has heard wrong, or maybe the host is putting him on.

“Yeah,” his interviewer persists. “A gift.”

No,” he says. “I think it’s a handicap. The truth is, if I could trade in and say, you know, let’s start again, and I’ll be twenty-three again and … here’s my choice: I could be Stuttering John, or I could just speak fluently and go on in my life the way that I would want to—I would choose speaking fluently.”

Ah, I think. Finally.

Having said all this, let me say as well that I wouldn’t choose John Melendez as a role model for Charlotte. And I’m glad that so many inspiring people have wrested something redemptive from their struggles with stuttering.

But I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe every problem is an opportunity, or at least, an opportunity worth the price. And I think that stuttering is unmitigated misery for the majority of those with the disorder. The truth is that if I could choose either happiness or greatness for Charlotte—not that they’re mutually exclusive, and not that the choice is mine—but if it were up to me, and it could only be one or the other, I would want her to be happy. I don’t have any reason to doubt that she’ll eventually be all right. But I want her to be happy now; I want her to have a happy childhood.

Of course, this isn’t up to me either, at least not past a certain point.

Whenever I’m asked whether I see the proverbial glass as half empty or half full, I like to say—truthfully—that I see it as half empty and half full. And so I take a certain satisfaction in this same equivocation from the collective stuttering community. I’m glad that Joe Biden and his ilk are there, and I’m glad that John Melendez is there. And I can even concede that stuttering has already offered me some benefits as a mother: a different way of speaking and hearing; a deeper apprehension of the fellowship of suffering; the understanding, finally, that the point of parenting is not to forever keep adversity at bay for one’s children. The point, I believe—one of the most important points, anyway—is to help one’s children feel at home in the human family.

Not long ago, my husband said something that—in its very simplicity and self-evidence—seemed to me as lovely and wise as anything I’d ever heard. “We will do everything we possibly can to make this go away,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, then we’ll live with it.”

If Charlotte ultimately feels that there’s no silver lining to stuttering, if it offers her not a shred of transcendence, I want her to know that’s all right. And if, on the other hand, she comes to regard it as a gift—one that was given to her for a reason—I devoutly hope I’ll have the grace to stay out of her way.

Someday, in any case, she’ll have made her own way with it. She’ll tell me how it is. And I’ll be listening.

Author’s Note: Although my brother’s struggle with stuttering was a part of everyday life within our childhood home, he and I didn’t talk about it very often. Writing this essay gave me a chance to ask him intimate questions about this very formative experience. I know that it wasn’t easy for him to revisit some of the territory we covered, and I am deeply grateful for his thoughtful and candid answers.

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To Borrow a Phrase

To Borrow a Phrase

By Rebecca Martin

0-5Maeve was about to make a break for the goody bags, but I scooped her up and said, “can you say thank you to Olivia’s parents first?”  She flipped her bob of glossy curls back to show off her pillowy cheeks and hammy grin and said, “It was the best birthday party ever!”  Olivia’s father looked surprised; I imagined either at the sentiment (it was a standard party) or at such well-articulated feelings coming from my often-quiet three-year-old daughter.  To normalize the statement, I followed Maeve’s lead. “She just loved it!” But I knew she was putting them on.

It’s not that she didn’t have a good time—Maeve always has a good time–it’s that she had been saying that particular sentence a lot.  It was one of her running gags, whether she was at a birthday party or not.  It always made me laugh and wonder what had inspired her to come up with it.  Then one day, I listened to Holly Hobbie’s Christmas as Maeve was watching it on television, and I heard Holly say, “this was the best birthday ever!” I was crushed to realize that Maeve had borrowed the phrase—the over-enthusiastic delivery even.  I knew my reaction was a little severe.  This was probably the way a lot of us learn to speak, but with Maeve the borrowing pointed to something more serious.

When she was two, Maeve’s preschool teachers noted a delay in her receptive language.  She would ignore instructions in class, fail to answer questions, or respond to every question in the same way.  She would make a big show of formulating a response before she would say, “no way!”—but she would give herself away sometimes by “no way-ing” something she loved, like a popsicle or a bike ride.

She worked with a speech therapist and over time began to respond to questions with specific answers and participated more in group activities.  She made such rapid progress that at points I could tell myself there had never been anything that wrong with her.  She just doesn’t care what other people are saying or doing, I would think.  She is a kid who lives inside her own head.

Then one day, Maeve stood next to me in the pasta aisle at the grocery store.  She began to wag both her arms in comic disbelief and cried, “$45?!” at a box of penne.  Where did she get that idea? I wondered.  How creative!  Then I realized I was being treated to another scene from Holly Hobbie’s Christmas and that Maeve was thinking about buying a popcorn popper for Holly’s Aunt Jessie.  I told myself that anyone strolling by would think she was just an imaginative child pretending that she was shopping.  Only I knew that her language and imagination were limited to a Christmas cartoon that I had let her watch too many times.

A few days later at the pool, Maeve invited someone to “stop by later for a slice of fruit cake on the house!” Holly’s yuletide hospitality plagued me again, but, even worse, so did worries that Maeve could not share her own thoughts.  I tried to reassure myself that she would get past this borrowing soon enough, but it still bothered me.

Until Maeve spoke like her older brother it was going to bother me.  When I was pregnant with my oldest child, John, someone had given me a peacock blue leather journal to write down all of the precious things my children said.  When Johnny began to speak, I was constantly running to scribble down his latest question or observation.  I had continued to write in the book as Maeve began to speak, but I did not have as much material.  I included the “No Way!” phase; and then, having decided to play to her strengths and not just her brother’s, made an effort to write about what she was doing and not just saying, but she was still outpaced by John.  I did not want to include the Holly Hobbie quotes or anything else she had cribbed from books or television.  It was not that I thought she was plagiarizing, I just did not feel like I was capturing the real Maeve.

Then for a few weeks at bedtime when I began to sing the song that we have sung every night since her birth, Maeve would interrupt me.  “No!  Not Horsey!  How ’bout Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”  And then she might allow me to sing with her.  The last time she did this, I thought, this is a kid who sings her own songMaybe her words are as carefully selected as her music.  Maybe she borrowed phrases but did so knowing precisely what she wanted to say.  The quoting didn’t seem as terrible in this new light.  I resolved to take her at her borrowed words.

The other day she climbed into my lap and picked a notepad off my desk. She looked at the little cartoon drawings of each member of our family printed across the top and, pointing to each one of us, said our names.  Then she looked up at me and said, “I love my family.”  What show is that from? I wondered.  Then I stopped and reminded myself that she had chosen those words—no matter their origin–so I chose to take them to heart.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in Babble.com, Literary Mama, StepMom and Christmased.com. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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Special Needs Children in Italian Schools

Special Needs Children in Italian Schools

By Michelle Pina Damiani

0-2A perk of eighth grade in Italy is the annual gita. Italian for “excursion,” this is a three-day rite of passage celebrating the end of middle school—a last “viva!” before the students divide into specialized high schools. Nicolas returned home in bliss from his recent gita and recounted stories of boat rides to Venetian palaces, the discovery of paprika flavored Pringles, and a realization about his classmate, Giovanni.

Giovanni is in one of the other eighth grade classes, so Nicolas didn’t know him before the gita.  On the trip, Nicolas discovered that Giovanni is challenged. Though his comprehension seems adequate, his speech is hard to understand, and more than that, Giovanni isn’t fluent in social norms. In short, he hugs too much. He likes to pet students’ hair, and gets closer than is comfortable—even for Italians. He also gets upset easily, and requires a full-time aide.

I can picture this child in the American school system. He would likely be in a different classroom surrounded by children with difficulties ranging from autism to oppositional defiant disorder, where he’d perhaps learn academics, but he would learn little about functioning in mainstream society. He’d have contact with non-special needs students at recess. Where he’d likely be avoided, or perhaps even bullied.

Here is what is striking about Italian schools, or at least Spellani schools. There are no bullies. Let me repeat that, because this is huge. There are no bullies. There are no Queen Bees. And there are no outcasts. My eyes fill with tears as I write this, and if you have ever loved a child who has been victim to the caste system inherent in American schools, I think you will understand why I find it so astonishing, and so moving.

Giovanni is not ostracized. He is loved and accepted. The other children—middle schoolers are as into Justin Bieber and smartphones as kids in the U.S.—have folded him into their lives. They look out for him, they allow him to pet them, they laugh when his awkwardness crosses a boundary, they gently remind him of appropriate behavior when he goes too far.

They give him a place at the table.

And he is not a special case. Gabe has a little girl with Down’s Syndrome, Renata, in his classroom. She also has an aide, not because of an IEP, but because she needed it—much like our children have been given Italian lessons simply because they need them. Yes, Renata struggles with learning academics and also managing social skills, but she is learning all this within the context of being with other children who are also learning something vital.

Everyone gets a place at the table.

The child who is reading several grades below average, the child who is atheist in a country of Catholics, the child who eats chalk for attention, the child from America who doesn’t speak the language. There is an expression in Italian, “Tutto parla la stessa lingua a tavola” (“Everyone speaks the same language at the table.”) It’s a gift to see this in action.

Because it’s not just welcoming for those who don’t have their chromosomes lined up like animals entering Noah’s ark. It’s also invaluable for the rest of the class. Students learn that everyone has value. Everyone. Initially, having a special needs peer proved challenging for Gabe. He would come home every day with annoyed stories about Renata’s atypical behaviors. Now? Gabe’s teacher tells us he is one of the kindest students in the class with her. I am grateful that Gabe is learning to feel good through empathy instead of feeling good through superiority.

And this lesson lasts into adulthood. There’s an older man in Spello who also has Down’s Syndrome. He’s a little challenging to understand, even for locals, but no one rushes him. People stop and listen. He comes into the bakery and eats his pastry behind the counter. The owners weave around him to make espresso, sometimes patting his back with a smile. And then he leaves. The community takes care of him. And in this way, he helps the community. Folding him in increases the town’s flexibility and capacity for care. Everyone wins.

It’s a lesson above all others that I hope my children take from this year. More important than how to make pasta. More important than how to conjugate irregular Italian verbs. More important than an increased sense of scope and possibility. In fact, it’s the most important lesson of all.

We, all of us, get a place at the table.

Michelle Pina Damiani is a freelance writer and food lover currently living in Spello, Italy for a year. A practicing clinical psychologist based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Michelle writes candidly about child-rearing, limitations, finding joy, and loving pasta at Il Bel Centro: a Year in the Beautiful Center. You can find her blog at www.ilbelcentro.com.

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How Filling Out “The Forms” Makes Me Feel As A Mother

How Filling Out “The Forms” Makes Me Feel As A Mother

By Allison Slater Tate

0“We’re just covering our bases,” we said when we decided to make the appointment. “Just a formality, just in case. Probably nothing.” But we knew it wouldn’t be just a formality or just in case.

When my second child was about three months shy of three years old, I took him to a private speech therapist. I had waited, per my pediatrician’s suggestion, to see if he would grow into his speech. He seemed to understand everything just fine, and he talked an awful lot. But I was his primary caregiver, and I couldn’t understand 90 percent of what he said.

I asked his preschool teachers how his speech compared to his classmates’ in his two-year-old program. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just comparing him unfairly to his verbally precocious older brother, who seemed like he spoke like an adult (if a very irrational adult) from the time he came out of the womb. At first, they said no, they noticed nothing different. I relaxed. About a week later, the lead teacher pulled me aside. “You know,” she said, “after you mentioned it, we started noticing that he actually just doesn’t talk in class … really, at all.”

That was how I found myself sitting in a small room, in a small chair, watching my son play on the floor with well-loved toys while I filled out The Forms. So many forms. It was a booklet. The questions were endless, and the questions were relentless. They asked me about his birth. They asked me about his infancy. They asked me about his toddlerhood. What were the circumstances and details of his birth? His birthweight? What was his first word, and when? When did he roll over? Crawl? Walk? Had he experienced any trauma? When? How? How many of these fifty words would he recognize? How many does he say? How often does he say them? What foods does he eat? When did he start eating them?

I stared at the pages. I felt as if I was on trial. I knew the purpose of these eight zillion questions was just to gather as much information as possible, to help diagnose my son’s issue and more importantly, to help my son. All I wanted in the whole world at that moment was to help my son. But answering those questions, I felt as if every second of his life was under a microscope … and with it, me.

I felt especially keenly aware how little I remembered. Was I supposed to know all of this by heart, off hand? I had two babies 21 months apart. The preceding four years had been a crazy blur of sleepless nights, pregnancy, and diapers. I had no idea when he rolled over or when he crawled. I had no idea when he started talking or how many of those words he knew. The letters blurred together and swam on the page. I would reveal myself, right there on those very official forms, to be a completely unobservant, negligent mother who really hadn’t paid attention to my second baby’s babyhood. No wonder he couldn’t talk.

It’s my fault, I heard in my head as I wrote down the circumstances of his birth. He stopped moving in the womb at 37 weeks. I sat in triage a whole day, waiting for him to move. Finally, we had to induce him, unable to determine why he was so still. He was born a healthy 8 pounds, 9 ounces, his umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck, but not blue. He nursed well, he grew well. He slept early and often, the complete opposite of my first newborn.

I paused at the question about trauma. When he was nine weeks old, my mother was carrying him when she lost her footing by stepping in a divot in the pavement on a road. She fell to the ground, dropping him on his back and the back of his head. It was almost kind of a release to have one of my worst new-mother nightmares come to fruition: someone actually dropped my baby. After a horrific ride in an ambulance with my nine-week-old strapped to a board, X-rays and examinations declared him fine. My heart was not. Two years and change later, I had to write the scene out again on those forms, and the doubts began creeping back. Was he not fine? Did something stop working when he hit the ground that day?

By the time I finished the pages and pages of questions, my shoulders had long since slumped in defeat. I was demoralized. I was convinced I had somehow failed my baby in utero. I was convinced he had brain damage from falling on his back at nine weeks old. I was certain a better mother could answer the questions about his milestones confidently and easily. This is where failures bring their children, I thought. Failures fill out The Forms.

I know it’s not true, of course. I wasn’t a failure. I was weary, a little battered, a little worse for the wear after a few years of sleep deprivation and hormonal roller coasters. I was deep in the trenches of motherhood, not yet able to see a horizon line beyond Baby Einstein and nap schedules and time outs. But as any mother who has ever sought an evaluation of any kid for her child can tell you, The Forms just seemed to cement every slippery doubt, every nagging worry, every small neurosis that had ever kept me awake at night even though my exhausted bones screamed for mercy. They’re insidious, the forms. They’re brutal. They’re unforgiving. They’re poker-faced. They’re merciless. They convince you that your child is not okay.

And sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes, the doubts are right. Sometimes, it’s not until you sit in a small chair in a small room with a toddler playing at your feet—your world still for the first moment that day—and stare at the pages of questions you don’t want to answer, that you acknowledge that you already know that he’s not okay.

For us, two and a half years of speech therapy yielded a child who can speak articulately, if not completely perfectly. He can speak well enough to tell me when he hates me and when I have failed, but also whisper that he loves me before he closes his eyes at night. We still do not know why he had articulation difficulties and mouth weakness. Now, when my friends tell me they are going in with their children for evaluations—any kind of evaluation—I nod my head silently.  I know the first hurdle will be The Forms. They’re awful. But they are the first step toward something else: Hope.

Allison Slater Tate is a mother of four children and Deputy Editor of TheMid.com, a corner of the Internet devoted to GenX parents. Her writing can also be found on the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Scary Mommy, as well as on her own website, www.allisonslatertate.com. Follow her on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/astwriter) and Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/allisonstate).

Hearing Henry

Hearing Henry

By Krysty Krywko

Art Hearing HenryCan you say juice? Juice. How about please? Please. There I am on all fours, my face inches from my 20-month-old son’s – pleading with him to at least try to repeat a word I might recognize.

I miss not being able to talk to my son. While he babbles and giggles all day – there are very few sounds I understand. To his credit, he has mastered a system of pointing and pleading that allows him to get what he wants: his juice cup, his favorite toy train.

My firstborn, Molly, started talking early. I felt I had an edge with her, an inside track on how to understand her mood and her temperament. With Henry, I am missing that final piece of the puzzle that will help me put him all together.

I do not know my son. Not in the way that a mother should know her child. I know his smell. I know the shape of his body as it presses into mine. But I do not know him – his being, his essence, all that stuff that is inside his head. He floats around the fringes of our family life – separate, yet together. I want him to join the conversation whether it is around the dinner table and we are talking about all the different ways you can eat a strawberry, or while we run errands and count the number of taxis we see.

Despite my years of teaching experience (12) and my degrees (a Master’s in Curriculum and Teaching; a Doctorate in International Education Development) my son’s lack of speech is unexplored territory for me. I don’t know the developmental markers for speech at his age, but I do know my son should be further along than he is. It seems to me there should be an attempt on his part to do more – to put words into fragments, fragments into sentences, sentences into conversations. I have great faith that the development of my children will simply unfold as it is meant to, a rambling list of “firsts” – first steps, first teeth, first words. Isn’t there supposed to be a master plan for all this?

I sit in a café. Latte and notebook spread out before me. Beside me sits a mother with her young son. I’m not sure how old the child is; he looks about the same age as Henry. The two of them are engaged, using words. They have a conversation, or at least as much of a conversation as can be expected between a mother and a young child. The overheard chatter bounces around the chambers of my heart. When Henry and I go out; there is silence. Maybe some gesturing and sounds on his part, the very few words he has cobbled together; mommy, up, goodbye. This is what I hang onto.

It is what I hang onto when my mother says I should take Henry to the doctor because something is not right with him, with the way he interacts. It is what I hang onto when my father tells me he is worried, that Henry, rather than moving forward, seems to have regressed in the past few months.

Henry’s pediatrician, on the other hand, is not worried, and it is her white-robed efficiency that I also hang onto. When at the end of his two-year-old visit she asks if I have any concerns, I say:

“I do. I think Henry should be talking more than he is.”

“Did he pass the newborn hearing screen?” she asks.


“Does he go vroom-vroom when he plays with his trucks?”

“Yes,” I reply uncertainly. I am not sure where she is going with this.

“He’s fine. You need to remember he’s a second child, he’s a boy – he’ll start speaking when he’s ready. Boys are often delayed. There’s no need to start worrying until he’s closer to three.”

I know now there is no medical basis to the pediatrician’s reassurances. Instead, her white-robed efficiency masked a combination of hocus-pocus and old wives tales. There is no mention of further testing, no scheduling of follow up appointments. Just go home and wait and all will be well.

And I play along because I am out of worry at this point. The past two years have been a mess of doctor appointments and consultations as we waited for the hole in Henry’s heart to close; and when it didn’t close we waited to see if the pressure between his heart and his lungs could be regulated; and when it couldn’t be regulated we made plans for our two-year-old son to be put on the heart-lung machine while the doctors cracked open his rib cage and fixed his faulty valve.

Henry comes running to me, hot on the tracks of Molly, who is four and half. She carries her newly colored picture of a farmhouse, complete with animals.

“Mommy, Mommy! Look what I drew, Mommy. How do you like my picture of a farm? See here are the babies and here are the mommies.”

“It’s great, honey. I love the way you drew the baby pig, he looks so happy next to his mommy.”

Henry holds up his picture. Syllables tumble out of his mouth. He is excited to share his artwork. I have no idea what he is trying to tell me though. I feel like we are both getting ripped off. I’m not sure what I am looking at other than a jumble of colors. The generic platitudes that tumble out of my mouth sound empty and hollow – the kind of chatter you engage in with a stranger in the elevator, mindlessly commenting on the weather.

Henry is two months shy of his third birthday, when his preschool teacher suggests we take him for a hearing test. Someone has finally stood up and named the obvious: that my son needs help, we need help.

Henry and I sit in the backseat of a taxi on the way to the audiologist. A fire truck blares up behind us. Henry doesn’t even flinch. I know my son can’t hear even before he is diagnosed with moderate to severe bilateral hearing loss. All the pretending, all the excuses slip away.

What I don’t know in the backseat of that taxi is that Henry will be fitted with hearing aids. That in a few short months he will start intensive speech therapy at a special school. That he will come home tired and overwhelmed from listening to all the new sounds. What I don’t know in the backseat of that taxi is that Henry will begin to talk. That he will be able to say he loves me and that Cheerios are his favorite breakfast cereal. At this moment I only know all that we have lost; I do not yet know all that we have to gain.

Author’s Note: Four years have passed since we first started this journey into Henry’s hearing loss. When we first inserted his hearing aids, miniature grey receivers with batteries, we weren’t sure what to expect. Henry turns seven this April and is a confident and inquisitive first grader. He has a wicked sense of humor and the hearing aids that I once thought would define him are only a small part of who he is.

About the Author: Krystyann Krywko is a writer and education researcher who specializes in hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. Both she and her young son were diagnosed with hearing loss one year  apart. She is the author of the e-book, “What to Do When Your Child is Diagnosed with Late Onset Hearing Loss: A Parent’s  Perspective,” available on Kindle. She also authors the blog, “After the Diagnosis: Helping Families with Hearing Loss.” She can be contacted through her website www.lateonsethearingloss.org.