Return to Because I Stutter Main Page

Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page

CHAPTER IV

SCHOLARSHIP

At first, in my father's library, I found study a delight. I was drawn to it by my father's good sense and my own eager curiosity, and I came to enjoy learning as a kind of conquest. When I entered school, a stutterer, and found that by exerting myself a bit I could win a place at or near the head of my class, scholarly endeavor took on an added significance. If the other boys and girls could surpass me in the act of talking, I could surpass them in learning. The meaning of such a state of affairs was obvious, and I seized upon it at once.

My teacher must have had an uncommonly good understanding of my situation. She gave me all the work I could do, created special assignments for me, and demanded in a pleasant way the best standard of work that I could maintain. Moreover, she had no hide-bound notions as to how a pupil should display the amount and thoroughness of his study; she excused me, for the most part, from oral recitation, and yet she taxed me with practically no extra written work. I recall that I had little trouble in spell-

39


Note: Horizontal lines indicate page breaks in the original, at which point bold indicates headers and footers. - NJ



BECAUSE I STUTTER

ing, so far as speech difficulty was concerned; I also volunteered an occasional recitation in class, for at that time my stuttering had not yet become forbiddingly imposing. And in the doing of blackboard exercises, as well as in written examinations, I was, of course, on even terms with the other pupils. From these sources, then, and from competent general observation, my teacher was able to evaluate my class standing. The too widespread notion among school teachers that a stutterer -- or any other kind of student -- ought to be penalized so many points for his failure to recite adequately in an oral way appears to me to be sheer nonsense, and to indicate nothing so much as an inability or unwillingness on the part of the teachers to exercise reason in the matter. Had my teacher penalized me on the ground of my stuttering, I should probably have had little zest for study. As it was, I was offered a means of gaining a place in the school life which was in accordance with my natural ability. The justice of it brought out an avid response on my part.

The benefits of the reaction thus called forth cannot be overestimated. I was stimulated to study, to learn, to constantly enrich my mental life, whereas, by a stupid though perhaps equally conscientious teacher I might have been propelled to a distaste for such things. All too many stutterers have suffered

40


SCHOLARSHIP

that very ill result of narrow-minded pedagogy. At the eighth-grade level, stutterers on the whole are retarded one grade; the significance of this fact is ominous. There is something criminal about it, in view of the fact that no investigations have reasonably indicated that the stutterers are less intelligent than non-stutterers.

There was, then, that very personal, almost private, satisfaction won by conscientious study. There was, in addition, the satisfaction of winning the respect of the other boys and girls, and of my teacher and parents, and to a less degree, of the village folk in general. That satisfaction was justified and needs no explanation. I sought to maintain it and increase it, and the effort involved has been a veritable tide of intellectual growth. There resulted the increasing understanding of things in general which tended to enhance my entire orientation.

Again, my motives must be examined, lest I leave the puerile impression that I was moved by a pure love of knowledge or truth or whatever the after-dinner speaker chooses to call it. No doubt I did love knowledge and found a pure joy and fascination in discovering new facts and new relationships between facts. But that is only what every student finds to a relative extent. It would explain nothing concerning stuttering. We must glance first at the

41


BECAUSE I STUTTER

pleasure I found in my father's library before I began to stutter or before I apprehended that stuttering meant anything in particular. Undoubtedly at that time I laid the foundations for certain habits aimed at the pursuit of learning. I learned to read and to wonder at what I read. And I prepared the beginnings of a critical nature that drives one to books, to magazines, to all the sources of information.

When I began to stutter, then, I simply learned to apply previously acquired habits and aptitudes to a new purpose. Not able to talk adequately, I was forced to affirm what manner of stuff I was made of by some other means. In the first place, I had come to admire intelligence and learning, and to think of them as marks of superiority; I thought as highly of them as the so-called average person thinks of motor cars and pearl studs. There are, however, degrees in everything, and in Roxbury learning meant something quite different from what passes for learning in cultural centers. The sort of thing which I was taught to think of as intellectual superiority was of a relatively low standard. That is important in itself, but not as significant as the fact that I discovered that mental life was really useful to my purposes, and that I did carry on a certain amount of mental activity of any kind at all. I was intelligent enough to be respected for the distinction

42


SCHOLARSHIP

I readily won in school and I found the distinction satisfying.

Also, I was keeping alive a longing to get on the other side of that basin horizon, where, so I understood, there existed a rather romantic world and one preferable by far to my father's farm and Roxbury. That longing, in fact, grew and grew, until by the time I had finished high school I had acquired a real dislike, almost a bitter hatred, for farm life. The village boy's dream of New York was not lost upon me. It seemed to me that there must be greater men somewhere else than the men I knew in the village; and it occurred to me that men who wanted to be superior in a great way did not belong in Roxbury. They didn't live there, and if they came, they left right away.

To have gained a deal of gratification, then, by using my mental ability as a weapon both of defense and aggression in Roxbury, does not mean that I rose like the eagle to glory. It means chiefly that I did defy the soil and that stupefying, fatal clutch the soil gets on a man to slow his stride and bend his shoulders, and all but bury him before he dies. It means that I found the monotony of the Kansas winds not at all satisfying. My mind developed enough to make me restless, and to give me imagination to realize that my restlessness was probably

43


BECAUSE I STUTTER

justified. I was like a man who is just drunk enough to know that he is not quite sober, and just sober enough to know that he is not dead drunk.

As the world became larger to my understanding and richer in possibilities, any kind of superiority at Roxbury came to mean less and less. At the age of ten, for example, I had a real ambition to become a big league baseball player. At a somewhat later time, I dreamed of traveling to foreign lands. I would write great books, draw great pictures, and grow wiser and wiser and wiser! And so I studied, not only to proceed to the head of my class, but also to live the words that certain idol-worshipers have credited to Lincoln: "I will prepare and some day my chance will come."

Because I stuttered -- largely. Granted that I had already formed studious inclinations before I began to stutter, it was the incapacity to assume easily a place among my fellows that drove me to exertion. Without exertion I was underrated, and no one can bear that indifferently. Without displaying a superiority gained by effort, I was an ordinary stutterer, a rather amusing sort of fellow, pathetic and not quite suited for the prevailing scheme of things. The thought of being considered in that light was utterly repulsive to me; my innate restlessness plus my experience and training forced me to believe that I

44


SCHOLARSHIP

deserved better. My reaction was deliberate, almost desperate, ambition -- an ambition that did not respect the encircling skyline and the standards of Roxbury. I studied, my effort was determinate, and as I gained the objectives which I set up from time to time, my effort did not diminish; the momentum of it carried over every point that might have been a stopping place. Senior-class president, president of the student body in high school, captain of the football team, of the basketball team, of the baseball team, editor of an experimental high school paper, and valedictorian were only symbols of something, symbols that meant increasingly less to me as I won them one by one. I anticipated those little triumphs, found them momentarily satisfying, but found them insufficient.

So long as I stuttered, the fight was unrelentingly at hand. The moment I let up in the struggle, I became nothing but a stutterer! Superiority was the one thing I had to gain; there was no alternative so long as my imagination prodded me and blood flowed through my veins. Unable to say what I wanted to say, unable to make myself adequately a human being by word of mouth, forced to the wall by an awkward tongue, I rebelled against the oppression. Self-expression, self-assertion, became my crying need, my dominating desire. Something tried to

45


BECAUSE I STUTTER

crush me and I only fought back. Say that I exhibited an inferiority complex, or a superiority complex -- depending on your point of view -- but the terms are technical and unnecessary. A frank observation serves better, and gives more insight into the stutterer's thoughts and desires. It is less odious to the stutterer and more practical to the teacher, parent, or friend of the speech sufferer. Sum it up by saying that a man will fight for his rights; whether he fights by one means or another depends on his past experiences and more or less on his native stuff.


Return to Because I Stutter Main Page

Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page