My Mother Stuttered
My mother stuttered horribly when she was a kid. She could barely pronounce her own name, especially when she was anxious. When she was in the sixth grade, her teacher made her stand in front of the entire class to give a book report.
Instead of empathy and kindness, her teacher laughed when she tried to pronounce “Peter Pan.” It came out like, Pe-Pe-Pe-Pe-Peter. Then came P-P-Pan. Trying to pronounce words that began with the letters ‘P’ or ‘B’ were all but impossible.
Even the ‘L-word’ was difficult.
For my mom, that was devastating. Her name was Lillian. No matter how many times she tried to pronounce her name, her tongue couldn’t move quick enough so it came out as ‘Lul’ or ‘Lah’, or some other facsimile.
Teacher said she didn’t know how to talk right.
Couldn’t even repeat her own name.
Shamed her badly in front of the class.
So, my mom stood there, in front of her friends and classmates, and tried to talk the way everyone else did. She took deep breaths to calm herself. Tried to stand as still as possible.
Except she couldn’t.
Instead, she tried to make herself small, tried to hide in front of everyone, all the while cringing with shame. My mom went back to her desk, head down, unable to hold back her tears.
I could feel my mother’s pain as she told me the story. She just wanted to belong, to be part of her school community.
And her classmates had to watch as the teacher humiliated her.
They couldn’t tell the teacher she was wrong to do that.
Couldn’t say it was cruel to do that.
They were afraid of what she’d do if they spoke up.
My grandmother didn’t do anything because she was afraid the teacher would make life even more miserable for my mom. Instead she got angry and swore under her breath in Hungarian. That night though, she made my mother a Hungarian dessert, Palacsinta. They were crepes rolled up with Turo, the soft cottage cheese my mom loved.
Every time I think about that experience, I want to hug that little snip of a girl and tell her she’s loved, no matter how that woman’s sense of ugly tried to make her feel.
I want to protect her from the mean people in the world, the ignorant and the cruelty that hides within many.
I want to tell her she’ll get married and have four children who will treat her with respect and love her until the day she dies.
I want to tell her it’s okay to feel like you don’t belong. Most people don’t feel that way either, no matter who they are. And, that’s without a speech impediment.
And most of all, I want to tell her how brave she was to stand in front of the class while being shown the cruelty of someone she wanted to look up to.
And the part of me that felt the trauma still deep inside my mother, wants to lash out and punish that teacher for shaming a little girl who tried to speak without stuttering but couldn’t.
Yet, instead of crawling into herself further, my mother painstakingly taught herself NOT to stutter!
In spite of the hurt and pain.
In spite of having a difficult time of it.
To everyone’s surprise, she did it.
Without help; all on her own.
What she did was the bravest thing anyone could do without the resources to find her way into language that didn’t include stuttering. And no one, not any of her family or friends, ever gave her the credit she deserved.
What my mother learned from her ordeal was to never ridicule or mock another because of the way they spoke.
Or, if they looked differently.
Or, had a different color skin.
And, she taught us to treat everyone with respect. That didn’t mean we had to like it, or accept cruelty or ignorance. We had to realize it was okay to be different.