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(Steve Adams for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

Bullied for the way I spoke Add to ...

I was born with a cleft palate (a split in the roof of my mouth). It was repaired in the 1940s without the help of advanced technology or antibiotics, but even today doctors marvel at the surgeon's skill. Fortunately my lip was not cleft, but, for all the doctor's deftness, I was left with throat complications and residual deafness that kept me in hospital for months.

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I talked early, eagerly, unintelligibly. My parents understood me but neighbourhood children and the kids at school didn't even try. I was often ridiculed, rarely befriended.

I was taken out of class in junior school for elocution lessons. My instructor's name was Miss Langouth; she had fleshy lips and thick ropes of hair. She'd make her lips into a closed tulip, urging me to do the same. "Blow Margaret, blow." I was supposed to blow bits of paper across the table, but I couldn't make them move. "Diction Margaret, D is for Diction!"

I struggled with unpronounceable words. Lollypop was my nickname - the best I could manage was "norryhoh." I laboured to blow out candles. I tried to whistle, sitting in the garden with my dad while he imitated a thrush or a song sparrow, and I blew a blank. Even today I can't coax any life into a balloon.

After a couple of terms Miss Langouth decided I'd gone as far as I could, though my father refused to accept defeat. He'd stand me on a stool and make me read from the psalms as if someone from upstairs would beam perfectly formed words into my mouth. Finally he gave up - he was, after all, an atheist. My problems were never referred to after that either at home or at school.



I immigrated to Canada in 1968 and here, to my delight, most people spoke nasally and no one appeared to notice the vestiges of my speech defect.


I was often shielded by solicitous teachers - I gave them no thanks for their kindness, probably mistaking it for pity - but when I was 8 I went to a new school and the bullying began in earnest. The girls made fun of me behind their hands. The fact that I couldn't always hear them made me anticipate the giggles and name calling by sticking out my tongue. I was excluded from all the inner circles.

The boys were more open with their taunts - they'd shout in my ear, imitating me. Sometimes they'd pair up, cross their arms behind their backs and run at me: "We're going to bash-bash-bash you up."

I tried to keep to myself though I was a naturally outgoing child. "Sticks and stones may break her bones but names will never hurt her," my mother yelled when she caught a neighbour ridiculing me. But it wasn't true. Names did hurt. I didn't want my parents to be shamed on my behalf and I definitely didn't want them fighting my battles so I never tattled on my schoolyard foes.

I fell in love during an amateur production of an Agatha Christie play in the basement of a local church. I was 10, and I've been a constant lover of the theatre ever since. In high school I decided I wanted to be an actress. I auditioned for all the school plays and never made it to spear carrier.

I left at 16 and it was a new beginning. I found it incredibly liberating to sashay into an adult world where no one knew my history and no one gave a toss if I chose not to open my mouth. I became a filing clerk at a multinational in the heart of London. I was one of the most inept filers on record, but at the end of each week I had money to put toward a new round of what was now called speech therapy.

This time, I understood its importance and I threw myself into it, practising vowel sounds and hissing and trying to redirect my breath so it didn't leak down my nose. I still remember the pure joy when I managed "Sister Susie's sewing socks for soldiers." I invested in an unobtrusive hearing aid. Now the world was finally coming into focus. I triumphed over my Ls and my Ns (though they still trip me up) and lessened the nasal quality of my voice. I gave up my ambitions to go on stage and threw myself into writing plays instead. What remained of my pay went on theatre - I was in the gods nearly every night, as near to heaven as I could get without reading a single psalm.

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I immigrated to Canada in 1968 and here, to my delight, most people spoke nasally and no one appeared to notice the vestiges of my speech defect. They actually complimented me on my voice and my accent. I set about remaking myself, enrolled in university and began to contemplate the possibility of a stage career again.

The rest is history. I'm a professor emeritus at a Canadian university, I have a string of play productions and awards to my name, a novel and a collection of stories. Perhaps I don't enunciate with BBC clarity, but I'm comfortable speaking in public or performing my work, and my hearing has improved thanks to an operation. Canada has nurtured me. All that remains of my troubled past is the effect of the bullying. My blood still boils and my adrenalin flows whenever I perceive that I'm on the receiving end of a put-down or a raw deal, and this has held me back particularly in my work with theatre.

In Ontario, the number of speech-language pathologists has been cut and wait lists are growing. In times of restraint priorities must be set and speech-language pathology doesn't appear to be one of them. The understanding of what's needed to help adults and kids communicate clearly and effectively is now much more advanced, but the understanding of why it's so vital may need updating. No one has to suffer the kind of ridicule and humiliation I endured. No one has to live with its consequences.

I hope someone's listening.

Margaret Hollingsworth lives in Toronto.

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