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Colin Firth as King George VI in The King's Speech. (Alliance Films)
Colin Firth as King George VI in The King's Speech. (Alliance Films)

I've always stuttered Add to ...

I have stuttered all my life. There are only a few minutes in my day when I don't have to think about what I am going to say next or how to say it.

My earliest recollections are of mimicry in the playground. Not that it was done with any malicious intent. It's just the way children are, but it hurt nevertheless. Throughout school, however, I was lucky to have close friends who learned not to finish my sentences, which is tempting and can be awkward if the listener guesses wrong.

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Although my teachers were all supportive, I experienced moments of sheer panic. I had difficulty with consonants - w (what), c (cat), t (two) and d (do) - and particularly if they were in the first words I spoke. The teachers called us by our surnames and at the beginning of a term a new teacher, in an effort to learn our names, would go up and down the rows asking each boy to say his name. As they did so, I rehearsed in my mind how I would say mine. Invariably when my turn came at last I was in such a state that I often stumbled over the "Ch" in my name. I would be drenched in sweat as the inevitable wave of embarrassment washed over me. I fancifully thought of changing my name to make it easier for me.

Similarly, when we had to give our marks on tests to the teacher so he could record them, I was fine if it was an easy number like "eight" or "16," but "10" or "21" could be difficult. I often thought of changing the mark - even to a lower number - just to avoid the situation. But I never did.

I never put my hand up in class to answer questions. Once, when a teacher specifically asked me something, I remember stuttering over the letter "w" in "well" to start my answer. After I had finally got it out, the teacher said, "That was a lot of effort just for 'well,' " and he was right of course.

Outside school, tasks trivial to others were major ordeals for me: asking for a train ticket; running errands to the local shop for my mother; buying candies. Worst of all was using the telephone, and still is to some extent, which is common to most stutterers. I will do almost anything to avoid using the phone.

When I was 8, my mother took me to speech therapy classes in a nearby town. I didn't like going there and found other things helped. Stutterers never stutter when singing, but I have a lousy voice and life is not a musical. Reading poetry was useful because the rhythm seemed to lubricate my speech. So I read a lot of poetry and by the age of 9 could recite quite comfortably at Sunday school concerts, much to the amazement of people who knew me. Although the moments before such appearances were nerve-racking, the performances gave me confidence and I looked for similar opportunities to develop my speech.

I found I could read text well and was lucky enough to win several reading prizes at school. I discovered that extensive preparation paid off. Sometimes if I saw a problem word in a text I substituted another word that was easier for me. Stutterers are inventive and often have a large vocabulary because we are always looking for synonyms.

Until I was about 15, I was particularly shy, but it is the stutter that makes one shy and not vice versa. As I entered my 20s and began working, my fluency improved. I still had awkward moments though. Asking for things like "two coffees" is difficult. My relief at getting it out right, perhaps with some filler words at the beginning - "Please can I have two coffees?" - can be dashed when the listener says, "Sorry, I didn't get that. Can you repeat it?" Repetitions, when all eyes are on you, are excruciating.

In everyday conversation with friends or family I am fluent most of the time, but cocktail parties with new people sometimes drive my anxiety level up.

Over time, I became an effective public speaker. Paradoxically, my stutter has helped in a couple of ways. Little did an audience know that for me to deliver a good presentation at work, it took hours of preparation and practice. This helped me know my stuff, which enhanced my credibility and gave me confidence when I appeared before regulatory bodies to explain company positions.

I've also found e-mail a boon as an alternative to the telephone. I never fell into the trap of using it exclusively though. Instead, I made a point of going to another person's office to discuss a complex problem or delicate issue face to face, which was easier than the phone because it allowed for eye contact and body language. As a result my management style became more effective and I developed a reputation for having strong interpersonal skills.

Now that I am in my 60s, my stutter doesn't bother me as much. I am more sanguine about it, partly because I can reflect on a wonderful family and an interesting career, and partly because I can avoid or control most of the situations where it can trip me up. For example, I never use the intercom to give my order at a drive-through coffee shop. Instead I park my car and go inside where I can deal person to person. I suppose my stutter and I have reached a kind of truce - it's there but doesn't much get in the way of my life.

When King George VI died in 1952, Winston Churchill sent a floral tribute with the simple inscription "For Valour." Most thought it referred to his leadership of his country through the Second World War. I think it was for coping with his severe stutter. Nothing, not even Hitler, could terrify him as much as the risk of stuttering in public. He deserved an Oscar, only he wasn't acting.

Chris Chorlton lives in Mississauga.

 

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