I have been challenged most of my life with a reading impediment. My left eye tacks erratically from left to right causing every movement to require refocus. To understand the chaos this creates in public, one can consciously count the number of movements their eyes make while reading a simple brief selection. Most of these are automatic in the experience of a normal reader, but not for the challenged reader. Reading is work and fraught with problems with every turn of the page.
Reading in public regularly sent tremors up my spine, as a young man, causing me to emotionally shrink in poetry, theatre and literature classes and later cower prior to reading scripture in congregational worship during my eventual career as a United Methodist Minister. Playing instruments like organ, piano, violin and guitar, developing my chosen career as a Choral Clinician eventually came face to face with sight limitations. It was no small accomplishment to complete graduate school surviving classes demanding enormous loads of reading, debate and essay. Later, congregational leadership required much impromtu reading and instant comprehension of plans, budgets, and much more. Somehow, I completed a forty-five year ministry not achieving the reading ability I so cherished.
Recently, I picked up a copy of When Women were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams. Herein, Terry describes her confrontation with an early lisp which gave her petrifying problems in childhood. At seventy-five years of age I found great solace and encouragement in chapter nine.
A speech impediment is an excellent way to lose your voice, especially in fourth grade. When most children were out playing at recess, I was sitting with Mrs. Parkinson in speech therapy. “Tongue-swallowing lessons,” she said. “It has been recommended by your teacher to help you get over your lisp.”
My teacher had told her I had a lisp. My face turned red, and I was flushed with embarrassment. I wasn’t aware that I spoke with a lisp until I was told. We usually don’t have an ear toward our own voice. Friends would make fun of me, the way kids do. Sometimes I laughed with them. Sometimes I did not. But the sure remedy to criticism and ridicule was a simple one: keep quiet.
My great fear in school was that I would be asked to read out loud. And if I was, I prayed I would be given paragraphs without the letter s. The old tongue twister “Sally sat by the seashore…” was my agony. I would try to steer the conversation toward “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” I knew that diversion by heart.
Three times a week Mrs. Parkinson and I would meet in her special classroom full of plants and posters with illustrations of various consonant and vowel sounds. She would help me redirect my tongue when I spoke and swallowed. The point was to stop the practice of tongue thrusting.
The exercises went something like this: She would give me a saltine cracker to chew, with the instructions that I was to form a little ball in the center of my tongue. Once that feat was accomplished, I would open my mouth to show her.
Then, after much encouragement, she would place a tiny elastic band around the tip of my tongue (at least this is how I remember it) and show me with her own tongue where to place it on “the spot” (behind the ridge on the roof of my mouth).
I would position my tongue perfectly, just as she demonstrated, and then she would say, “Now swallow.”
I would go through a column of crackers each session, or so it seemed. That was the swallowing lesson. The lesson to get rid of my lisp was something different.
If I placed the tip of my tongue where I normally did when I spoke—behind my front tooth and “its neighbor” to the right—and said “Sally,” I created a leaky sound like “Thally.” But if I placed the tip of my tongue on the opposite side of my mouth, behind and between my left front tooth and the one next to it, I created a crisp, clean sound that was correct. “Sally.” No lisp.
What was required of me was practice. Mrs. Parkinson and I read poetry together, my voice overlaying hers. She taught me how to hear the sounds of words and find delight in the rhythm and musicality of certain combinations, like the Emily Dickinson poem that begins:
Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.
There were plenty of s words in the poem, but I didn’t mind, because I so loved what the poem was saying. I forgot myself and concentrated on what was being said instead of how I said it.
One of my favorite poems we shared was called “Questioning Faces” by Robert Frost:
The winter owl banked just in time to pass
And save herself from breaking window glass.
And her wings straining suddenly aspread
Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the window sill.
She knew I loved birds; had I told her I loved owls? It only solidified how much I admired my speech therapist, looked forward to our time together.
For homework I read these poems aloud with my mother. “E-nun-ci-ate,” I remember her saying slowly. The practice of speaking words clearly. Elocution. Suddenly I began to enjoy the art of speaking because it followed the art of listening. These poems were puzzles and secrets, each with its own hidden meaning. It mattered how they were spoken. My task was to honor the power of each word by delivering it as beautifully as I could.
In fourth grade I was not aware of alliteration or iambic pentameter or the symbolism of the owl as wisdom and the innocence of children in danger of colliding with fate. Nor could I have known how these themes of nature and culture would grow inside me and possess me later as a writer. I only knew the pleasure the poems were bringing to my mouth and ears. I could never explain to my friends how much I enjoyed my speech class, even if it meant missing recess. Poetry became play, a verbal athleticism more fun and challenging than playing four square or jumping hurdles on the soccer field.
Mrs. Parkinson believed in the beauty of the human voice and called my voice “an instrument.” She taught me to speak with the confidence and joy I had not known before. She helped me correct the source of my embarrassment by being conscious of sounds. She insisted on listening. I no longer feared being called on to read in class, because Mrs. Parkinson introduced me to the potential of my own voice supported by skill and substance over insecurity and doubt. I emerged as a lover of words.
I did not find my voice—my voice found me through the compassion of a teacher who understood how poetry transforms us through the elegance and lyricism of language. By sharing her own love of poetry, Mrs. Parkinson inspired me to speak beyond my fearful self.
I don’t believe our fears ever leave us completely. I still tremble each time I stand up to speak. I feel faint, nerves ricocheting between the confines of my own skin as memories of a childhood lisp awaken in every muscle of my body. And in those first few minutes before a group of people, my instincts shout, Bolt Now, there is still time to escape. But then I pause, look around the room, find whose eyes are present, and orient myself like a compass, remembering that words are much stronger than I am. I take a deep breath and sidestep my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet—within the chambers of a quivering heart.