There’s an Upworthy clip going around this week, that shows a young highschool student who addresses his year at school. He has been bullied in younger years, and speaks with a significantly disruptive stammer.
watch a teenager bring his class to tears by just saying a few words
The clip shows a teacher trying the ‘King’s Speech’ manouvre on him. He puts on headphones and listens to music while he speaks, and his speech becomes significantly smoother. This is not hard to understand. Our brains are so easily deceived. We know this.
It is, of course, wonderful to see a young man at this pinnacle moment in his highschool journey being given a voice and listened to by his peers.
But I found myself in the strange position of watching this clip while another young man was finding his voice, not far from me. And the juxtaposition of these two students and speakers made for some interesting questions.
In the next room, my son was preparing a presentation for American History, assembling a slide show of powerful images from the Vietnam War, and recording a commentary of reflections on the impact these images had on the American population, and the civic and political discourse surrounding the war.
Every so often, as he was recording, his speech stumbled. It was late at night, and he was under time pressure. I could feel him rushing. Everyone makes errors of speech in these situations.
But I also know that this young man not so many years ago, assessed by the speech pathologist, rated an average 7 stammers of speech per 10 words. That was a lot of bumpy talking.
I remember the long, painful (and expensive) process of going to our appointments every week for a year and a half, and the every day routines and exercises we did. It was emotionally expensive, trying to motivate him to go, and when I failed in motivating, having to just be that big bad momma and make him go. I remember the attentiveness it required of me as his primary support person in the therapeutic endeavor, to give him feedback on every phrase he uttered from morning to night. ‘That was really smooth…Good job…Great smooth sentence there…really smooth talking, mate…that was a bump…”.
I had to try to keep a ratio of 5 praises of smooth speech for every time I identified a ‘bump’. But I also had to try to call every bump I heard. We played therapy game after game, we made recordings of his speech, we kept a log book.
Those of you who know me personally know that I have a great capacity for intensity, which this required, but my appetite for record keeping and administrative detail is feeble, as are my skills. Nevertheless this is what we did, kept the log, did the routines, charted the stats, together. I think this process of re-learning, and transformation has shaped my understanding of human learning and change more deeply than any other pedagogy or educational philosophy. He barely remembers much of this process now, six years later, but his speech remains steady, confident, smooth.
When I saw ‘The Kings Speech’ I loved the scene with the phonograph. I loved the little colonial oasis of the Australian family in Harley Street, which stirred in me that slightly proud but mostly awkward awareness of how unmaskable my Australianism is when I am in the UK, and the complete betrayal my own speech is in that context.
But I also simply cried through the entire film, my heart most strongly connecting with Bertie’s wife (well, who doesn’t secretly wish she was Helena Bonham Carter?) and Lionel, the therapist.
It was the tensions of those who wished the King better, who tentatively, boldly and furtively acted to bring him resources for healing who were the chalk of my bone and salt of my tear. He resented, resisted and rejected them. I know how that feels in such a process.
The story of The King’s Speech’ and the story of my son who, after a year and half of intense work was charting 0 stammers for every 10 words consistently, and now records his own voice expecting a ‘journalist-perfect’ fluidity of speech, these are stories not of instant quick fixes but of committed, determined, painful, relationally demanding work, both for the individual and for their alongsiders.
Going back to the student in the Youtube clip. I wonder if he will one day have such a story. Not just this momentary window of being listened to, and wondered at, but which he cannot be fully present in, as he relies on the distraction and deception of the music in his headphones to enable it to happen.
What I wish him, is alongsiders. Not just those who will stop throwing rocks, but those who will toil with him to clear the rocks over which he stumbled. The role of the class in this student’s life, speech and capacity to find hisvoice is important. He certainly needed them not to bully him. But he also needed more than just to be left alone. He needed them, just as we all do, to be active participants in his healing and empowerment. To make a hospitable space for him.
And, to be fair and honest, others in this cohort, needed this too. The bullies needed active accountability for their speech-malfunction. The malfunction that caused hate and derision, mockery and put-downs to impede their communication of truth.
I wonder what roles we understand ourselves to have in each other’s lives? I am a very shy person. I naturally do not want to comment on anyone’s speech. I would like to sit at the piano all day and make sounds, preferably that no one will listen to. I love words, and I would like to write poetry, but preferably that no one will ever hear. I like the people-less quiet, where I can sort out the many voices in my mind.
But I live in a world of people who struggle to find a smooth path for their voice – for their real voice.
As a mother you do lots of things that are out of your comfort zone. For my son, it was an easy decision to commit to being with him in this. But I am not a mother to everyone. I need a role model for rock clearing and path smoothing for the voices of others.
Of all the Biblical characters who have been my closest friends since childhood, John the Baptist is my favourite. Wild, uncouth, weird, lonely, misunderstood, yet intriguing, passionate, truth-telling, bible-busting, counter-cultural, and he jumps at the presence of Jesus as a foetus! He’s a prophet I can take as a mentor. Sure he’s probably autistic, but that makes him all the more loveable in my book.
And he is the one who repeats the call of Isaiah as the kingdom of God is on the verge of who knows?
“Make the crooked straight and the rough smooth”. (Luke Chapter 3)
And then he goes on to outline the practical stone-shifts his society needed to clear the path for justice and salvation. Soldiers, businessmen, the poor, the rich, all called to clear for each other.
Refraining from being throwers of rocks is not enough.
Let’s be clearers of rocks.
The process of making space, a smooth way, a hospitable territory – whether it be in actual space, or in thought space, or in our speech, it’s a challenge we can respond to as we alongside one another. We can clear the road of bumps for one another as we travel, we can make space for each other as we speak. I wonder also, how we can do this in community, collectively. What would a church, for example, look like that made this rock clearing and road smoothing it’s primary task? After all, John reminds us of the claim that ‘All flesh will see the salvation of God.’ Does that alter our plans at all?