Nick began stammering and stuttering just as his speech started taking off. He’d been going to therapy twice a week for several months, and had progressed from a handful of words to a large vocabulary and complete sentences.
Sometimes he’d talk fluidly without a problem. At other times, for no apparent reason, he’d get stuck on a word. His face would contort and his eyes twitch as he tried to get past it.
He was aware of the problem. “I can’t say it,” he told us after multiple tries at getting a word out.
We had a meeting with Nick’s speech teacher and the head of the clinic.
“It’s temporary,” his teacher said. “Ignore it. His brain is running ahead of his speech muscles.”
“Could the therapy itself be causing it? We’ve been going at it pretty hard.”
“It has nothing to do with the therapy,” the head teacher said. “Maybe he’s under stress at his school?”
His stress at Fern Hill seemed no more than usual. Despite his speech gains, Nick still hung back and watched in the school yard. At age four, he had yet to make his first real friend.
As the speech teachers predicted, the stuttering went away a few weeks after it appeared. Then it came back. Then it went away again. Then it came back. The episodes seemed a way of life.
We continued bringing Nick to the speech center for a year and a half, until he reached an impasse. He still had trouble with some sounds, in particular L, R, and Th. Most people could understand Nick if he talked slowly, but even Nora and I had trouble if he got excited and spoke fast.
“We’ve made some great gains, but it’s getting harder now,” his speech teacher said. “He seems resistant to working at it.”
The contrast between the speech center and Fern Hill now seemed very stark. Had we made a mistake sending Nick to a school like Fern Hill, where nothing was forced on him, where he made his choices and proceeded at his own pace? Was there some window for learning to apply oneself, and had it now closed for Nick?
We decided to take a month off from the speech center. After we got back, Nick was still resistant, to the point of refusing to do exercises with his teacher. He would delay as long as he could before getting into the car for his appointments.
One day after I parked in front of the speech office, Nick refused to get out of the car.
“C’mon. We’ll be late.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Is there a reason?”
“I don’t want to.”
We sat in silence a long time. I felt completely stymied. Something wasn’t right, and clearly, the issue was important to Nick. I’m sure Nick’s speech therapists would have wanted me to force him to press on. But everything Nora and I had learned at Fern Hill urged us to trust that Nick knew best what he needed.
“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to go in.”
I paid for the appointment Nick had refused to go to, and told the center we were stopping. Nora and I met with the therapists one final time.
“Maybe his Ls and Rs and Ths will get better by themselves,” Nora said.
They said it was unlikely. They were open to having Nick come back at a later time if he needed to, but as a condition, he had to undergo psychotherapy.
“His problems with learning are only going to get worse,” the head teacher told us.
Nora and I thanked the teachers for everything they’d done for Nick, and said goodbye.
During the struggle to get Nick to resume speech therapy, he had gone through a particularly bad bout of stuttering. The day after I told Nick he wouldn’t have to go to any more talking lessons, the stuttering stopped.
It never returned.
. . .
The series concludes next time . . .
You might also enjoy:
‘The King’s Speech’: A Stutterer’s Reflection (from The Good Men Project)
Stephen Fry’s six-minute, kinetic riff on language:
Any thoughts on language? I’d love you to add your comment below. I (nearly) always write a response here.