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The story of language, 4: Stand Off

The story of language, 4: Stand Off

by Wolf Pascoe on December 17, 2010

Part 4 in a 5 part series.


Read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 5.



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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

David December 24, 2010 at 11:08 pm

I can’t wait to hear each chapter of this story. It must have been so frustrating to you and Nora while it was occurring. One wants to do one’s best for their child, but what is that? It’s not so clear. I love your sense that something inside of Nick knows what he needs. Though not always true, it’s a good fall back and I count on it with my daughter. Who says parents know it all? I think taking the child’s own instincts into the equation builds a sense of his own self that can serve him down the line where there are no parents around. And it acknowledges there’s something mysterious to this process, this journey that can’t always be seen and quantified. And isn’t that fun?

Stephen Fry’s video was wonderful. Thanks for that.


Wolf Pascoe December 24, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Yeah, fun. In a falling-out-of-an-airplane sort of way.


Vicki January 12, 2011 at 5:08 am

I appreciate your courage. You neither duck your responsibilities nor shut off your sensitivity. It is difficult to thoughtfully make decisions that will affect your child’s future and stay in touch with what is happening with the child in the present. This means you are willing to not only hear what your child is telling you but also what he is showing you. What an opportunity for a parent to learn to trust both your child and yourself. I think that most of us learned not to trust ourselves from parents who wouldn’t even consider trusting anyone but authority figures who they then tried to imitate. Guess you are breaking the mold generationaly.


Wolf Pascoe January 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Yup. Just like falling out of an airplane.


halle January 29, 2011 at 12:10 am

psychotherapy for a 4 year old before he can come back…to speech therapy?? talk about having issues. wow.


Wolf Pascoe January 29, 2011 at 12:24 am


Yeah. That was kind of our response. Maybe they needed the therapy? But we didn’t say that. We just thanked them and left and counted ourselves lucky to be done there.


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