It’s been a few days but I can’t stop thinking about Brayden Harrington. He’s the brave young man who spoke during the Democratic National Convention despite his stutter. He appeared because he was encouraged, and given the confidence to overcome his speech impediment during an encounter with Joe Biden. The former vice president revealed to young Brayden that he, too, stuttered, and knew, through his own experience, it’s possible to sublimate it.
Brayden has stayed with me because I spent most of my school years in speech clinics and with speech therapists attempting to rid me of my terrible lisp. Ironic, huh? A kid whose tongue couldn’t figure out how to articulate without spraying people with spit ends up in broadcasting…but it’s true.
I didn’t know I had a lisp until a visit to my father’s cousin Doris and her husband Lou when I was about 7 or 8. Lou was a cool guy who always had the latest electronic gadgets. He was the first person I knew that owned a TV with a remote control. He was also the guy to introduce me to what my voice sounded like to others, when he whipped out his shiny new tape recorder.
I was appalled, and embarrassed by what I heard–a toneless drone where every s sounded like a th. The family thought it was funny, tormenting me by saying, “Hey Eddie, what-th goin’ on? It’s a nith thunny day day out thide!” Real funny. No wonder I avoided tape recorders for years.
My grade school teachers quickly detected my problem and assigned me to weekly sessions in speech clinic. Was there really a way to rid myself of this embarrassment? Thanks goodness there was Mrs. Hohensee. Looked like a granny with wire rim glasses and braided gray hair piled on top her head, and an attitude that said, ‘kid, we’re gonna do this..together.” I attended speech clinic with Mrs. Hohensee for three or four years…every week. She’d hand me a little metal mirror so I could see what my tongue was doing. As we went through various exercises I saw my tongue less and less, but I wasn’t yet cured.
I was assigned speech clinic in junior high and high school and then I graduated believing I’d finally learned to properly articulate.
The odd thing was I loved to be in school plays and was not shy about auditioning for lead roles or even singing parts. True. I played the Cowardly Lion in 5th grade and sang all the songs…I had the nerve!
In high school, I had a part-time job as a stock boy in a department store, but when the “bargain broadcaster” quit, I forgot about my lisp and quickly volunteered to make the in-store sale announcements. There were no complaints until I was a wiseass and made the announcement, “Ladies….hop on this in-store sale on bras. If you don’t know your size, come up to the booth and I’ll measure you!” I was dis-invited to make the announcements for a week or so but the manager didn’t hold a grudge for long and some of the shoppers actually laughed…and bought bras…without taking advantage of the service I had offered.
One thing I had always known how to do was hide my New Yawk accent. I was brought in Queen and tawked like every New Yawkuh. During my freshman year at SUNY Oswego, in Central New York, I joined the campus radio station and wiped off my accent when I was on the air. But when I had to give a speech during my public speaking class, I got a little lazy and my prof…Kansas-bred Dora Lee Dauma, busted me and said I had to meet with the speech clinician until I got rid of my accent. Still a wiseass I shot back at her, “Ms. Dauma, there at 18 million people in New York State and 15 million of them (accounting for NYC and Long Island) speak like me…so who has the accent?” She wasn’t impressed. I’d get an incomplete in public speaking until any verbal vestiges of my home town were erased.
When I met with the speech clinician I put on a show for him. Speaking naturally in New Yawkese, then the same passage without my accent. He sighed, then signed my release and Dora Lee Dauma had to admit defeat. I went on to a successful broadcasting career in radio and at CNN as a correspondent and anchor and was never once told I had an accent or a lisp.
In fact, the geniuses at CNN once took me off the air for a short while not because of how I spoke, but because I simply looked young for my age. Fake News!
The fact is, a speech impediment is brutal. It can sap you of your confidence an self-worth, if you let it. Thank goodness for Mrs. Hohensee for her wisdom, encouragement and her little metal mirrors. I’m sure my future would have been much different without her. Just as I’m sure Brayden Harrington might not have had the courage to speak on the biggest public platform without the encouragement of his family..and Joe Biden.
It’s so important to speak with a strong voice, even if it’s technically flawed. As I’ve learned through my own experience, in the end it’s not how you say it, it’s what you say that matters the motht…er…most.