This week I am excited to share the works of an up and coming young writer full of promise. I first met Rebecca when she was a freshman at a local high school where I was teaching a day workshop. I had brought two suitcases full of costume items and accessories, and we were writing stories made up of characters that the items invoked. Rebecca impressed me even then by bringing vulnerability to a villain in a faux fur leopard jacket. I don't remember this, but apparently at the end of the workshop, I invited any of the students to study with me when they were seniors through a ongoing mentoring program in which I had participated several times.
By the time Rebecca contacted me, my life was full. My first novel had just been released and I was working on a second while on an eleven city tour with my three kids in tow, who I had also decided to home school. I didn't know that adding a student to my plate was going to work out. Rebecca sent me a piece she had recently had published. She is eighteen and this was her first time sending anything out. I read it (you can too, here, it is called "Apparition" and is under a pen name Gyllian Davis). It is beyond lovely. I am so happy she reached out to me and we are getting to work together; she is wise beyond her years and has discipline and writing habits that many established, older authors should take notes off.
Enjoy her essay, below, on the topic of stuttering...
Since the release of the Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech,” stuttering has been getting a lot of attention. The movie depicts the true-life struggle of King George VI, a stutterer who was under enormous pressure to give speeches on the newly-invented radio. Stuttering is a speech disorder that is characterized by repetitions, prolongations, or stoppages in speech. It affects 68 million people worldwide. Despite what many people falsely assume, stuttering is not a mark of low intelligence, emotional trauma, or poor self esteem. Stuttering is purely genetic. Through the media and in private homes, Americans are bringing up the often ignored or misunderstood topic of stuttering.
The idea of stuttering being widely discussed and acknowledged is strange to me. For years, I regarded stuttering as my own personal secret. I developed a stutter in first grade, and it didn’t go away as I grew older. However, with the help of speech therapy and my own determination, I have gradually developed a system of breathing, word substitution, pauses, and pacing that allows me to conceal my stutter almost entirely. Today, unless you know me very well, it is difficult to tell that I have a stutter.
Still, stuttering is something that I struggle with every day. Although I don’t sound like it, every word that I say is carefully calculated, and situations like reading aloud, talking to strangers, talking on the phone and public speaking can peel away the mask of fluency. However, I am able to function better than a great number of people who stutter, and I consider myself lucky. I have also recently come to understand the positive impacts that stuttering has had on my life, and the major role that it played in my development as a writer.
My first memory of stuttering takes place in the backseat of my family’s little green Saturn. My dad is driving my brother and I to school. David is not old enough to sit in the front seat yet, and I have just graduated from the booster seat.
That morning, I had urgent news to tell my family. I no longer remember what this news was, but I was speaking quickly and gesticulating, my eyes glittering with excitement, when—BAM! I hit a wall. I open my mouth, but no sound comes out. Maybe I’m trying to say a word like “book.”
“B-b-b-b—” comes out. “B-b-b—”
I take a deep breath and try again. My mouth is open, my throat is tensed. Nothing. I feel heavy with the weight of the word that I cannot say, the message that I cannot reveal.
My dad and brother wait politely. I clench my little fists, feeling the urgency build. A terrible silence follows, and it seems to stretch on forever. We all wait, and traffic whizzes by beside us. Finally I give up. I lean back, and let out a sigh. “Sometimes I stutter too much,” I say simply.
While times like those were frustrating, I didn’t feel embarrassed by my speech impediment yet. I naively believed that stuttering was neither good nor bad, but just something that happened—and happened to me a lot. My whole attitude changed the year I entered second grade. Along with learning division, geography, and music, I learned to be ashamed of my stutter.
On a day in early fall, a show and tell presentation was scheduled, and we had a substitute teacher. She was very young, with sheets of brown hair and an nervous way of sucking on the inside of her cheek. The students could smell her fear from a mile away, and things inevitably turned rowdy.
After the substitute finally gained control, show and tell proceeded. When it was my turn, I marched to the front of the classroom, proudly bearing some treasured object I have long forgotten, fearless in the face of public speaking for the very last time. I remember nothing of the presentation. Not what I said, how long I spoke, how bad I stuttered.
What I do recall is that at some point, a boy I’ll call Jesse McKinley started laughing. All the girls liked him, although my friends and I pretended not to. Jesse listened to the Backstreet Boys and made farting noises in class, and was the hero of his troublemaker friends. Before long two other boys joined in, and they began loudly imitating me.
“G-g-g-great job,” they said. “Great job, R-R-R-Rebecca.”
Without a word, I walked back to my desk and sat down, presentation unfinished. I wanted to cry, but I was determined not give them that satisfaction. I sat up poker straight and stared haughtily down my nose at the chalkboard. By now the rest of the class had joined in, laughing and imitating my stutter. The substitute, flapping her hands and working herself into a frenzy, finally managed to quiet down the room after the worst five minutes of my life thus far.
She made the boys stand at the front of the room and apologize to me. They smirked and declared their apologies in dramatic, pseudo-sincere voices, which fooled the substitute but no one else. I looked down at my desk. If I was humiliated before, now I wanted to die. As Jesse passed by my desk on his way back to his seat, he whispered, “I’m s-s-s-sorry.”
It would have been a lot easier for that little girl if she had known that her tormentors would eventually move on to their next victims, that speech therapy and time would make her stutter manageable, and that she was even voted class valedictorian in eighth grade.
I managed to make it through my childhood without lasting damage, and am now on the brink of high school graduation. My stutter is no longer a secret—most of my classmates know, and I don’t mind them knowing. Because I sound so fluent they often forget that I stutter, and wonderfully, sometimes I forget too.
But there is another thing about my stutter that I have only recently begun to realize. Although I have always loved to read and write, having a stutter intensifies my love for words. I began to write stories at a young age, and what I find so magical about writing is that you can say whatever you want, however you want to say it. This is an incredible freedom that so many people take for granted. Because I am denied it in speech, I am able to appreciate it in writing. When I write, I am able to say what I actually mean, without avoiding ‘M’s’ or ‘S’s,’ or pausing, or breathing deeply, or cutting myself short.
After years of practice and dozens of half-finished stories, I was lucky enough to be published in a literary journal for the first time this fall. I am also enrolled in a class called Senior Project, and I have dedicated my project to writing short stories and sending them out for publication. At the end of the year, I will be asked to give a speech about this experience.
The thought of speaking in public still makes my hands clammy and churns my stomach; but I can finally recognize that if I did not have a stutter, I might not be writing stories at all. And to me, that is a price worth paying.
Rebecca Gyllenhaal is a senior in high school at the Academy of the New Church and plans to study Creative Writing in college. She was thrilled when her short story “Apparition” was published in the literary magazine Eclectic Flash and nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize this summer. She is eager to continue her forays into the publishing world.