When I started school at 5 years old, I almost immediately developed quite a bad stutter. Teachers would ask me questions and I wouldn’t be able to get the answers out; I would stutter and stammer, and tears of frustration would follow and flow. In time, the teachers learnt to wait for me or, worse, stopped asking me questions at all.
(This is not about running, you say. Give me time, I say, it will be relevant. I will get the words out eventually!)
No one knew quite why I had developed this problem. One theory was that the nurse giving me the mandatory school medical had held me down when I squirmed too much during the ear examination. I went to speech therapists, who were kind but ineffective.
Every new year and every new teacher would present a new challenge as they did not know my situation (why had no one briefed them?), and I would have to take each of them through the whole excruciating induction course to my stutter……..
New teacher: “What’s the Latin for lion, Till?”
Me: stuttering peters out into silence.
Teacher: “You were supposed to learn this for homework, Till.”
John Grenville, the class tough guy: “Scuse me, Sir, Till probably knows the answer, but he sometimes has trouble with his words.”
Teacher: mumbled apology
An only child, I was isolated even more by this difficulty, but I forced myself to challenge it by doing things like entering verse speaking competitions – I even won one or two. Sometimes, the words would flow out, and sometimes they were dammed.
I became School Captain, but Speech Day was a challenge too far. At the practice of my speech in front of the headmaster and staff, I stuttered and stumbled my way through the few lines given me to deliver. They asked me if I would like the Head Girl to make to speech instead. Significantly, I asked to phone my mother, thinking I would be letting my parents down terribly by dodging this responsibility and this honour.
Even more significantly, I was surprised when she immediately urged me not to do the speech. My parents so rarely let me off – or, rather, so rarely encouraged me to believe that I could let myself off.
I was sometimes sent to deliver messages, and I can remember struggling particularly badly one day to tell two of my parents’ friends about a change in some social arrangements. When they next talked on the phone, I heard the phrase, “Poor Stephen,” more than once.
By university, I could converse well enough; it was just introducing myself, saying my name (well, when someone asks your name, there’s no way round saying, “Steve Till,” is there?). That was the stumbling block, and social occasions were fraught with worry and embarrassment. In normal conversation, once the introductions were over, I was still prone to stuttering, but I could always find an alternative word if I felt that one later in the sentence would trip me up.
But there was something else going on here too.
The effect of my stutter was multifaceted: at the time, it felt like a curse, but I now see different, positive strands to the way that it influenced my life. Because I could not speak, I thought more. Because I could not express myself orally, I wrote: I wrote poetry voraciously from the age of about 11. And, crucially, because of my stutter, I developed the aforementioned verbal gymnastic skill in dodging difficult words.
Researchers have said that 10,000 hours of mindful practice is the requirement to reach expert level in any given skill. Musicians, sportspeople, writers, artists – all seem to fulfil that condition. Even the ultimate child prodigy, Mozart, who started writing symphonies practically in the womb, conforms to the “rule” that he needed 10,000 hours of focused practice before he began to produce his best work.
Now, I am not claiming to be a Mozart, or indeed an expert, but surely it can be no coincidence that my stutter forced me to practise verbal gymnastics for several hours a day, encouraged me to think deeply, and prompted me to express myself in writing, so that by my mid-teens, I had probably clocked up the requisite 10,000 hours of intense creative preparation………..right about the time when I started to produce award-winning poetry.
I left university and started work. Ironically, I gravitated towards roles involving public-speaking – sales, marketing, training roles. I could do these, because I could always find different words or alternative phrases.
But I hated the phone. So many times I had to hang up, when the other party asked my name. It was my dirty little secret, and I knew with absolute certainty that I was a fraud and if my seniors ever found out about my stutter that I would be fired. Of course, that’s not true; they would probably have been fine, but in the cut-throat world of US-led software sales in particular, it was dog eat dog, and it seemed to me that any weakness would be ruthlessly exposed and castigated.
I remember calling my manager from my car phone and not being able to say who it was. I had to hang up. The next time I saw him, I apologised about the terrible line which kept breaking up! He said, “No problem…….. for a moment I thought you had a terrible stammer.”
That was like a knife through me.
I was right – it was an awful, shameful secret, which no one must ever know about.
Of course, some of my friends knew. My wife-to-be knew. I remember saying to her, “What if I can’t get the words out, when we’re taking our marriage vows.”
“Don’t worry, I will wait forever for you to say those words.”
Years have gone by, and the outward signs of my stutter have all but disappeared, but it is still there, and so even today, in every conversation, I mentally dodge words or reframe sentences to make them deliverable. Only another stutterer would detect the hesitations, the reframing, the ummms and errrrs that ease my voice into difficult words.
But the stutter has had more effect on me than just enhancing my verbal expression. I think, for obvious reasons, it has made me face challenges – challenges like running round a track for 24 hours – and it has made me feel that if a stutterer can win a verse speaking competition, be the prompter in the school play, be asked to give after-dinner speeches, deliver training courses, run seminars and host networking events, then I can meet other challenges too.
And it has also made me cynical about the loudest mouths, the quick wins, the sound-bite generation and the X Factor wannabees, and made me correspondingly appreciative of the quiet, the strong silent types, if you like, the unsaid, the deep, the background, the underlying patterns, the truth beneath the surface of life – and approving of those for whom long term commitment and unshakeable loyalty are where the real meaning in life resides.
One example: as you know, I love running. I love watching running videos. And for some reason I have always loved watching running videos of athletes in training, far more than those of their races. Why is this? It had puzzled me for ages. Surely races are far more exciting and meaningful – they are the outcome, the proof of the pudding, what it’s all about.
But, no, I prefer the training videos…………..because I value most of all the commitment, the work that has gone on behind the scenes, private, hidden from view, that no one is shouting about, but is the reason behind the public race performance – which makes it the more truly meaningful activity.
This revelation, along with all of the others in this blog, and so many more, have come as a result of my work for the last nine months with Stephanie Walters of The Positive Element, whose wonderful skills and empathy have empowered me to see the truth about myself for the first time in 60 years.
For years, my stutter was my curse, my bete noir, my weakness, my dirty little secret. It made me feel bad about myself, ashamed – made me feel that I was flawed, incomplete, disabled, weird even – and that therefore I had to hide it at all costs – or, if found out, to apologise profusely for it. Only now do I know that it is my gift: stuttering has given me my creativity, my facility with words, my ability to think on my feet, my determination, my courage, my commitment, and even my value system.
But it has given me more even than that. It has finally come full circle and put me at peace with myself.
Realising the positivity of my stutter has been the key to my realising the positivity of my life.
I remember Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, being interviewed after one of his World Championship wins. He was asked if he would go on and try and win a record number of those titles. His reply was along the lines of, “I am really not as mentally strong as guys like Ray Reardon or Steve Davis; I can’t take the pressure year after year, so I will just try and win one or two more.”
Of course, that mercurial mental “weakness” or inconsistency, was also the gift that made him the greatest genius ever to hold a snooker cue, able to record the fastest 147 break, and to play incredible shots – shots that no one else could make or even attempt – when, crucially, he was in the mood.
What honesty, what humility, to admit what he saw as his weakness! And how great to be so at peace with it, to the extent of cheerfully describing it to millions of viewers!
Because my flaw, like Ronnie’s, is also my gift, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, as the old metaphor has it. And only now can I roll back all of the angst, the pain, the frustration, and the desperate secrecy associated with my stutter, and give it its full due. In many ways, and in terms of whatever I am as a human being, it is because of my stutter. It has been the making of me.
My curse has become my gift.
My quietude has given me so much to shout about.
My silence has given me my voice.
So…… for how many of us is this true, that what we or others perceive as our weakness is really the source of our strength?
That is the word that I want to get out.
Discovering the truth about the part that my stutter has played in my life has enabled me to move from ashamed to proud, from feeling bad about myself to feeling good, from feeling cursed to feeling blessed.
So…….. no more apologies. If my stutter has made me quiet, if it has made me hesitant, if it has put me on the margins of social events, then I am OK with that, because only when you are quiet can you think deeply, only when you are hesitant can you make the right decisions, and it is only those who are NOT the life and soul of the party who see what is really going on in life, the underlying patterns, the true meaning. (How much those extroverts miss!)
And that is me – quiet, hesitant, always in the kitchen at parties, yes……… and strong, thoughtful, creative, quick-witted, determined, courageous, committed too – and, you know what? For the first time in my life, I am OK with that.