Thursday, December 14, 2017
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Young Blood

Rite of passage

It was a mind-numbing chore on a Sunday morning: On my father’s instruction, I was cleaning up our cluttered PC hard drive. Stargirl Review? Delete. Easter Reflection? Delete. Teacher Leni Recording? I hesitated before double-clicking.

“Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-why did John’s rabbit die?”

The sound of my five-year-old voice brought a flood of memories. My grandfather stuttered. My father stuttered. So it was not surprising that I would also stutter. I don’t remember when it all started, probably when I was learning to talk. My parents promptly sent me to speech therapy and assured me that just like my grandfather and father, I would eventually overcome it. Their words provided scant comfort to a boy who had to endure the teasing and ridicule of classmates.

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I dreaded being called to recite in class. I actually knew the answers most of the time. Things were clear in my mind, yet when it came time to speak, the answers rushed from my brain only to get trapped at the tip of my tongue in a tangled web of painfully repeated syllables and false starts. Once, I sang my answer. It kept me from stuttering, but the whole class laughed. I felt humiliated.

Stuttering was like an invisible muzzle. Inside, I was bursting with questions and ideas but each time I opened my mouth to speak, I would catch myself and stop. Amid this misery, I made one good friend. Every recess and lunch, we went to the library where we were expected to be quiet and to engage in silent activities like reading books and drawing cartoons.

At home, I spent endless hours practicing behind closed doors: techniques like speaking more slowly, relaxing and taking a deep breath, and reading books aloud to my pet beagle who listened with neither prejudice nor pity. Nothing seemed to work, and the frustration threatened to overwhelm me. I just wanted to stay home where no one paid attention to my stuttering. I was gripped by fear and anxiety that I would never stop stuttering, that people would not see me beyond my stuttering, that stuttering would define who I am.

But by Grade 6 things had somehow improved, such that I stuttered only when I was nervous, tired, or excited. I can’t say for sure if it was the countless hours of speech therapy that worked, or if I simply outgrew it. Most likely it was a combination of both. I felt so relieved and thankful.

I immersed myself in various interests. I was lucky to qualify for badminton varsity in Grade 7, and became a keyboardist in a band and a youth club choirmaster in the higher years. I am now fluent in four languages. I am happy and enthusiastic, and I don’t take things for granted.

I am also resilient. In Grade 8, I dislocated my right kneecap in a tournament. It was a stressful episode in my life. My doctor said dislocating it again would require surgery, and because our apartment was at the top of a four-story walk-up, I had to move to my grandmother’s house to recuperate. Fortunately, through therapy and training, I was able to bounce back and qualify for varsity the next year.

Speech therapy and the attendant frustration honed my perseverance. When I took literature in Grade 11, I soon realized I was in over my head. Faced with the difficulty of the assigned readings, I labored long nights poring over passages. Far from being a gifted writer but through sheer effort and determination, I was able to craft strong essays throughout the semester and earned the only perfect 7 in class.

Socially, my circle of friends ballooned from one to many as I found it easy to get along with different personality types. I make the effort to be accepting since I can understand that everyone has his own backstory—an inborn disability, a difficult family situation, or financial hardship, among others.

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Stuttering has been the biggest challenge of my life so far. It may have caused me anxiety and misery but rather than bemoan it, I choose to see it as a rite of passage that has made me truly more alive.

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Nicholas Griffin Yu, 17, is Grade 12 at Xavier School.

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TAGS: Inquirer Opinion, Nicholas Griffin Yu, rite of passage, stuttering, Young Blood
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