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If I never came across the phrase “bullied over a childhood speech impediment” in another news story it would be a wonderful thing.
There it is, in the profiles of the Uvalde, Texas school shooter. The young man was a classic misfit who had, among his many other issues, “a stutter and a strong lisp.” Friends and family say the kids had always picked on him about the way he talked; it got so bad he didn’t want to go to school.
They’re not excusing his murderous rampage, and I’m certainly not either. I am saying it’s a shame kids, and sometimes adults too, are so mean about speech difficulties. And it’s so sad when students don’t get help to deal with those difficulties.
As you might have guessed, I have a personal interest in this teasing about talking.
It makes me grateful—again—for Mrs. Clark. She was my grade school speech teacher when I was growing up in Glenview. I don’t mean a public speaking teacher … Mrs. Clark was the speech therapist who helped me overcome a lisp and lateralizing.
You may not know the word lateralizing – but you know the sound. It’s when somebody says SH’s or CH’s or J’s and the sound is all mushy and wet. It’s because they’re pushing air out the side of their mouth instead of sending the air stream out the front where it belongs.
Week after week, I left my classroom and went to my session with Mrs. Clark for endless talk of Sammy the Snake and “She sells seashells at the seashore.” And repeating my last name … with the dreaded “J” sound and an S at the end.
And week after week, I remained completely confused. In my own head, my version of “She sells seashells …” sounded just like the other kids’ version.
And then one day, maybe 4th Grade-ish, Mrs. Clark set up one of those you-have-to-be-a-certain-age-to-remember-them Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorders. For the first time, I heard my voice from outside my head … the same way I heard everybody else’s.
And suddenly it was clear as a bell that my “She sells seashells …” wasn’t quite right.
It wasn’t too long after that when I learned to push the air out the front of my mouth instead of the sides. And I finally got my tongue out of the way—just like that, Thammy the Thnake became Sammy the Snake.
I didn’t need speech classes anymore! And to tell you the truth, I kind of missed Mrs. Clark.
Fast forward by 16, maybe 17 years. There I was, four years into my career. My broadcasting career. (Talk about something nobody would have predicted!)
I was co-anchoring middays at WERE in Cleveland, when they had me do a commercial for – get this – the She Shop. The tagline on the spot, the line I repeated at least a dozen times in a minute: “She shops at She.”
It made me think of Sammy, the seashells, and Mrs. Clark.
Next time I came home to visit the folks in Glenview, I picked up the phone and called the school district office. I assumed Mrs. Clark was retired if she was still even alive – after all she was old when I was in grade school. (Or she seemed old, anyway. Looking back, she was probably all of 40. Maybe not even.)
But I hoped maybe they could pass on a message to her or something. I just wanted her to know how thankful I was that I could actually say “she shops at She,” that I had this career in radio, that I made a living with my voice in a way that I’d never have been able to do if she hadn’t worked her magic all those years ago.
I couldn’t have been any more surprised when the woman on the phone said, “She’s at Lyon School today – I’ll connect you.” And the next thing I knew, I was talking … quite clearly and confidently … to Mrs. Clark.
I was so happy to have a chance to say thank you. And of course, it made her happy too.
There’s a postscript to the story. It wasn’t too long after that phone call that I landed a fabulous new job. I left Cleveland and its She Shop behind and moved on to my new gig doing drive-time news in Chicago.
You know who became a regular listener of the WLS morning show – Mrs. Clark.
She even wrote me a “fan letter.” And yes, I still have it in my box of radio relics.
Maybe you have a story about a teacher who made a huge difference in your life? Or, for that matter, about overcoming a speech problem—they’re not that unusual for little kids. As always, I’m eager to hear from you.