Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Childhood Speech Impediment Motivated Me to Write

I love how writers create histories for their characters to understand why those characters do what they do. What inspires a character to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a shoe salesman? What dramatic event in his or her past molds them into what they ultimately become? 

What about authors? What happened in their past that motivated them to pick up a crayon, or pencil, or tap a keyboard to invent those first stories? 

I was pondering this about myself the other day. As a small child, I was more of an artist than a storyteller, but not for lack of trying. Unfortunately, something held me back. I couldn't read aloud because I had a speech impediment and talking didn't come easily to me. In 1963, the first graders at my school were taught to read in groups by reading out loud, and since that wasn't something I could do, I was placed in the lowest reading group. No one knew what to do with me. I loved stories, and loved having them read to me, but my teachers were clueless how to teach me to read to myself. 

If you and I had a conversation today, I doubt you'd guess I ever had a speech problem. I was born tongue-tied, which is a medical condition called ankyloglossia. It's hereditary. I'm adopted so I don't know who I inherited it from, but both my son and my grandson got it from me. 

So what does this condition look like? I still have it, even though I don't talk funny anymore. At least I don't think I do. There's a thin membrane like a web attaching the tip of my tongue to the floor of my mouth, directly behind my front teeth. When I was little, my tongue often got in the way when I talked and I had the most trouble with "ch" and "sh" sounds, though "t", "n" and "d" were difficult to say as well. I used to bite my tongue a lot. 

As for my teachers who were at a loss what to do for me, they went to the trouble of finding someone who could help. A speech therapist worked with me three days a week, over the course of several months, until I learned how to speak properly. 

Once I discovered my new ability to communicate and actually be understood, I was unstoppable. My teachers were finally teaching me to read and I read everything I could get my hands on. I read all the time, and while the other kids were outside playing at recess, I delighted in writing down all the stories that had been stacking up inside my head. It was as if a whole new world had opened up for me and I became insatiable for its literary riches. 

My mother considered having my tongue clipped--a procedure called a frenotomy--but she couldn't stand the thought of me having unnecessary surgery. So my tongue is still tied. And it's fine. Yes, there's restrictive movement, not that I have anything to compare it to. I mean, it's been this way my entire life. I can talk just fine, I can eat just fine, and as for kissing? Well, I've never had any complaints. French kissing with a tongue that's tied can be a whole new experience for anyone who's never tried it. I'm content with my peculiarity. My dentist, however, has an entirely different viewpoint. I make his job more difficult (cue the violins). 

I think my childhood frustration over my lack of reading skills gave me a stronger appreciation for what it takes to read and write. It was tough watching the other kids do something I couldn't do, but I never lost my determination. I'm grateful for my first grade teachers, who never lost their determination either. Win win. 

If you're a writer, what happened in your past that inspired you to start writing? How about reading? What's the first story you remember reading as a child? 


Vella Munn said...

Boy Karen, your experience took me back to my own childhood. My earliest years were pretty unstable and included a winter spent living in a tent. I changed schools, first grade, four times in six months. Then my mother was hospitalized and my sister and I went to live with Nana, a retired teacher. She had ten grandchildren and gave each of us books for our birthdays and Christmas. She handpicked my teacher in part because she knew this woman wouldn't force me to try to write with my right hand. I'm lefthanded like Nana but she was born with a deformity on her right so was a southpaw by defect. The first word I remember spelling was 'help' and when Nana took my sister and me to the library, I entered heaven.

Karen Duvall said...

Wow, Vella, thanks so much for sharing. It's amazing how our childhoods shape our adult lives. Do you remember why you spelled help? That would be an interesting story. And yeah, libraries. I remember when my mom would have to go to the bank in downtown L.A. and the L.A. library was closeby, so we always went there, too. Such an amazing place! I'll never forget it.

Meggan McQuaid said...

My first memory of writing is coloring in a coloring book at age three. Next I remember counting to 1000 on paper, filling in little squares with sequential numbers, at age five (I had a great kg teacher). I don't remember writing until age six. I wrote a poem. I think it might have been about an elephant.

Karen Duvall said...

Meggan, you have a great memory. I remember at the age of 3 I'd tell my mom stories and she'd write them down for me, then I'd draw the pictures. :) How great that you wrote a poem at the tender age of 6. Very cute!

Cheryel Hutton said...

I have a paralyzed vocal cord, which makes my voice quiet and high pitched. Trust me, people don't listen to me a lot of times. That, plus being born with a heart defect and overprotective parents, meant I spent a lot of time alone--with my imaginary world (not just one friend for me, LOL). I read a lot and started writing at 6 or 7. Ah, my writer motivation--being "heard".

It amazes me how many writers had a physical problem in childhood. Very interesting.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Cheryel. Communication is such a basic human need and being heard is such a common desire in us all. You're right, it is interesting that many writers overcame a childhood physical problem and I imagine their writing helped them through it.

Alison Naomi Holt said...

I was outdoors a lot as a child, and I tended to be a loner. Similar to many other writers I've spoken with, I would fill my time with elaborate stories where I was a knight in shining armor riding to rescue a damsel in distress on my shining destrier! But what I wanted to say about your experience is Hoorah For The Teachers! Teachers get blamed for so much in our educational system today, but rarely do they get the kudos for going that extra mile as your did. Coming from a family with many teachers in our ranks, I hope you were able to reach back in time and thank those who helped you. As my mother can attest to, even after 30 years, thanks from a former student brightens her whole day.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Karen.

I also had a speech impediment as a child--but I had a very different experience from you. I went to a "free school"--no official classrooms, no desks, no official assignments, etc. The teachers just seemed to be people who really loved kids.

I was 8 yrs old before people outside my family could understand my speech. At school, there was an older girl named Hope who was good at understanding me. The teachers appointed her my interpreter--if I couldn't make myself understood, I would go find Hope and she would translate for me.

It all worked out fine. I've never thought it had any effect on me. 15 yrs later, a singing teacher told me that she thought I suffered from auditory dyslexia; that may have been at the root of my problems. I never had speech therapy and developed normal speech around age 10 or so.

Karen Duvall said...

Alison, that's so true about teachers. They tend to have big hearts, or at least the ones in my day did. They were totally devoted to the children they taught. I know my mom kept in touch with a couple of my grade school teachers over the years because they became good friends. I don't know where they are now.

Karen Duvall said...

Wow, Anon, that must have been hard. But I'm impressed that you were able to pull out of it all by yourself. Now THAT's what I call determination.