What’s that you say? You missed me? Of course you didn’t. But despite your best efforts I have access to a solid internet connection, a computer machine, and a keyboard so anyway, I’m just going to get started.
You’ve been there. You’re on the train or at a party or talking to a friend when suddenly someone uses an expression or asks a question that sets off the alarms in your head: “INSENSITIVE!” Maybe it’s an off-color joke or the use of a word that hasn’t been used since the ’60s, or a comment about someone’s psychiatric meltdown from the news that day. Like I said, you’ve been there (and if you haven’t it’s probably because you were the one doing it- oops). These all fit into the larger conversation of discrimination and stereotypes, and while sometimes it’s obvious when a line has been crossed, I have a harder time knowing where stuttering fits in to the conversation.
Yesterday we had an emergency snow day and some friends came over to watch TV and eat the food I had made for the ill-fated office pot luck that was scheduled for later that afternoon. I wasn’t even paying attention to the conversation next to me, when out of the corner of my ears, I heard my roommate’s friend laugh, “God, I’m so out of it from finals, next I’m going to start stuttering like an idiot.” Ten years ago, I would have felt my face turn red and averted my eyes. The sharp reminder that this thing that I struggled with my whole life was nothing more than a funny aside to everyone else would combine with the millimeters-under-the-surface shame and knee jerk impulse to apologize for being different and I’d withdraw from the conversation out of fear that i would be discovered as one of those “idiots”. Better to be the quiet one than the one who can’t even say the name of her own hometown.
From the outside I look like the picture of privilege. I AM the picture of privilege, in nearly every sense of the word. Upper middle class and WASPy, educated beyond my intelligence, I am in current posession of not only hearing and eyesight, but of all four limbs and the ability to manipulate them as I see fit. But here was this little joke, from a guy who not an hour earlier had been telling us about his own experience with discrimination and I felt like I was right back in school again, begging the substitute teacher not to make me read out loud. I don’t know what it’s like to be the victim of systematic oppression. But I do know what it’s like to feel different, and less than.
I know where this conversation goes next. We’re too politically correct. Everyone is too sensitive. Just laugh it off. And most of the time I can laugh off my stuttering. I wouldn’t have made it 28 years as at least a partially well-adjusted human being otherwise. But when I hear these reminders that it’s not just in my head, that it’s weird and different and funny to speak the way I do, I immediately feel like who I am has been reduced to a Porky Pig cartoon. I don’t want to ban people from making hurtful comments, I want it not even occur to them to make one. I think what this means is that i need to step up to the plate and turn these moments into a Very Special Episode where everyone learns a lesson about kindness and understanding. I need to, but I didn’t.
“Hey there” I replied sharply, inserting myself into the conversation. My friend was already on top of it: “No stuttering jokes around here.”
“It’s ok.” I felt my face getting red as I lost my courage.
“No, it’s not. Don’t do that around me. Seriously.” She’s always got my back.
We all went back to watching TV and playing on our phones and laptops, a little less comfortable than we had been a few minutes earlier. I know I missed out on an opportunity. I could have used that moment to educate this person about stuttering, or how nearly everyone is fighting against something in their life even if it’s not obvious when you first see them. But for now I’m going to be rolling this around in my head- is it my job to educate the masses, to be the wet blanket who reminds everyone that some things they do give people the Sads? I think that the answer is probably yes. It is my job, if I want anything to change. Of course to do that, I’ll have to get used to delivering long and informative speeches and, well, that just seems a little scary right now. What do you think? Email me at IHateNJSBlog@gmail.com or leave a comment!