The professor smiles at my class. “Alright let’s introduce ourselves. Say your name, hometown, year, major, and one interesting thing about you.” After a brief awkward pause, the girl to the professor’s left begins.
“Hi, I’m Alex, I am from Nowheresville, USA, and I’m a junior majoring in women’s studies and French history. An interesting thing? Umm my daddy paid for everything I own!”
As students begin the awkward initial stage of friendships built through shared class time and torturous late night projects, more than one of which will probably end in a drunken hookup and hurt feelings, I count the six students who will speak before me. Everyone else speaks with nonchalance and ease, breezing through internships and summer jobs.
I close my eyes and inhale deeply. My stomach corkscrews and my mouth dries up. Five more.
My palms sweat and I distractedly rub them against my jeans. This only serves to cause them to sweat further. Four more.
My heart hammers in my chest and I swear the girls on either side of me can hear it. I try to breathe evenly. Three more.
I fidget in my chair, leaning forward to rest my elbows on the desk for a moment before slouching back casually, my left ankle propped on my right knee. Either way, I feel an energy bubbling up, looking for an escape. Two more.
I try to listen to the student who is speaking, a frat boy with his Greek letters adorning his chest, but I only feel my throat tighten. I know no sound will come out. All my clothes feel too tight and awkwardly twisted around my body. One more.
I take a deep breath and, miracle of miracles, it works! My body instantly loosens up as I prepare to talk, with confidence and effortless charm. I will introduce the class to my wit and humor, endearing myself to student and professor alike. There is a pause and I attempt to begin.
The peppy girl to my right, whom I thought to be finished, unexpectedly continues, launching in to the story of her summer in Costa Rica saving orphaned children from hurricane-wrecked villages. This leaves just enough time for my throat to close, my tongue to grow thick and awkward and my mouth to dry up again.
“I don’t understand why everyone says poverty is so bad! So that was, like, my summer!” She if finished. The room falls silent and all eyes turn to me. I smile and open my mouth. “I’m B… B…” My face burns to match my red hair, and I swallow. I open my mouth to try again.
I stutter. It comes and goes. I have gone weeks without a bad one and then some days I can barely speak at all. I had one day in my sophomore year when I had 3 interviews for an article I was writing and I couldn’t speak. Some of my closest friends are shocked when I mention it because they’ve never heard me stutter. But it happens and usually at the most inopportune time: class introductions, in the middle of my witty anecdote with an audience hanging on my every word, or perhaps worst: as I am chatting with that girl at the party, the one I’ve been working up the courage to talk to all night, with the clear blue eyes.
I know I started stuttering sometime before my Bar Mitzvah at 13 because I remember struggling with the consonant Yud, which makes a hard “y” sound. My stutter comes in the form of what is known in speech pathology as a block, where I get stuck on a syllable, usually in the beginning of the word and no sound comes out. It makes for an awkward introduction when I sit there, throat and jaw muscles strained to the limit but producing no sound. I don’t appear to know my own first name.
Three-year-olds can say their own name. At times, I can’t.
Imagine that. My name, one of the first things that defined me in all my minutes-old glory, and I can’t say it. I can’t even take possession of my own name. Introductions for job interviews, first dates, family gatherings, are poisoned by an inability to say two syllables.
Sometimes it starts out with one word, but when I try to rephrase the sentence, suddenly my jaw locks completely up and I can’t get anything out. I look like a fish out of water, literally. When I record interviews, I cringe every time I hear that gap in the audio, the awkward silence that drifts past three or four seconds when absolutely nothing will come out of my mouth. Almost everyone I have ever met is totally fine with it, shrugging it off and giving me ample time to get through it or rephrase what I am saying. The only exception was an old, crotchety professor who half-mocked me to the half-empty classroom when I couldn’t finish a question before class. I was so shocked that I didn’t react.
I love vocabulary. I love how, if used properly, each word has a perfect use, where only that exact word would convey the exactly right meaning. When I stutter, I feel like one of the things I am good at, my elocution and word choice, is completely lost. I go from an eloquent, well-spoken young man to a bumbling idiot in the first five minutes of the first class of the semester.
After a few deep breaths, I am able to force the sounds out, though they sound weak and garbled. “Hi, I’m Ben Berk and I’m from New York City. I am a junior, majoring in magazine journalism. One interesting about me? Despite this introduction, I do know my own name and I do know how to speak.”
As I am leaving the class, I see the cute girl who sat across the table from me walking out. I remember some detail that we share, an opening to our friendship. I open my mouth, preparing my witty comment designed to draw a laugh.
Nothing comes out. The moment passes and I snap my mouth shut before anyone sees, turn away from her and walk down the corridor by myself.