Sunday, September 04, 2011

Mr. Fix-it

I had my article posted in Family Voices, the official magazine of the National Stuttering Association! Very cool!

We're dads. We're programmed to fix things. It's irrevocably built into our DNA, more than our love or hatred of the designated hitter, our desire for an engine with more horsepower, our need to get rid of ALL of the crabgrass our lawns, or even the quest for the perfect barbeque technique (HINT: it's timing - don't turn things more than once). So what does a dad do when presented with a kid who is "broken"? These tiny little beings don't come with an instruction manual, and not having a manual is so much worse than those multi-lingual, poorly drawn pamphlets that inevitably come with our Summer weekend do-it-yourself projects. At least with those instructions, some of the Swedish words bear a faint resemblance to English and you can almost, if you squint, make out where the thingamajig screws into the whatsit.

So you can imagine my confusion when my daughter, Katie, began stuttering around age 3. Surely there must be a manual for this. There has to be a way to fix it, right? My wife, Joan, and I jumped on the Internet and began looking around. Fortunately, we quickly found the source of the problem. Unfortunately, according to the all-knowing 21st Century oracle, the problem was us. We talked too fast. and we talked over each other. And we talked a lot. If we just slowed down, listened, had long pauses where Katie could interject, her stuttering would go away. "Well, that was easy" I said to Joan. Surely this Jersey-born guy and his Philadelphia-born wife could speak slowly. Even if we were both raised in gift-of-the-gab Irish families. You know, the type of family where conversation was equal parts Formula I racing, fencing match and blood sport. We can so do this, I thought. So Joan and I slooooowed down (This took more than one try. A lot more than one try). Only, Katie kept right on bumping away.

Well, there was still no manual available, so we took the next logical step. We went to an expert, in this case our doctor. Surely, the doctor would be able to tell us what was wrong and then we could set about the task of fixing it. Once again, we found the source of the problem, and we were told that it We were putting too much pressure on Katie. We were too demanding. If we could just relax about EVERYTHING, Katie would be just fine. This was nothing to worry about and it would just fade away if we could just relax. Have you ever tried to relax, knowing that something depended on your relaxing? That one did not come easily to any of us, but we managed to be MORE relaxed and that was going to have to be enough. But still, Katie stuttered.

So surely, I thought, there must be some sort of expert who specializes in this sort of thing. It was then we found the National Stuttering Association and I felt like Galahad finding the Grail. Surely these knowledgeable professionals with their years of training and experience would be able to cure my daughter. So we packed the family up and headed out to the NSA's annual conference in Atlanta. I was wondering, on the ride down there, just how long it would take to fix Katie, to cure her of this malady.

That was more than five years ago, and Katie still stutters. What I learned in that first Conference, and what I am reminded of each year I go, was that she didn't need to be fixed because she wasn't broken. Like the kids, teens and adults I met at the conference, Katie is smart, funny, beautiful and talented. What is broken, what needs to be fixed, I am learning, is a society that treats people who stutter as less than what they are. And so, I am going to acknowledge the nature of my DNA, that the need to fix things is an integral part of that, and I am going to set about changing this society to a place where my daughter's voice can be heard, because she has a lot to say.