Uttering a simple word like “yes,” which took little effort for his classmates, for Bryan felt like climbing Mount Everest, barefoot.
“Y-Y,” he'd squeeze out as if the sound were too big to fit between his lips. His face would contort. The “eh” was more of a guttural cough than a vowel sound and, finally, he'd vomit the “s,” to his relief.
As painful as this was, the look on the faces of people he tried talking to was worse. They'd furrow their brows and narrow their eyes, unsure if he were feeble-minded or just weird. Even worse were the women who showed sympathy, often making a tut-tut sound.
“It's all right,” they'd say, in the over-articulated voice usually reserved for babies and the slow-witted. “Take your time.” Or they'd suggest, “Think about what you're saying before you say it.”
How much time and thought should it take to say, “Yes?”
Although Bryan hated talking to people, his parents always made him say hello to their friends. Didn't they realize what went into a word like, “hello,” the second syllable being a killer? He'd mumble, “H-hi,” head down, so he wouldn't have to see their faces. Sundays he had to telephone his aunts. Pulling off his fingernails would have been easier.
“It's for your own good,” his mother would say.
He never understood how.
School was an embarrassment, always feeling like he was on display. He did well enough in his subjects, as long as he didn't have to read aloud.
Long before there were speech therapists in public schools, there was his third grade teacher, Mrs. Gordon, a self-recognized expert on stuttering. More wrinkled than his grandmother, her face looked as if it would crack if she accidentally smiled.
“No special treatment,” was her motto. “Every child must be treated exactly the same.”
She refused to skip over him during reading class or give him a shorter passage. He'd struggle through a paragraph while the children were warned not to laugh. Still, he could hear their stifled giggles. Although he tried not to look, he saw Terri Concini's face turn red as she tried valiantly to control herself. Finally, one kid would lose it--usually Louie Katzenbaum, his friend---and then the whole class would laugh, especially Terri. Mrs. Gordon once assigned extra homework to everyone for making fun of “poor Bryan.”
As if this wasn't humiliating enough, the day came when everyone in the class was to stand in front of the room and recite a poem from their reader.
“With feeling,” demanded Mrs. Gordon.
Bryan was assigned, “At the Zoo,” by William Makepeace Thackeray, the dumbest poem of all. Once Bryan accepted that his parents wouldn't let him drop out of the third grade, he tried his best. He memorized the poem, although it wasn't required, and practiced it in front of his mother who had learned not to show emotion when he spoke.
The day came. His mother made him brush his hair and wear his starched white shirt, the one he had last worn to his Uncle Oscar's funeral. He felt prepared, determined to make it through the whole stupid poem.
In contrast, his classmates appeared nervous. Mrs. Gordon even scolded Tommy Dunkirk, the toughest kid in the class, for fidgeting. When Terri recited her poem, her face turned so red Bryan felt sorry for her.
When it was his turn, he strode up to the front of the class. Most of the other kids read their poems, their faces buried in their books, but he began his recitation looking straight ahead, unafraid to see faces.
He imagined himself receiving cheers from his classmates, even a peck on the cheek from Terri.
He maneuvered his way through the first two lines with minimum trouble:
“First I saw the white bear, then I saw the black;
Then I saw the camel with a hump upon his back;”
Mrs. Gordon didn't even interrupt him to say, “Slow down,” as she had done for most of the others.
The next line about “the grey wolf, with mutton in his maw” challenged him because “w” and “m” were always difficult. Still, he made it through unscathed.
But the fourth line about a waddling wombat stopped him cold. His mother had let him skip over that part, but not Mrs. Gordon.
“You can say it, Bryan.”
He tried mightily, but the “w’s” wouldn't stop repeating themselves. The room turned quiet. He heard Terri go, “Tut-tut.”
Instead of being treated like a hero, Bryan ran out of the room, a wet spot forming on his pants.
About the Author
WAYNE SCHEER has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He's published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments,( https://issuu.com/pearnoir/docs/revealing_moments ) a collection of flash stories.
His short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting” has been made into a short film. Find it here: https://vimeo.com/18491827.