Saturday, May 19, 2012
Enid, Oklahoma. Any random summer day. 1954.
DANNY (age 9): I'm goin' outside.
DICKIE (older brother, 12): Pronounce the participial -g!
This is the sort of home I grew up in. Words had hardly passed by my teeth when someone was there, pouncing, correcting. My mother, an English teacher (foul breed), was more gentle about it. Generally, she would just repeat what I'd said, but correctly.
DANNY: I feel like I need a Coke.
MOTHER: You feel as if you need a Coke.
The slight emphasis--the soft oral italics--communicated all.
My dad, bless his soul, rarely bothered. But I'm guessing that he--an Oregon farm boy--had experienced a bit of the old oral italics as well. He knew what I was feeling.
Dickie was not so gentle. He would correct abruptly, peremptorily.
DANNY: I wanna go to the park.
DICKIE: You want to go to the park. Don't talk like a cretin!
In those days--and for many afterwards, I thought a cretin lived on Crete. So I was never too sure what on earth he was trying to tell me.
And as for the participial -g thing? I didn't know what a participle was, so, again, his information was less than useful. I have a theory that all this correction hurt me learning English grammar. I didn't bother to study for grammar and usage tests in school; I just put down what I'd heard Mom or Dickie say. That worked up into high school. And Latin I. Then I was in deep trouble and wished I'd long ago asked Dickie what a participle is. I'd figured it just had something or other to do with Crete. And dangling participle? Well, that just sounded plain filthy.
Anyway, with all this correction of my speech ... is it any wonder that I stuttered? Badly? When I was a poor little oppressed kid? (I'm not really over it, either. There are certain words I must avoid--e.g., statistics--when I'm speaking. For it takes me, oh, three to four minutes to get them all the way out.)
My mother became concerned enough about my stuttering that she sent me to the speech therapist in the Enid schools. Apparently, the exchange went something like this.
TEACHER: Danny, do you know why you're here?
TEACHER: You can't think of any reason you would need to see a speech teacher?
DANNY: N-n-n-n-n-n-o. I c-c-c-c-c-an't th-th-th-th-th-th-think of one.
TEACHER: Okay, Danny, go on back to class.
Later, it seems, the teacher told my mom that I didn't appear to be worried about it, and that the stuttering, like my soprano voice, would soon go away. It pretty much did. Except for statistics and some others I won't mention because the next time I see some of you, you'll try to get me to say "statistics." I know my "friends" very, very well.
I have no independent memory of any of that elementary-school encounter. All family lore. But I like the story and used to tell it in class to students who were eager to talk about anything as long as it wasn't Melville.
Quick: name one of the most famous stutterers in American literature ..
Yes, Billy Budd.