My friend Ron has a stutter. I suppose it’s not something you can miss when you’re talking to him, but, truthfully, I don’t notice it anymore because we’ve been friends for a million years and it’s just part of who he is, like his blond hair and habit of keeping his hands in his pockets and lightly rocking forward and backward when he’s talking to me. I don’t remember if I thought anything of it when we were teenagers. It always seemed as though he was more aware of it than anyone in our circle of friends. Which is, of course, as it should be–he’s lived with it forever and it’s caused him a great deal of grief over the years. When he talks about his stutter, it’s easy for me to brush it off as something he should just let go of, as if it were as simple as releasing a balloon into the wind. It’s easy for me because I don’t have to live with it. And while it seems as though saying something like, “Really, it’s not a big deal, nobody will even notice,” is supportive and kind, I wonder if instead it comes across as false and unserious. Of course people will notice. It’s not something you don’t notice unless you’ve had time to learn not to notice. But, because I don’t have to live with a stutter of my own, I have no idea how his awareness of it permeates everything he does or tries to do.
What do we really know about the differences among us? “They” say reality is perception, perception is reality. Really? My perception of my friend’s stutter is that it doesn’t matter a whit. His perception is that it stands in the way of all of his hopes and dreams. Whose perception is reality? Ron has recently entered a prestigious science and technology institute, where he is in class with traditional college students half his age. He hears them snickering when he speaks in class. His professor cuts him off, too impatient to wait for his mouth to catch up with his brain. To say it affects his confidence would be an almost insulting understatement. Yet when he shares his fears and frustrations, my impulse is to turn into a tough-love life coach: “Quit yer bellyachin’ and get it done! Rah rah!” Again, it’s easy. I don’t have to live with that particular way of being different.
In another part of the universe, a little girl I know refuses to wear the Star Wars sneakers she loves because the other kids have told her they’re for boys. Whether or not this blow to her confidence–she did, after all, pick out those sneakers herself, using her own native judgment about what she likes and dislikes–will affect her for life or for just a few days, no one can say. And I am not likening the experience of a kindergartner having her choices demeaned to an adult who has lived with a disability. But once again we are left to wonder about perceptions and reality. Is Star Wars really “for boys”? What would Princess Leia have to say about that? I suspect she would pick up her weapon and blow a hole through the idea.
If you are a parent of a school-age child, you know that anti-bullying programs have become ubiquitous in American classrooms. I’m not sure I buy all of it. Every little slight, it seems, can now be classified as bullying. If your child didn’t get invited to a birthday party, you can claim he’s being bullied. And I’m not sure I believe that all children are inherently tribal and cruel, Lord of the Flies notwithstanding. I think a better way to address the issue would be to develop anti-bullying programs for parents along with kids, because that’s where I see a lot of the behavior originating. If you put a lot of time and effort into moving out of one neighborhood and into another because you want to get away from the blacks/Jews/Arabs/Asians/gays/immigrants/etc., do you think your kids don’t notice? Give them some credit. If you complain about the autistic child at preschool being a distraction, your kid will pick up on it. Kids are like that.
So perhaps that’s how we can explain the attitude of students in a top-drawer science, technology, and math program toward a fellow student with a stutter–maybe their parents are assholes. But shouldn’t these kids–and I use that term loosely to describe 18- to 21-year-old legal adults–be the cream of the crop? Surely they don’t lack subtle thinking skills; they’re majoring in advanced mathematics, for Christ’s sake. If they met Stephen Hawking, would they snigger behind his back? If they get jobs developing robotic prosthetics, will they be able to look at legless clients with a straight face? Will they avoid doing research on autism because they can’t stop laughing at its victims? These are no small questions. We’re told there’s a near-tragic dearth of engineers in the United States, yet some of our best candidates to fill those spots don’t have the maturity or emotional intelligence to cope with someone else’s minor disability. So let’s say Junior is going on his first job interview, and the person in charge of hiring is a black woman with a speech impediment who wears a hijab and masculine shoes. Does Junior get the job? Do you want to put money on that?
We perceive ourselves as a nation of individuals, rugged or not. But in reality we’ve become so mired in fear and conformity–beginning in preschool–that it threatens not just our national character but our economic and industrial success. Two generations ago, 18-year-olds volunteered for military service so they could help stop the spread of fascism. Today they can’t stop giggling at their peers. Princess Leia would never put up with that kind of shit. I’m saving the galaxy and you’re worried about my shoes? Neither would Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who took on the English crown and had his head cut off; Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross; and Samuel L. Jackson, who is a professional badass. Stutterers all. Go ahead and laugh.