My public life began my junior year in high school. I had a frustrating stutter. Frustrating in that I was embarrassed to speak in public and my self consciousness made my stutter worse. It also was frustrating in that my speech was fluid when talking to my friends outside of classrooms. But inside the classroom, when called upon to speak by the teacher, my stutter would be pronounced. I was an okay academic student, was fairly popular with my classmates and even though I didn’t think my classmates would make fun of me, I became almost vocally paralyzed in thinking of having to answer a question from a teacher. I am grateful for the specialists who worked with me from childhood on how to work around my stutter by learning ways to position my tongue, use easy words with soft consonants to get started, etc, etc. But my frustrations remained and in my first two years in high school, I found that most teachers worked out an unspoken contract with me. I would do my work, complete all my assignments, and not misbehave and they would not put me on the spot by calling on me. This held true until I had Mr. Matheson for American History.
Mr. Matheson was a handsome, smart, young teacher that the guys admired and at least some of the gals had a crush on. His way of teaching was the discussion method and he provoked students to share their perspectives about events in U.S history. But for me, he was the one teacher that I dreaded the most. Why? Because he refused to play the hidden contract game and instead, he frequently called on me to speak up on his class. I tried various experiments to get him not to call such as sitting in the furthest row, avoiding his gaze, or feebly raising my hand while everyone else was frantically waving theirs. My tactic of last resort would be to misbehave so he would send me out of the room.
None of these tactics worked. In every class, he would continue to call upon me. I kept thinking why doesn’t he leave me alone? And then after one particularly painful response to his question when I fumbled and became red in the face, he privately asked me to stay after class for a few minutes. After the class session ended, he beckoned me to the corner and said,” Carl, I want you to know that I will continue to call upon you in class. I know it isn’t easy for you but no matter how long it takes, I and your classmates will wait until you have completed your thoughts because what you have to say is worth listening to.”
The effect of what he said made me realize that my speech disability need not interfere with what I have to offer and that I should no longer shirk speaking in class or other public settings. Shortly afterwards, I decided to run for Junior Class Vice President and was required to give a five minute talk to the entire junior class of four hundred students. This was my first talk to a large captive audience and although I did have a stumble or two; my teachers and classmates gave me a nice ovation and many individually congratulated me afterwards.
It would be a nice closing of this story to say that from that moment with Mr. Matheson I was cured from stuttering but it isn’t true. My stutter has been reduced over the years but to some degree has stayed throughout my life, and it continues to rear up at unexpected times. But I did become a public speaker; teaching hundreds of college students, facilitating numerous school and business meetings, and presenting at large conferences to hundreds and at times thousands of attendees.
I wish that Mr. Matheson might know that his caring refusal to leave me alone was the confidence I needed to go public.