by Stephen Parrish

relative studied communication disorders at a big state university to become a speech pathologist. I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to spend one’s life (outside of writing). But I had an uncomfortable reaction when she first told me.

In my fifth grade class were two boys who had trouble speaking. One stuttered, the other had a lisp. A speech therapist made the rounds from grade school to grade school in our district, stopping by our school about once a week. She didn’t have time to work with students individually, so out of necessity the needy kids were bunched together for group therapy. It wasn’t the best system, but resources were limited.

When it was time to cull the students in my class who would benefit from such therapy, three names were called out: the stutterer’s, the lisper’s, and mine.

Fifth graders are not, in general, mature enough to respect a psychological or physiological disorder, instead they treat students with speech impediments as though they’re mentally disabled. I was no exception; only vegetables needed help talking. So when I was asked to join the group, at first I thought they just wanted my assistance. Discovering you’re some kind of dunce, and being branded as such in public—in front of the girls—is humbling.

I don’t know anything about speech therapy, so I can’t judge how well the speech therapist performed. Somehow, though, I suspect she could have done better. Or maybe the technology available to her was lacking. At any rate, all she did was hold up cards with pictures on them and ask us to state what the pictures represented. If we pronounced a word incorrectly, she told us so.

The picture on the first card she flashed to me was of a building with a steeple, so I said, “Church.”

“No,” she corrected: “Church.”

“Church,” I repeated.

She shook her head. “Church.”

“Church.”

She sighed audibly and looked out the window. “Church.”

“Church.”

“Let’s try another one.” The card she held up had a picture of a small insect with large wings.

“Butterfly,” I said.

“No, dammit, moth.”

I didn’t know then, and don’t know today, what was wrong with the way I talked. I’ve since written the experience off as one of those times when you think you’re surrounded by idiots, and in fact, as it turns out, you are. The two other boys later attended high school with me, by which time they were able to speak without any noticeable deficiencies. I think they just grew out of their problems, rather than were cured by time spent as lab rats. On the other hand, maybe it takes an elocutionist to know an elocutionist, and we three Algernons were blissfully and mutually unaware we were mislabeling Lepidoptera species and blaspheming God.

Speech pathology is a serious discipline, and I’m sure my relative received a state-of-the-art education. My brother earned a Ph.D. doing research related to speech production. I’m just sorry my own therapist was so ineffective that she might have been more successful using Tarot cards instead of pictures.

Okay, one more story, then I’m done with articulation stuff. A former colleague I’ll call Jim had an odd habit of saying “Smanks!” (instead of “Thanks!”) when expressing his gratitude for a favor. We worked together in a jewelry store, and in all the months I knew him I never heard him pronounce the word correctly. The idiosyncrasy was a trademark, one he milked.

When a customer bought a piece of jewelry: “Smanks!”

When you ran for a coke, and brought one back for him: “Smanks!”

When he was sick, and you covered for him, even though it meant you wouldn’t get a day off that week: “Smanks!” None of the rest of us knew how to respond, except to say things like, “Right. Whatever. Dude.”

Along came a new employee I’ll call Mandy, who was shy and stuck pretty much to herself during her first few days on the job. Presently an opportunity arose for her to do Jim a favor—she replaced a watch battery for one of his customers—and Jim expressed his gratitude in a way you can now guess: “Smanks!”

“Smelcome!” Mandy replied, without missing a beat.

Jim and Mandy married six months later. Communication is everything.

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