My wife and I just saw “The King's Speech,” and I really did find it to be an excellent film – one of the better ones I have seen, and probably not for the same reasons that so many have been giving it rave reviews. I found myself feeling very tense during the film, to the point of getting that nervous, sick feeling that I get in the pit of my stomach when I am anxious. Colin Firth was very believable as King George VI, but even more believable as someone with a stammer...and I felt for him. Most people who know me would probably never imagine me having a speech problem, and I do a fair amount of public speaking in my line of work. I would wager that some people wish that I spoke a lot less, in fact. Anyhow, there was a period when I was in the single-digits of life that I dealt with a touch of a stammer – mostly with words that started with “t”s and “th”s. It went away on its own – I don't know what happened to it, and I did not do anything particular to clear it up. It left me very self-conscious for a good period of time, though.
“And Tom, you will be our narrator...how does that sound?” My second-grade teacher was looking straight at me, smiling, and she was happy about the whole matter. I was less than enthused.
“Fine, Mrs. Anderson,” I replied. I was somewhat used to this. To give you some background, I was reading quite proficiently well before I ever went to kindergarten – my mother had been reading to me since I was an infant, and almost as soon as I could speak a complete sentence I was reading. Teachers found this entertaining, I think, and during kindergarten I would be excused from nap time to go and read at story time for the first and second grade classrooms. I was something of an oddity, I guess. As a five year old I was falling asleep at night reading volumes of Collier's Encyclopedia (a beautiful, beloved 1965 set). Third grade saw my teacher starting me on Poe and Dickens. Odd, I know. I read Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions in sixth grade, and there learned how to draw a cartoon of a human anus. Great fun for a twelve year old boy in public school education.
Anyhow, back to the story.
For some reason there were certain times when I would stammer – I was fine if I was reading a story from a book, but something about being on stage in a small auditorium freaked me out, and I just could not get certain words out of my mouth. My tongue would particularly hesitate at surrendering a word beginning with “t” or “th”. If a sentence began with such a word, I was sunk. Well, at a critical juncture in the play we were rehearsing – “The Tiger in the Teapot” – there was this line:
NARRATOR: The Tiger sat very quietly in the teapot.
Simple enough. Unless you were me, standing before your class, struggling with “the.” I confessed to my teacher in private that I could not say it...I could not do what I needed to do. She understood, I think, and suggested that I just say “Tiger sat very quietly in the teapot.” As I said, though, t's and th's gave me trouble. This was no good, either. After the end of a very gut-wrenching rehearsal, Mrs. Anderson switched me to the part of the Tiger, who had to say only “yes, I would like it very much,” as the penultimate line of the play. The part had been formerly reserved, it seemed, for a young classmate of mine who was not terribly bright and who could not remember lines very well.
“Could you do this?” Mrs. Anderson wanted to know.
“Yes, Ma'am,” I replied, feeling like a complete failure. My face flushed hot and red.
I think I told a lie to my parents about the whole episode. All I know is that I did not want to wear some lame little tiger costume, sit inside of a cardboard teapot and say one line. My face flushed hotter and redder every time I thought of it. I could not bear the thought of facing my classmates as a freaking tiger.
I faked an illness the morning of the play, and stayed home from school. I laid in bed all day and read, most likely, and tried not to think about somebody else narrating the play.
I never spoke publicly much after that, and I had no desire to take part in school plays. I never really found my voice until high school, behind the safety of an electric guitar. My faithful Fender freed my tongue the way that no therapist ever could have. I have not shut up since. That damned little tiger is always nearby, though, laughing at me and probably ready to pounce at a moment's notice. I keep a close eye on my teapots, as well.
God save the King.