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A Life of Stuttering

Minister shares how he overcomes his stammer

Like many people, I stuttered from an early age. I remember my mother and sisters completing my sentences when I was in elementary school in Massachusetts. In second grade we moved to Staten Island, N.Y., and my teacher sent me to a school specialist who formally diagnosed the problem. I know now he was a speech pathologist. He would point to symbols on a wall chart and teach me how to say certain sounds. He also had me slur some consonants or consonant blends so I'd say them more slowly and not stammer. As I got older I learned not to use words or interjections like "ah," "um," or "er," but to simply pause until I could say the word I was trying to pronounce.

My classmates teased me before I had speech therapy, but we moved to Florida at the end of my second-grade year, and the kids in my new school never knew I stuttered. Over the years one or two people have noticed. Once in graduate school several of us attended a party with one of our schools' professors. He went around the room and attempted to identify where each of us was from by our speech patterns. I thought I'd be an interesting candidate because I had lived in the Midwest, New York and Florida. He picked up on those areas, but he also said that I had a serious problem with stuttering. I started to stammer like crazy because I had been exposed.

Shame gave way to pride

I have an undergraduate degree in American studies, a master's degree in divinity and one in education. Today I'm director of planned giving for the New Jersey division of the Salvation Army. I've held similar positions with Mount Sinai Medical Center and Easter Seals in New York. I taught high school AP history, and philosophy and religion at the college level. In addition, I'm an ordained United Methodist minister and have been a pastor at three churches in Florida and one in New Jersey. All of these positions require that I speak fluidly.

In my early years I was ashamed about my stuttering because I believed I wasn't as capable as other people. On the other hand, when I was far enough in my career that I knew I was going to make it in the areas I wanted to, I felt like a dancer who had a wooden leg that no one knew about. I'm proud of what I've accomplished. At this point, age 60, I don't think about my stuttering every day. The more aware I am of it, the more likely it'll be a problem.

The importance of remaining calm >>

It's important to remain calm

I also have to stay on top of my speech. Occasionally I'm called on to substitute for a minister, and I know I shouldn't attempt expository preaching. In this type of preaching, ministers have a general plan for their sermon. They may begin talking about a biblical verse and then discuss how to apply it to daily life. It's mostly extemporaneous speaking. I've always written each sermon beforehand and I practice it, which has worked well for me. People have told me my sermons don't seem practiced, which is nice to hear.

Being interrupted is a problem. I don't do well if I'm in mid-sentence and someone asks me for an example or details about something I've said. My mind freezes and I start to stammer. I know not to say anything until I'm fairly confident I can get the words out. However, that can be misinterpreted as my using guarded language or somehow being secretive.

I have found that it's important to remain calm. One of the techniques I use is to draw out a word perhaps a microsecond longer than I normally would if I think the next word might give me a problem. I don't do it so that it's noticeable.

Occasionally I'll have a problem in a social situation. Recently my wife and I were at a coed baby shower where the guests were playing a circle game. When the leader called someone's name, that person had to say a baby name that started with the next letter of the alphabet. It wasn't a perfect circle, however, so I couldn't tell when I'd be called on. Had I known, I could have practiced silently and I would have been fine. However, when it was my turn, I couldn't speak. My wife saw what was happening and rescued me. She told the group, "Blair's not comfortable with this game," and the leader went on to the next person. No one made a big deal about it.

I've always been an extrovert. My family told me that when I was a little kid, I liked nothing better than being in front of a group. My stuttering has always been at odds with that, but I do very well. Stuttering has not held me back from what I wanted to do, but it does affect my life.

Blair Hearth, 60, lives in Monmouth County, N.J. Pat Olsen is a regular contributor to the New York Times business section. She lives in New Jersey.

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