“My name is Brandon Black.” Seems relatively easy to say when introduced. However, for someone with a speech impediment, such an introduction has proven to be difficult to say , on countless occasions. Stuttering affects less than 1 percent of the general population. How could I be so fortunate (tongue in cheek) to have such a rare disability?
The catalyst takes root in the makeup of my genetics. At an early age, I developed a mutated gene in my brain that controls the motor for speaking and breathing, resulting in labored breathing during a conversation. Like many who grew up with such an overt disability, my middle school and high school years were marked by ruthless attacks of bullying which tested the bounds of my character and perseverance. These qualities, a strong sense of character and an ability to persevere, have allowed me to thrive as a student, young professional and to confidently, independently travel the world without concern about my ability or inability to communicate with those around me.
While my stutter continues to impact my life, for better or worse, I have come to appreciate my disability. Ironically, I now realize that living with disfluent speech is a tool in my arsenal of personal qualities that have given me the confidence to approach each day with the mindset and conviction to accomplish. Looking back, it only seems fitting that my story and trajectory of both fluency and self-confidence begin in high school.
Attending a private Catholic high school, a place designed to foster the very best in character and values, one would expect a sense of community among the student body. What I experienced strayed from this idealistic assumption. For those without a communication impediment, the typical oral introduction on the first day of class was a nonchalant, routine event. In my case, these experiences were a devastating start to a troubling high school experience. I remember subconsciously going through the motions of exactly what I would say before it would be my turn to speak: “My name is Brandon Black and I attend St. Euphrasia Catholic School. I am an avid tennis player and compete in tournaments all over the state. My favorite subjects are History and English. If I could travel anywhere in the world it would be to New Zealand because of my family origins and the beauty of the country.”
With the mental preparation complete, I would begin to speak and would usually make it through the initial sentence or two until it hit. Major facial grimaces and blocks stopped me right in my tracks to the point where the students, not knowing what was happening inside my body to prevent me from speaking fluently, laughed and joked while the teacher had to sit me down and ask if I needed to go see the school nurse. Suffice it to say that I vehemently hated the first day of school.
In my freshman and sophomore years, I found it difficult to adapt to new environments where my speech would be illuminated to unsuspecting classmates, particularly during presentations in class. My grades suffered. While I was actively involved in athletic programs, I was the target of rampant taunting and altercations by other students which included shoving and harmful physical threats. Hearing “Brandon is a r*****” or “stutter, stutter” in front of my classmates led to bouts of depression and thoughts of quitting school. Eventually, several students were suspended. This battleground consistently tested the strength of my perseverance, character and most of all, grit.
By the end of my sophomore year, the bullying had advanced to physical intimidation and constant harassment. I was at a crossroads. I could either stay on the present track of disfluent speech or I could be proactive by recommitting to speech therapy – especially given the fact I was intent on pursuing admission to one of the service academies with the end goal of becoming a pilot, a dream I’d held since childhood. With such forethought, I began intensive speech therapy twice a week throughout the summer and into the school year where I was able to learn and understand my patterns and weaknesses in speaking. Just as professional athletes watch film to dissect and improve upon their performances in practices and in games, I too was studying film and sound recordings of my speech and bodily exhibits during speech therapy and in spontaneous conversations.
Through careful analysis, I was able to break down my patterns of disfluent speech and the triggers that preceded the onset of physical bodily exhibits such as facial grimacing, finger flicking and irregular breathing. My self-confidence soared. Despite these efforts and fluency improvement, my hope of becoming a pilot in the military was dashed as a result of my continued stutter. Department of Defense medical staff was clear in their reasoning for why a stammer, stutter or any other hindrance in speech would be an issue. From relaying coordinates among fellow pilots or allied forces under times of stress or communicating with troops in the field in need of air support, situations exist that demand crystal-clear communication, without a break in speech or disruption in the flow of vital life-saving information.
Although I understood that I was disqualified from becoming a pilot, nonetheless, my confidence and determination to pursue leadership roles manifested itself through leading classroom discussions and being elected to student government. Overcoming my negative psychological state of being a stutterer and investing in myself through speech therapy became a prolific turning point in my life. My efforts continued to pay dividends as an undergraduate at UCLA and in professional and personal endeavors.
I put the true fruition of fluency in my speech and self-confidence on full display beginning in the spring of 2013 when I traveled solo through seven countries across the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia. As an independent traveler, self-reliance and the ability to break down my comfort zone without worrying about my stuttering took on new meaning and importance. Each spontaneous conversation was a stepping-stone in the foundation I was building for my self-confidence and ability to interact with others. Like many backpackers on a budget, hostel living defined my home away from home for much of the time I was abroad. Entering some of the largest hostels in Asia, Australia or New Zealand, such as Base Hostel, Nomads or BBH, it became apparent that in order to develop a social network of friends – for any period of time – I had to find the courage to approach groups of people and introduce myself. Lucky for me, most of the time I was the lone American or one of a few “Yanks” in the hostel.
As opposed to Australians, Brits and Germans who were a dime a dozen, I was a commodity and used it to my advantage. Whether in the hostel kitchen or recreation room, opportunities abounded to introduce myself to fellow backpackers. A simple “hi,” “how’s it going,” or random comment catalyzed initial conversations, which quickly led to friendship. No matter what degree of fluency I had at the time, my stutter never became a barrier to forging friendships. Even in moments where I couldn’t even get a single word out mid-sentence and had blocks on simple words, it was easy to laugh it off and joke about it after the fact.
Continuing to learn about my stutter and how to mentally deal with reactions from others when I displayed blocks or facial grimaces while speaking, I remember how I used comedy as a way to get through disfluency.
“Wait for it” and “don’t worry, it’s on the way” always drew laughs from my friends and helped me ride the wave of the block I was encountering. Up until this time I never once used comedy as a tool to assist in my fluency. Were it not for my experience in such situations where I had to put myself out there in order to make friends with travelers from around the world, my self-confidence and fluency – not to mention learning a new way to counter hard blocks – would not have been realized.
While my fluency ebbs and flows and some days are better than the others, as I look back on my global explorations nearly five years later, what have I learned from those experiences that have translated into my life? One takeaway stands above all and that is confidence in my ability to initiate. From a spontaneous conversation to entering a room and owning it, being on my own has fostered within me an outward bodily push to be fearless when it comes to initiating a conversation without worrying about the degree of fluency I’ll have at that moment.
Whether I was walking down the tree-lined streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia or along the beautiful, quaint coastline neighborhoods of Devonport, New Zealand, I found that spontaneously engaging with complete strangers often led to serene conversations which enriched my experience and appreciation for where I was in the world. And hey, how could anyone forget that friendly American backpacker who despite having a stutter went out of his way to say hello, engage in conversation and share a smile that spans the world over?