I was thirteen years old and we had moved, again. I hated it but back in the mid 20th Century that’s what ministers did. A lot. And my Dad was a minister. The problem wasn’t the bother of moving, it was that as a boy who stuttered, I had to face a whole new set of classmates, some of whom would certainly make my life very difficult.
Up until that time in my life, I had always been called Richard. But there were times when the first “R” was very difficult for me to say. I decided to take advantage of this new situation and told everyone my name was Dick which was much easier. The name stuck and I still go by Dick. Only my mother never stopped calling me Richard.
A freshman, I had no choice but to make my way into a new world of hallways, lockers, and classrooms. The football boys had already been practicing for a week so the hallways reeked of grime and sweat. There was no air conditioning in those days so the smells of everyday life were an unmistakable part of the environment we shared.
I got through that first morning fairly well and, after lunch, headed for my dreaded English class. English was the subject I hated most as I was sure to be embarrassed in front of new classmates and a new teacher. To put it mildly, I was not in a good mood as I walked into Mrs. Young’s classroom. And I was not ready for what happened next.
The earthy smells of the hallway disappeared and were replaced by a sweet lemony fragrance that filled Mrs. Young’s classroom. Taking a chair in the middle of the room, I looked for the source of that delightful smell and then spotted two potted plants on the corners of Mrs. Young’s desk. They were strange looking vines growing up tiny trellises, unlike anything I had ever seen. They had pure white petals growing from slender elongated tips. (Mrs. Young would later explain that the highly aromatic plants were jasmine, actually Azores Jasmine and were native to the Azores, islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.)
I was jolted back to reality when Mrs. Young announced that as a “getting to know you” exercise, each student would read a paragraph from a book on America’s neighbors. I prayed that the bell would ring before my turn came, but no such luck. I had to read before all those strangers and I knew it was going to be a disaster. It’s now more than 50 years later and I still remember the word that I just could not get out. It was “Brazil,” but it came out B-B-B-B-Bra-z-z-z-zil. I heard tittering, laughing, taunting . . . I buried my face in my book and left it there for the rest of the period. I was totally devastated and humiliated. Finally, the bell rang.
I was trying to decide if I should make a bee line for the door or wait until the rest of the students left. It didn’t matter as I heard Mrs. Young say, “Class dismissed. Dick, would you please stay for a moment. I want to talk with you.”
I knew I was in for it. If there was such a thing as total humiliation, this was sure to be it. I made my way to her desk and stood there, trembling.
“Sit down, Dick.” she said, motioning to the chair by her desk. “When class started I couldn’t help but notice your bright, blue eyes and your eager smile. Then, after you read to the class, I never saw your face again.
“Let me tell you a story. I know how you felt because I had a similar experience when I was a girl. And I was just as embarrassed, until one of my teachers took me aside and said, ’Dearie, we have some work to do’.”
Mrs. Young continued, “She taught me that stuttering is not a problem with the muscles in your throat or tongue; it’s really a problem in your head and it has to do with confidence. Then she worked with me for a whole year, encouraging me and giving me special assignments like calling the role. By the end of the year, I was reciting in class, and I was a different girl.”
I looked at her, wide-eyed, not quite believing what I was hearing. Then, taking my hand in hers, and looking at me straight in the eye, she continued, “Dick, if you are willing to work with me, I’ll try to be for you what my teacher was for me.”
It was the most eventful year of my life! To make a long story short, Mrs. Young involved me in a series of confidence building verbal exercises and classroom assignments. This was before the modern era of speech therapists but, no matter, Mrs. Young’s therapy worked wonders and by the end of the year I was a strong young man who believed in himself. I had never gotten an “A” on a report card, and never expected to, especially in English. But that year I got my first “A” and it was in English! My other grades improved as well, and by the end of the year I was ready to take on whatever challenges High School had to offer.
Mrs. Young and I had a secret, but the results were public.
Now I should say here what all those who stutter know: Stuttering is never “cured.” Years can go by and, in a casual, private moment some darned word won’t come out. It’s also true that some of the most eloquent speakers (James Earl Jones, Winston Churchill, James Stewart for example) are folks who stutter.
To me, it is a tribute to Mrs. Young that I would go on to earn a BA, in English, that I would earn much of my living in the classroom, the pulpit, and on the radio. I have also performed in many community theater productions over the years including the lead role at least six times.
The memories of my experience with Mrs. Young are jolted back every time I enter a flower shop or a fragrance infused room. My indebtedness to her is beyond measure.
I inquired about Mrs. Young when I visited the school a few years ago. No one recalled the teacher who changed my life. But I have not forgotten her.
NOTE: Azores Jasmine (Jasminum azoricum): A perfumed fragrance that tantalizes the senses is one of the many attributes this marvelous species brings to the container gardener. A native of the Azores, the vigorous, dense growing vines flower from spring through fall. When grown under sunny, warm conditions there is even an occasional spray of bloom during the winter. For the Jasmine or fragrant plant collector, this variety is a must. Clusters of multi-petaled, pure white blooms form on the growing tips with individual flowers emerging over several weeks.
—About Richard Williamson—
A semi-retired businessman, radio personality and occasional author, Dick has been published in such magazines as The American Legion Magazine, Purpose, Light and Life, Good Old Days, Family Motor Coaching, Looking Back and a few others. He also served as editor of The Expositor and Homiletic Review. He holds a degree in English Literature, is a veteran of the Korean conflict, and lives with his wife, Cookie, in Greeley, Colorado.