When I was a teenager – old enough to know better but young enough to be a bit of a prick despite the fact – I pulled what I thought to be a harmless prank, thinking it would get me out of some schoolwork. Instead it took me deeper than I could have possibly imagined and taught me something about social constructs that effects me to this day.
Once before in school, when I felt unprepared for a French oral exam, I took an impromptu sponsored day of silence. I told a couple of friends to explain this to everyone, Mademoiselle in particular. The pièce de résistance: a note scrawled on the front of a ‘donations’ envelope that would serve as a prop that I could carry around as testament to my lie. I didn’t raise any money but this didn’t matter – I had gained another day of revision. Success.
Confirming my ability as an escape artist, I took it as a challenge when one day a new substitute teacher announced that we would each have to read our work to the class. Though I would often take on the role of the clown, I feared the spotlight when it was out of my control. This underlying nervousness paired with the unfounded confidence provided by my previous scam, led me to take extreme measures to avoid reading out loud. I made my decision and began to warm up for what I was about to do.
Apparently unfamiliar with how classrooms work when under temporary supervision, all of her questions became rhetorical. She was a new face, soft featured with a suitably friendly demeanour. She wasn’t going to get anything from us. Staring out into the silence, she took extreme measures herself and started to pick on people to answer – a pretty uncouth course of action that wasn’t going to make her any friends. The immediate response to a teacher who employs such a technique is to avoid eye-contact. So head-down I stared at my empty page and waited to hear my name called, preparing to make an emergency change to the plan. Then the inevitable – “You there”. Evidently she didn’t know my name. Someone nudged my shoulder as I settled into character. This was happening. I slowly looked up from my book, nervous and hesitant, when the words stumbled out.
“I.. th..thh. I think that from from fromm the book, from the the…”
Each cluster of stammers was broken with a deep sigh as I seemed to refocus and overcome frustration with myself. People had started to turn and face me and as soon as I started to talk again, in broken sentences, they began to laugh. My ruse was up. Or at least I thought it was until their sniggering was silenced by the now stern substitute. Then she encouraged me to carry on… Yes. This was working. “I’m s-sorry” – more laughs from them, more empathy from her. They were all playing into this perfectly. In becoming the timid and tormented I had gained power over them all; they were all part of my game now. The substitute excused me from having to finish my answer and she wouldn’t ask me to read out anything again. I had won, for now at least.
At the end of the lesson she asked me to come and join her up front. I sat at her desk whilst she asked if I was alright, if people had always laughed at me. Panicked and nervous, the stutter became easier to contrive, though I said very little and convinced her I was okay. I was more than okay, I was a genius puppetmaster, but now all I wanted was to get out the room and be myself again. I was starting to feel claustrophobic inside this act. Finally she let me go, so excitedly I returned to the kudos of my peers. Not only had I avoided genuine failure, I had won over both sides – nurtured by the teacher and heralded by the students.
It must have been on everyone’s mind the next week when we had the same class, as those already seated welcomed me through the door with reminiscent smiles. The afterglow of my actions lingered on and my legacy was being born. I couldn’t help but feel puffed up by this, though obviously I tried to not let it show. As I found my place I realised that those knowing smiles knew something that I didn’t. A wave of terror engulfed me as I looked up at the tender, understanding eyes of the same substitute teacher. Her again. There was no escape. It would soon be revealed to us that our regular teacher was actually on maternity leave, meaning: 6 months with this substitute. 2 terms with this fucking speech impediment. I needed a way out. Ironically enough this was what landed me here in the first place. I prided myself on my ability to get out of things, so I thought fast and settled on a plan to phase it out. The next few weeks would contain some of the most stressful days in my adolescent life as I would experience the overwhelming anxiety of anticipation before this particular class. I would prefigure my approach to talking – essentially rehearsing how to sound nervous. On top of this I came up with back-up excuses and fail-safe plans. In avoiding petty work I had created a true mission for myself – trying to avoid reading aloud for fear of the pressure and attention, I had made myself the focus of every class as people would sneer and openly comment on the ironing out of my stutter. I had become trapped in a prison of my own creation, and decided to follow in the footsteps of Andy Dufresne, clawing my way out inch by inch with a measly rock hammer. Eventually I’d be free, but I would be changed by the experience.
In this brief window I had acquired and overcome a disability that many have for life, though I’m assuming most sufferers didn’t adopt it voluntarily in order to manipulate a situation.. (I am reminded of Derren Brown’s head-nodding-tic which he did in fact bring on himself through relentlessly trying to persuade people as a hypnotist at college) In half a year I had experienced new depths of anxiety that would make me all too aware of the power in perception and persona. An awareness that has become a true affliction.. but more on that another time.