Standing at my desk, with fifty three pairs of expectant eyes focused on me to hear the answer to a challenge question posed by my first grade teacher, I found my voice stuck – stuck amidst the vocal chords. The harder it tried to come out, the more it got stuck. My abs constricted as if to push the voice out, the throat stretched itself to ease the passageway, the tongue and the lips did their usual synchronized movement to articulate the first sounds of the answer. But no air was coming out … as if the lungs had spontaneously called a strike.
Seeing the slowing rising eyebrows of my teacher and imagining the reactions of my classmates, I was sinking rapidly into a deep hole of embarrassment. As soon as I distracted myself from the act of speaking, the syllables began to flow out in staccato: “The Univvv … ”. With a glimmer of renewed hope, all of my gazillion brain cells were back to attending to my voice. Like a child slamming the door when paid too much attention, my voice retracted back into its chambers. The entire uncoordinated attempt to pry it out resumed – abs, throat, tongue, lips; it wasn’t clear which of them were helping . At that point, I lowered myself onto the seat. With arms resting on the desk in the front, eyes staring at the knots in the grains of the wooden desk, I was completely oblivious of what transpired in the rest of the class.
After the class, a couple of my friends came by and inquired casually. They even invented stories about people born with a terrible stuttering disability and reassured me that mine was of a milder kind. Conveniently, I accepted the interpretation of it being a disability and refocused my intellect in devising many tricks to minimize its social impact. Friends and family alike made adjustments so as to avoid putting me in uncomfortable situations. For countless errands that involved talking to strangers, my little brother would be dispatched instead of me. In spite of being a class topper, the privilege of addressing student assemblies was offered to other students. Whenever I struggled with a word, my friends completed it to avoid more embarrassment for me. When a new student would make fun of me, my fast friends would show him his place. Getting comfortable with this special attention, I almost began to feel good about my stuttering.
Fast forward to the mid-term assessments in the eighth grade theatre class. It was my turn to go to the stage and act out a dialog between two historic characters. As I walked towards the stage, the corners of my eyes saw classmates disengaging; I even imagined them talking in a hush-hush voice. Climbing steps of the stage, I recalled a much-celebrated argument between an 18th century emperor and his chief minister. I pictured ornate palatial chambers and immersed myself into the emotions of the characters. I presented the back and forth argument in two different voices – with a fluency and tempo that was unparalleled in my speaking stints. It ended with an applause that sounded like thunder that brings rain to barren lands. As I basked in the glory of the performance, a gut-wrenching thought grew more intense … it wasn’t a disability!
What was it then? Why me? Was my mind playing games? If so, I would sure show it its place! Easier said than done, I discovered in the journey that followed. Through therapies and quackery, through proud moments and dismal disappointments, through determination and self-pity, I came to realize that my voice was very much intact, but my mind was worse than a drunken monkey. My voice found a new life, loud and clear, loaded with emotions. It found expression through speeches at Princeton Toastmasters and story-telling clubs. Taming my monkey mind became the new goal for me. There began a conquest that is sure to last multiple life-times!