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My Fear of S MAG
I still fear sapphires, snobs, and Stan’s striped shirt. My apprehension doesn’t end at sharks sharing steaks with swordfish or six sick sheep; neither does my tongue stop quaking at the sight of several crisp snacks. I had a lisp starting at the pacifier age of two and finally dwindling at the age of 10. Although now I can shop at cheap chop suey shops and sell Swiss sweets with the best of those blessed with perfectly coordinated tongues, my early trepidation to shout and sing and speak still remains with me. My years at speech therapy might have eliminated my lisp, but it has only disguised my fear of all things containing S.
There was a time when I was oblivious to the incapacity of my tongue. I was a student, a girl, a daughter, a reader, a sister, and a kid. I never thought of myself as someone with a lisp: to my ears, I wasn’t saying “yethhh” but “yes.” So I was surprised when one day during class my teacher asked me to leave with a strange woman. That fateful day forever altered my perception of myself and how others saw me.
There was no mercy, no easing into things. I was brought to a room with long, clean chalkboards on all sides. I was told I had a problem with speaking: my tongue refused to meet the back of my teeth at the bridge of my gums and the roof of my mouth, foiling me from articulating the slippery sound of S. I would come to this odd, pristine room every Monday to learn to speak correctly.
I began to really listen to myself. I became quieter, more reserved. My cold ignorance had thawed into sharp attentiveness in mere nanoseconds. I analyzed everything. Does he know I have a lisp? Why didn’t my friends tell me? Are my parents ashamed of me? Will this ever go away? Alerted to my problem, I started to notice what I never had before.
“Where’s your sister?” my abuela asked.
“Outside, abuela,” I responded, watching for any sign of dismay. There it was: that slight furrow of her brow, the way her mouth turned down slightly, her eyes darting to my mother for a translation. She couldn’t understand me! Soon everything began to bother me: every person who paused after listening to me speak, internally judging me as dense, unable to communicate.
“What grade are you in?” the lady behind the deli counter asked me. “Would you like a piece of cheese?”
“Third grade, and yes, please,” I answered.
No response, awkward silence. My heart stopped, my stomach filled with lead, and I felt tears well up.
“She’s in third grade, and she would love a piece, thank you,” my mom replied, watching me with concern, handing me the slice of cheese, and quickly rolling the cart away. My mother, sensing my dejection as I trudged down the aisles, asked me to retrieve a loaf of Wonder Bread, hoping to distract me. As I bent down to pick up the bread packaged with the blue, red, and yellow dots, the cheese I had eaten mixed with the lead in my stomach from the deli debacle. I spit up a bitter taste that would stay with me for years – the taste of humiliation and disgrace.
Mark Twain, a writer I respect greatly, once said, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” His words especially reach out to me now because I understand the grueling task of breaking a habit. Every Monday of every week of every month for over two years, I worked with my speech therapist, relearning how to speak. I equate the endless hours I slaved over all words with S to a cripple who is walking for the first time; no words can describe the seemingly eternal minutes of struggling over something everyone else can do with ease. One day of speech class I recall vividly, for its monotone repetition almost made me want give up on myself.
“Such a shapeless sash,” I said.
“Again,” my speech therapist responded.
I can’t say it again! “Such a shapeless sash,” I repeated.
“Again,” she said.
This is it. I’m stopping. “Such a shapeless sash.”
“Once more,” she requested.
This is not worth it. “Such a shapeless sash,” I reiterated, my tongue feeling as floppy as a boneless fish.
“Good. For homework I’d like you to say that sentence ten times a day, as well as ‘No shipshape ships shop stocks shop-soiled shirts’ and ‘The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.’”
On days like these I forgot why I worked so hard at speech class. Every time I repeated a sentence filled with the letter S and heard my lisp, I wanted to cry “No more!” It seemed to take me hours to work through each word, pronouncing each syllable slowly, knowing that as soon as I sped up, my tongue would tie into knots, fighting against my will. There were times when I considered not practicing at home, staying mute forever, or discovering synonyms for all S words. But I never stopped trying. I never gave up entirely or complained; instead of saying no to my teacher, I said “Yes.”
After two years of taxing practice, by the end of fourth grade I finally was able to will my tongue to do as I commanded. “She sells seashells down by the seashore,” I would say, knowing that it sounded right. “I can speak and sing and see and smell and swim,” I would tell all who could hear. I was no longer quiet in class. I was finally like everyone else.
From that point on I was known as the public speaker of all grades. During my confirmation, I was the only student to recite a reading. I felt at home speaking in front of my high school as class president and head of the community service board. In all of my classes, I always raised my hand and spoke my mind.
Yet, I still have a small apprehension whenever I say a word with S in it. All my hard work and achievements seem to melt away. As I read aloud, my eyes skim ahead to the next word starting with S, my heart pounds a bit faster, my hands start to feel clammy, and I speak a little bit louder, hoping no one can hear in my voice my fear for all things containing S.