By Rev SEIK PITOI
My palms started to sweat and I began fidgeting.
I could feel my heart skip a beat. I was a nervous wreck and I felt I could collapse at any moment. Even my head started to spin.
Really, I had to leave. I needed to make an excuse and escape from this torture. What could I do?
No, I was not held by terrorists in Afghanistan, nor was I part of a gang being interrogated for a serious crime. The above was a dramatic but true account of my experience in reading aloud in my high school class.
But why the dramatics? Because when you are as I was – a stutterer – speaking, or reading publically is the last thing you will wish for. That was my experience as a Grade 7 student at POM International High School some 43 years ago!
Well I did survive that day. As the reading drew closer to me, I stood, walked quietly to the teacher with my hand on my stomach looking sick, and asked if I could go to the toilet. She allowed me. I stayed there until I felt it was safe enough to return. When I did, I was relieved to find they had gone past my desk and had moved on. Then, as I took my seat, the hooter went for the next period. I was safe!
As you get older, you will realise that the same tricks will not always work. I found that out for myself. Another time, in the same class and with the same teacher, we had to pretend we were being interviewed on radio and so we had to introduce ourselves. To add to my pain, the teacher brought in a cassette recorder to record us! She said it would be nice to hear ourselves and see how we could improve our public speaking. (In those days, teachers didn’t have much to do so they dreamt up silly ideas like this!).
As we began around the class, the symptoms of fear and nervousness returned. Again, I waited until it was almost my time and I did the same thing. Again, the teacher said yes and I went to the toilet. But this time, she made sure I did my introduction before the period ended. As soon as I walked in, I noticed everyone had finished and were waiting for me.
The teacher smiled and said, “Ok Seik, come to the front and do your introduction while I record you”! With weak knees, I stood, trying not to shake too much. All I had to say was: “Hello, my name is Seik Pitoi and I come from Gabagaba Village in the Central Province”. Simple. But instead, it came out as: “Hello, my name is S-S-S-S-Seik Pitoi and I c-c-c-c-come from….”! I couldn’t finish the sentence as laughter filled the room. While a few of my classmates didn’t laugh and looked with concern at the others hollering, the loudest laugh came from my teacher. She even replayed it a couple of times to hear my stuttering. I died a thousand deaths that day! I decided right there and then that public speaking was not for me.
Stuttering or stammering is a dysfunction in the normal pattern of speech. It involves an involuntary repetition of sounds or syllables or prolonged pronunciation of words. We are told about 5 per cent of children stutter, especially if it runs in the family. As the child matures, he grows out of that condition. However, about 1 per cent of children will continue to stutter into adulthood. To help deal with the problem, some people go to speech therapists or other experts to get professional help.
I continued to stutter as I grew up, but like every stutterer, we know what words or letters are hard for us to pronounce so we device ways to get around them. My dad, an educationist, would also try to help me with my speech and reading, constantly calling out, “take your time; take your time”, when I began to get frustrated at my stammering!
I have an uncle on my mother’s side who stuttered and have a couple of cousins who stutter as well. Surprisingly, we found we could all sing very well – without stuttering! Thankfully, none of my three children have had to suffer the humiliation of being a stutterer as I did.
When I became a Christian in my late teens, I began to see changes take place. As a new believer with late Rev Sione Kami at Boroko United Church, I began to take part in singing. As I said, there was no stuttering in singing.
I also began to compose gospel songs and during many Sunday evening services, when groups could present items, I always had a song to sing with my younger sister, Lulu. I strummed the guitar and did the back up vocals, but she would always introduce the songs. I stayed as far away as possible from the microphone when it was time to introduce the song, and moved closer when we began to sing.
One evening, Lulu turned the tables on me. She greeted everyone and said: “my brother Seik will now introduce our item which he wrote himself”, and moved away. I almost died! I was really angry with her but I smiled at everyone, making them think it was planned. Amazingly, I introduced the song without stuttering – but I talked so fast it was over in just two seconds! You needed to record and replay it in slow to hear what I said! But at least I didn’t stutter.
With that experience, forced on me by my sister, I began to do more of the introductions when we sang. I felt I was improving and began to like it. Then, when I joined the youth outreach team, it wasn’t long before I began to share my testimony and then began to preach at the market place.
Soon I felt my confidence begin to soar and I never shied away from public speaking again. In the following years, as an evangelist preaching and teaching around PNG, I have had occasion to speak before crowds of hundreds or thousands in the highlands or in packed churches in the provinces. Yet, there was no more stuttering. In fact, I can say I was finally cured by the Lord of my speech disorder.
Today, I have many adult friends who stutter. Some a bit more than others. Yet, I can relate to them when they do because I was once in that place.
I don’t laugh! Neither should we laugh, even at our kids who are struggling with their speech. We will be doing as my teacher did many years ago, where her amusement at my disability destroyed my confidence. It took a work of God and encouragement of my parents and some really good friends to restore it again.
I also take comfort in the fact that some great people in history and in the Bible had speech disorders. I know I am in good company. For instance, the Bible says,
‘But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”’ (Exodus 4:10 – ESV).
Moses wasn’t an orator like his brother, Aaron. He had difficulty in speaking. Yet, God used him.
Surrendered hearts, with all our limitations and imperfections, are enough for God to use for His purpose. I found that as I began to speak more for God, He began to heal my tongue.
Finally, my encouragement to those who stutter is know that you are okay. You’re not sick. You just have a speech problem. Take your time when you speak and pronounce your words slowly and properly. If you want to practice your speech, try talking to God. He won’t laugh at you, I promise. In fact, in time, He will heal your tongue!
- Rev Seik Pitoi is a freelance writer.