“ He has a (pause) lisp, I think.” I have said this, one eye closed in concentration as I scrutinize the talking head I am observing on TV. I am the self appointed speech police because I have a marked lisp. When I am looking in a mirror and talk to someone behind me or in another room, my lips move strangely as they form words. I remember people around me noticing my lisp when we first moved out to California and I entered seventh grade. Did the lisp exist before and become more noticeable? I don’t know. I wasn’t referred to a speech therapist until high school. I hated being singled out and taken from class. She taught me to speak in a strange sort of manner that made me appear to have lock jaw. I held my teeth locked together and let my lips move around them. I affect it sometimes for words such as “synthesizer” to avoid biting off the end of my tongue altogether.
The trips to the speech therapist highlighted my perception that something was wrong when I spoke. So I didn’t. Not that I didn’t have lots to say; I just didn’t say them out loud in class. The fear of having all eyes riveted on me made me tongue tied. So while I didn’t speak out loud, I wrote voluminously. To this day I am never without a writing implement. My phone buzzes and before I pick it up, I get a pen.
When I was under going career testing, I learned that I was cut out to be a broadcast journalist, forest ranger or a teacher. Broadcast journalist sounded spectacular. My research taught me that I was not to consider it if I had, “any kind of speech irregularity what so ever.” I learned this was because speech imperfections were irritating and chased viewers away. I looked further into speech pathology and read that children should not be around anyone with a speech impediment for fear of imitating it and thereby becoming doomed to mush their way through life. So that ruled out becoming a mother.
I not only went on to have children, two with clear speech and one with a lisp. (You figure it out – why one and not the others?) I also became a teacher. To date I have corrupted the speech of over a thousand students and yet they manage to soldier on through life. In preparation for this article, I interviewed our speech therapist and asked if the interventions had changed from repeating for an hour a day, “Sammy the Snake Slithers Slowly South. (Seriously, an hour?) The answer was a definite, “Not really, when they (students) are in conversation we (still) might have them say sentences with multiple S words.
I asked why it is necessary for us all to speak the same way. She answered, “For intelligibility.”
“People with lisps are thought to be less intelligent?” I asked, firing up for the right to engage in slurred speech.
She hesitated before answering. I read a lot into that pause. “I said intelligible. People need to understand the speaker. If kids avoid reading aloud or don’t like speaking in class, that can impact them. I also think about first impressions and when they get older and go to a job interview, will they sound alright?”
Fair enough, I get it; educators are trying to prepare students to be successful members of the workforce so they can pay mortgages and mow the lawns of their dreams. But would I have found solace in writing if I knew I could do just as well speaking? Didn’t my reluctance to verbalize an opinion lead to further analysis on my part? The reality of my unwillingness to speak out loud led directly to affection for writing and it is exactly that haven that nurtured me as a writer. I am now promoting my first novel and that means I am frequently speaking in front of a roomful of people.
I have begun noticing in the last ten years an increasing number of people with lisps in broadcast journalism. Now with all of this in mind, you probably think I have enormous empathy for any speech afflicted. Nope. It irritates me. I do not, however, feel the need to change the channel. I just notice it. I notice the speaker is usually younger than I am and that they’re both male and female. I guess someone figured out that excluding intelligent reporters because of the way they speak was the same as not including people because of accents or odd walking patterns. So reporters with lisps began slipping in among the clear spoken as though being skilled at observing critically, analyzing objectively and reporting credibly earned them a place at the anchor table among those of clear speech.
I am aware that when I first meet people, they stare at my mouth when I speak. I figure they are trying to figure out what is wrong. Sometimes this makes me feel awkward but only for a little while. People are much more open than I have ever given them credit for being. The disconnect comes from my perception that they are judging me. As long as I speak with confidence and clarity, people listen. I’ve decided to embrace my lispyness, which BTW is hard to say when you have a lisp. What bathtard came up with that label? Will I get funding or a parade? Nope. But I do get to spray proudly and most importantly, communicate.