Good evening everyone,
Tonight is Thanksgiving Eve, and all across the country there is a plethora of things to be done: the traveling to family and loved ones, the manic last-minute preparations for the feast to be unveiled tomorrow, or, the start of the party night of the year. (Well, at least according to the countless advertisements for bars I've heard on the radio). We all know the roots of Thanksgiving, with the Pilgrims, and we have many things to be thankful for: our family, our health, our freedoms. Yet above all else, there's one freedom I have never taken for granted, and it wasn't until it was taken from me that I realized how important it truly is. They say you don't know what you have until it's gone, and isn't that the truth. I am talking about the freedom to stutter openly and do so without shame and embarrassment-the freedom to be myself.
Growing up on Long Island, I lived in a close-knit community-and there really wasn't much "wiggle room" in the popularity race. You either were somebody, or you weren't. Each person had an identity that went far beyond the name, and I knew what mine was: "Steven the Stutterer." I can still re-live those cruel days when I would ask to sit down for lunch and the vocal chords locked, just like the car wheels in the snow. "Sorry, this seat is taken," or "Come on, Stuttering Steve! Spit out the words." I had accepted that was my fate, to be known as "Stuttering Steve." It got so bad that I would actually eat lunch by myself in the nurse's office. I didn't have to make up any excuses, I would just walk into the office, give a nod which was acknowledged, and go into the bed to eat. That would become my refuge, and my safe place. Of course, I never dared tell my parents about what I experienced.
And yet, the pain grew so long and hard. Every Thanksgiving holiday that passed, just felt like a Groundhog Day episode: the angst, the alienation, and being secluded from the rest of the modern world. I felt like an uninvited guest to the dinner table, and when I would sit down and ask for something to be passed to me, I could never get the words out. "Cranberry" would come out like "c-c-crrrrrrranberry" and as I was fumbling with the words, my mom would sit there exasperated and my dad would be rolling his eyes wondering why I could not say what I wanted. After that, I decided to spend my Thanksgiving holidays at a diner by myself, just me and the trimmings. And as I'd be eating, I would look over and see the happy families laughing, just enjoying being together, and seeing my heart ripped out and the blood squeezing very slowly in front of me.
These are certainly unprecedented times we live in: jobs are being cut, sacrifices made and unpopular choices around us. But this Thanksgiving, I look back on the memories of Scottsdale for the 2009 NSA annual conference, and those memories keep me going. I think about how above all else, I am grateful for the freedom I have: the freedom to stutter. The freedom to educate and empower my teammates, and learn from all of them. The freedom to share my head-over-heels love of the National Stuttering Association (http://www.westutter.org) with SLP students who will make their mark on the speech pathology field. I learn just as much from them and hopefully they learn from me. We all live through each other, celebrating our triumphs and learning about our challenges. The freedom to stutter and be who you are is truly the biggest reason to celebrate Thanksgiving.
It's always human nature to want more than what we have. Yet at the same time, I realize now that I am a special teammate with a gift. This is a precious gift that all NSA teammates have. The gift to love, the gift to learn, and the gift to make this world better than it is. Many times these gifts will not go recognized, but to those who are touched by them, just knowing that their world is brighter is enough thanks. But if you really want to see this gift in action, come to the NSA Conference in 2010 but just watch the last day when teammates leave to say goodbye. For those special teammates we call "first-timers," watch the tears down their face, and the families' faces as well. Some things really are priceless.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my teammates!
My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.