The world seems to change every day, especially when it comes to the media. Once upon a time in America, we began our days by waking up and breakfast couldn't start until we opened the daily newspaper and saw what had taken place. These days, newspapers are struggling to stay alive as news finds our way to us via different means: cell phone applications, the bloggers, and use of the Internet. But sometimes there is a story that just jumps out at us, and we briefly skim it, and have one of those "Wait a minute....what was that?" kinds of moments. And we learn a little bit more about ourselves simultaneously.
On Yahoo! there was such an article. Constance McMillen has turned into a name that is on everyone's lips and her struggle reflects one which hit me personally, and that's the right to belong. For those who may not know what happened, she is an eighteen-year old high school senior attending school in the Itawamba County region of Mississippi. She is also openly gay, and politely requested the school honor her wishes to wear a tuxedo and bring a same-sex date to her prom. The school decided to respond by canceling the event, citing numerous distractions. All of a sudden, she turned into the person responsible, and was subject to many rude and disturbing comments. One girl even said "Thanks for ruining my senior year." Little did she know how many people were ready and willing to rally to her defense, people of both orientations. As of the time this was written, there were nearly 400,000 members supporting her on Facebook, and the ACLU is fighting to have her prom reinstated.
What really hit me after reading this was it made me think of all the struggles that I, and members of the National Stuttering Association face, yet we bravely embark on our quests to live our lives the way we usually do and empower ourselves and others who are in the same situation. We have the right to stutter openly and without shame. Imagine what it would be like if we were told "You aren't allowed to stutter-ever!" I vividly remember reading how Constance spoke that she was so afraid to approach her classmates because of the reaction, yet her father said she had to do so. When I was in high school, despite volunteering in certain classes with teachers who made me feel comfortable, I wouldn't even talk to my classmates just because I felt so isolated and trapped inside. I could only walk down the halls with my head down, because I knew that if I had to face them, I would know exactly what they would say, and visualize the giggles and snickers at what I had to go through. It wasn't until I joined the National Stuttering Association, and I give the glory to them, that I learned that I could shake someone's hand and look them in the eye. How much inspiration and power that gave me!
When I originally read the story, I couldn't help but think of the movie "The Legend of Billie Jean," with Helen Slater. The movie, which has a cult following, features the tagline, "The last thing she ever expected to be a hero," which in some ways, could describe Constance. In the movie, the main character and her brother get into a mix-up which inadvertantly places them in harm's way and on the run from the authorities. As the film progresses, the teens begin to believe her side of the story, and many of them rally to her side, while exposing the fraudulent influence adults can have. Yet all it takes is ONE. ONE person to stand up and say "No, it's not all right." Yet many are afraid to do so. People who stutter are embarrassed and hesitant to report teasing or bullying in schools or colleges because of their response: "You need to be tough, you'll need to deal with this in the real world," or "Are you a real man?" No one has the right to be teased or humiliated because of something they can't control.
At the National Stuttering Association, I have met truly amazing individuals. We have a great group of dynamic teens who stutter, who are far more resilient than I was at their age. Yet again, we all learn from each other and provide so much support. In some ways, when I see them growing up and excelling in high school and seeing their bright futures, it makes me realize there is hope for this future generation-that maybe we can respect our differences.
Maybe Constance never intended be a hero. Perhaps certain members of the National Stuttering Association feel that same way. But I never saw myself as a hero. I'm just a person who stutters making a difference, just like we all are. But regardless of whatever you may think or believe, I think the right to belong is worth fighting for, and is essential. I am never going to believe otherwise, that just maybe there's a woman out there for me who believes in the NSA as strongly as I do.
Here's hoping Constance wins.
My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.