Sunday, October 24, 2010

These, make that these halls are made for walking

Hello everyone,

I wanted to start off this latest entry of the blog by asking a familar question: Have you ever had to go back to the scene of the crime? You probably know what I am talking about-you may have done something wrong and had to go back and apologize to the person(s) offended, you could have had a bad experience and never wanted to go back, but there were circumstances that made this choice unavoidable? Well, that was me just about three weeks ago. I, too, returned to the "scene of the crime," and no, it did not have tape or any law enforcement personnel. It was a brick building which I spent four years in from 1992-1996. Yes, you figured it out, high school.

I had decided to sign up for a local adult education class which was sponsored by my school district. It was to be an Excel for beginners class. Now I do have experience with the program, but you can never go wrong with taking a brushup class and keeping your skills sharp. When I found out where it was, I was startled and began to sweat. The class was being taught on the second floor of my high school in the business wing. At first, I didn't think anything of it. Then when I turned into the parking lot, right off Kennedy Drive, I could feel the intense fear, which had been repressed for so long, starting to ooze to the surface, like a shark smelling blood in the water. On the outside, things hadn't changed all that much. Well, there was a digital mesage board welcoming you, and it was evident that there had been a fresh coat of paint (or two) on the marquee and in the lunchroom, which I could see from the outside.

As I walked through the doors, I began to feel that my heart was beginning to squeeze in my chest a little tighter. It's OK, I told myself, I am feeling anxious and this is normal. While in the lobby, I couldn't help but decide to walk to the right, and see if the nurse's office was where I remembered it. As I walked closer, I could hear the screams from the two volleyball teams that were playing each other yet it might as well have been the cruel teasing and alienation I felt. The janitor had not locked the door at that time, so I decided to go in. For those of you who have read my blog, you have understood how for so many periods, these 42 minutes I had to myself were 42 minutes of solitude and a place where I could escape everything. I never dared tell my parents where I was or why I chose to spend time there. I sat on the bed, closed my eyes, and just fell into a deep reflection. I could feel a shift coming on in my thinking. But I knew I had to remain steadfast. You are not the same person, I said to myself. You have achieved so much and come so far in a few years. The words you say no longer hurt, they empower and inspire.

When I left the office, I could not help but feel like I had undergone a spiritual cleansing, a rebirth if you will. Our scars never do go away, but every year they grow a little smaller. Whenever we take a step forward in accepting our speech, they also shrink. I noticed that the world of high school never really has changed all that much. Well, there were a few aesthetic changes. The high school radio station, WPOB/88.5, was moved up from downstairs to the main level of the building.

I already feel like a young veteran in the eyes of the National Stuttering Association, since I have attended five conferences and next year in Fort Worth will be my sixth. I always used to grow up thinking and with good reason that high school sets the tone for the rest of your life. After all, there are many people who still haven't changed, who act like every day is another day at the gym, fooling around, trying to be ultra-cool to impress everyone. Yet I have met so many teens who clearly can prove otherwise. They are confident, they know who they are, and they are ready to make their mark on the world. And they do stutter, some are mild, others are moderate-but they know that at all times the National Stuttering Association is with them. I may have found out about them too late, but I have also learned one thing that is paramount above all-it's never too late to inspire. It's never too late to help someone grow up into a new person. And it's never too late to confront your past and let it know who is in control.

My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Life of Riley.........

Hello everyone,

Throughout my life, and because of my work with the National Stuttering Association, I have met some of the most inspirational and driven people in the world, from here and abroad. But as I prepare to write this blog, I now emphatically can say that sometimes the people who have the greatest impact on you are the ones you never meet-and very sadly, they are also the ones who are taken from this earth way too early. What I am about to say, I have never told anyone. But the lesson learned from this experience is so important that I feel it is very important to have this told.

When I was struggling with my stuttering in my college years, I would often rely on the chat rooms of America Online to meet others. I've always been attracted to the Internet because it levels the playing field-on there, I can be an equal and have the same access to social interaction that I never could have in real life. I could be who I was, and never to have hide because of my speech. Oh sure, you better believe I ran into some people who really needed clues about be around people-you know, the perverts, the ones who just wanted to talk about themselves. But after many rough days, there were many times where it acted as a solace for me to feel like I belonged in this world, and that I meant something.

During my undergraduate years, one day in a "Twenties Love" chat room, I struck up a conversation with a young woman named "Riley" who was from the Carolinas. We got along really well and quickly, things progressed where we would talk about our daily lives. She worked in a restaurant owned by her parents, she was very big into alternative music, such as Stabbing Westward and Smashing Pumpkins. Ironically, she knew the area where I lived, and had relatives a few towns over from my community. Just like when you came home and settled in to watch your favorite TV show, we could almost set our clocks knowing that one of us (or both of us) would be on at the same time.

Six months into the online friendship, Riley asked if I could meet her online at a time that was highly unusual. I didn't think anything of it, so I said sure. When I signed on, she asked if we could go to a private room. I had this eerie feeling something bad was about to take place. So we found ourselves in the chat room, and she mentioned something I will never, ever, forget. Something so cold that it just made time stop. "I have to be honest with you, " she said. "I haven't told you this from the beginning, and I should have. I have AIDS."

At that moment in time, I didn't know what to do. I stared at the computer screen in utter shock, but deep down I had a strong feeling she was telling the truth. People don't joke about something like that. She began to type "I'll understand if you never want to speak to me again," she said. I wrote back: "If I wanted to leave, I would have left a long time ago."

People who stutter often have different approaches when discussing their stuttering. Some people prefer not to discuss it at all, while others are "covert" and try to hide it as much as possible. I am very open and am happy to discuss my stuttering with others. But for something on a whole other level, it's just something you don't ask about. She explained that she found out she had it when she received a blood transfusion, and at the time, the blood wasn't as well screened as it is now.

Riley and I never again brought it up. We talked about normal things-music, movies, sports, celebrities, and we grew really close. Riley also shared with me a goal she wanted to make happen: she actually wanted to attend college classes, so for once, she could feel normal. That struck a chord with me-that's what we all want. People who stutter always hear the putdowns: "Freak!" "Speak up, man!" and others to boot. She confessed that she had actually signed up to attend classes at my alma mater. I began to wonder if I'd have the chance to meet her. And despite this, I heard all the naysaying: "This girl is playing you." "Are you really that naive?" "Oh well, there's a sucker born every minute."

Eventually, Riley gave me the address where she was going to be for orientation. Hell, I didn't know even her last name. But on that day, I went up to assistant who carried the notepad and asked if she was on the roster. "Yes, she is," she said. My heart skipped a beat. She confirmed my suspicions. She was telling the truth after all.

I waited three hours for her, and she never showed up. I drove back home, and waited for her to come online. She never did. I began to tear up and forgot about everything. Three days later, she came back online and I asked her what happened. She refused to answer. I begged. I pleased. I cajoled her to tell me something. But she wouldn't crack.

Then a few hours later, she came back online. She told me everything. Riley said that her condition was worsening, and she probably wouldn't make it to the campus again. I asked her what was going on, and she said that she had hospice workers at her house. I felt helpless. I wanted to say something, do anything that would change how she felt. But I knew it wouldn't work.

The very next day, I received an email from her, which would turn out to be one of the last I'd ever receive from her. This is what it said:

"It takes someone very brave to walk toward another when everyone else is running away. You are that person. You would have been the first person I said 'I love you' to." She passed away shortly thereafter. I never even knew where her funeral was, or if she even had one.

We all know life is short, and tomorrow is not promised to anyone. But at every chance you get, say "I love you and thank you for allowing me to stutter" to those you are close to. Say it to your friends, your family (if you are close to them, unlike me), your clergy, a neighbor, even to the clerk at the local store. You never know when you'll have the chance to. I wish I thanked Riley for allowing me to stutter. I'll never have the chance to, and for that, I have to live with that the rest of my life. Don't make the same mistake I made.

My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Deal...or No Deal?

Hello everyone,

One of the greatest things about being a person who stutters, in my eyes, is to be able to break down any situation and somehow, there will always be incomparable comparisons with stuttering. No matter if you're out for a walk, or just sitting home and spending some good old quality time with the clicker, we can always come across a lesson learned from stuttering.

Something that I have recently gotten into is watching reruns of "Deal or No Deal" on the Game Show Network. I know the show ended a while ago, but whenever I watch it, I can't help but think about the approach of contestants and how that can be analyzed in terms of my speech. The show, which aired on NBC, really does not require any advanced knowledge, but one can make an argument that weighing the odds and taking a risk is definitely an asset if you know how to use it. The show, which has aired internationally in other countries, is hosted by Howie Mandel. He takes a contestant and places them in front of 26 supermodels looking all elegant in evening wear (or appropriate costume as the theme dictates), and the hopeful winner is asked to pick a briefcase numbered from 1-26, while standing in front of a board with 26 amounts, ranging from one penny to one million dollars. The challenge of course, is to win the million dollars or one of the high amounts without knocking them out early. Of course, the higher the amounts left in play, the better offer the banker (who is never seen) will try to negotiate to get you to leave the show. There have been million dollar winners, and those who had the best case, but gave up early so that they left with something. Six cases are opened first, then five, then four...and so on.

As people who stutter, one of the things we have learned (and continue to pursue) is the need to take risks and step out of the boundaries we have become so comfortable with. Yet there is one challenge that stands above all else-it is not speaking in a restaurant and trying to say what you want, although that is a very big one. It boils down to this: "How will I be today?"

I think more than anything, it's the fear of the unknown that provides with us great nervousness. So, if you will indulge me, let's try for a "Deal Or No Dealization" of stuttering. You stand in front of ten briefcases, each of them has a percentage amount which determines how fluent you will be today. One case has ten percent, all the way up to 100 percent. Do you want to pick one and accept that will determine your rate of fluency for the day? Or would you rather not play the game, wake up, and accept whatever will be will be?

I used to see myself as someone who wanted to play the game. But the more I thought about it, I realized that do I want to give my stuttering any more control of my life than it already has? Absolutely not. Those days are long gone, and I have no desire to bring them back ever again. These days when I walk out the door for work, I look at the mirror in my care before I drive off, smile confidently, and drive away. Because I know with the power of NSA Nation, all things are possible. Tomorrow, the sun will rise, and it will be another chance to speak and express myself the way I know how to: openly, and from my heart with raw, pure emotion.

Deal Or No Deal? I think I've made my choice. To let stuttering tell me how I am going to live my life, I say emphatically and slam the buzzer down: NO DEAL!

My name is Steven Kaufman, and I am person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.