Good evening everyone,
I'd like to start off by saying how elated I am to be returning to my blog and sharing all things stuttering with this special community all over the world. Since my absence has been a few weeks, I want to make it up to you by sharing some experiences from a very special National Stuttering Association conference. For those who have read my blog frequently, you know how I speak of this special event with great admiration and a true love for my fellow people who stutter and the accomplishments we celebrate. But was 2011 ever a year for celebrating!!!
The buzz for our conference always hits a fever pitch about three weeks before, when we know it is so close at hand. Well, not this year. Try imagining it a few months before. We confirmed that attendance records would be shattered, and they were. We broke 800 for the first time, ever. Every year, the number of first-time attendees grows. This year, we had 300!!!! We had many new presenters step forward to give workshops and seminars. I have had the pleasure of presenting a few of them (2008 in Parsippany, N.J., 2009 in Scottsdale, Ariz., and 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio) but this time around, I took a step back and watched many new members embrace the challenges. Although I am not married (and aren't sure if I ever will), I can say emphatically that in a way, I will always be married to the NSA. It is because of my work with them that has shown me how to fully develop and mature into the type of person I want to be. It is because of them that I can lecture at universities, write this blog to reach all who stutter, and give a voice to those who want to speak, but are hurting and very afraid.
We held our conference at the Renaissance Worthington, located right in the heart of downtown Fort Worth, Texas, known as the "Gateway to the American South," and "Where the West begins." Although I had been to Texas once (in Houston), I had no idea what I was really in for. Although Fort Worth is 30 miles from Dallas via I-30, Fort Worth had always been portrayed as "the way Texas was meant to be seen." So if you were thinking of cowboys, the Wild West, and history, then you've come to the right city. Dallas is very cosmopolitan and modern, yet there are few places that retain its charm. As I flew into Love Field on Southwest and started my journey to the hotel, the only thing that was going through my mind was my experiences crossing the Bay Bridge in Maryland on Route 50. The Annapolis (Bay) Bridge connects the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is very rural and known for its slower way of life surrounded by pristine beaches and a big fishing community, with the western part of the state (i.e. Baltimore and the Washington DC suburbs), and upon crossing the bridge, it felt like you stepped through the galaxy portal into a whole other universe and you're blown away completely.
As soon as I entered the doors of the hotel, my eyes would lay to rest on some of the most charismatic members in the NSA that I know, and the shouts are so loud, yet filled with unrestrained glee. In essence, the NSA conference could be described as an overgrown camp for people who stutter. We laugh, we cry, we share, we dream, we do, and we catch up with each other about what has been going on in our lives. I make sure to arrive on Tuesday, because once the conference kicks off Wednesday night, it goes faster than a DeLorean that hits 55. But don't worry, you're not transported back in time....yet.
Wednesday night we kicked off NSA 2011 with a choice of a night out at Six Flags over Texas, or seeing the Texas Rangers host Baltimore. I'm not much of a theme park person, never was. (Probably having dreams of being suspended over the park upside down was enough to turn me off to it). So myself and 200 others took in the Rangers game with 30,000 other fans. What an incredible experience! There's something classic about enjoying a game under the stars with a hot dog, cold beer (or ice cold water, which was in plentiful supply-it did not get below 100 degrees all the days we were there) and just talking with soon-to-be best friends. You laugh at the fact that you may be in your thirties and doing the Wave. Or how in the bottom of the fifth inning, your whole section breaks into singing "Deep In The Heart of Texas." For four days, we were all Texans by the grace of God!
I get so much faith and tremendous strength by watching the young children and teens turn themselves into young men and women as they will be the next generation of NSA leaders. I know I repeat myself often on this blog, but if I do, it's only because it's true. This is one place where age is just a number. At 13 years of age, these children have confidence I never had but desperately wanted to call my own. I learn from conference veterans in their fifties and sixties (and beyond!) and teens and twentysomethings can learn from me being 33. I've been where they are going. If I can save one person from having a painful experience, then it will all have been worth it to me. Friday night a group of us went to the Stockyards in historic Fort Worth and walked around to see what life was like back in the day....more like 200 years ago though. I left early to help one of my friends, who is comedienne who stutters, make her debut at Rick O' Shea's. About 150 members came out to cheer her on, and she was just unstoppable with her jokes. A few years ago, mention the words "stuttering comedienne" and you would have heard "Yeah..r-i-i-i-i-ght. Good luck with that." It's amazing what stuttering can do....in fact, it could help you develop talents you never even knew you had! Maybe somewhere out there is a person who stutters that was given a gift...to play music, to create, to build....but they don't know they have it!
And then there was Saturday. The NSA was able to bring David Seidler, the Academy-Award winning writer of "The King's Speech," to be our keynote speaker. Mr. Seidler is the only person who could be introduced, get a two-minute ovation, and not have to say anything. But he did. He regaled us with his stories of growing up in London and coming over to America. He shared with us how his stuttering shaped us. And when he said "My name is David, I'm a person who stutters, and I am proud of it," the crowd just exploded into sheer ecstasy. Not only that, but he was truly a gentleman and signed posters and photos for us, and he took the liberty to personalize them. He did not have to do that at all. If that does not tell you the type of person he is, then I'm sorry, but I can't help you. We had a closing ceremony where one parent spoke about her son's stutter, and started to break down and apologize. She apologized to her own son for not listening, not understanding, and she begged forgiveness. I began to weep on my own. A police officer spoke about how he nearly turned around after being ten minutes from the hotel, but was so glad he didn't. And there was this unforgettable moment: Every year, we have a series of "Open Mike" sessions where anyone who stutters can get up and share any stories they want. A young man who was in his twenties came up and said that there was a young woman who stuttered so severely that she barely spoke during the conference. He then said something to the effect of "I will not say who this person is in the room, but I know if we encourage this person to get up and speak, she'll do so!" The room quickly turned into cheers and loud roars, and when the young woman got up, it reached a crescendo. "My name is D-m-m-m-m-D-D-D-a-nnn-yela," she stated, to even more loud applause. That says it is all about what a powerful, amazing community we really have.
The closing banquet for me is always emotional, especially during the last ten minutes. It even hit closer to home because we danced to "DJ Stutter," who is a real-life person who stutters but also performs in his hometown at the local club scene. When you realize the end really is near and you won't see these people for another year, the dam begins to burst and the tears flow. And you know that no matter how frustrated you get, how you long to give them one more goodbye before they go to the airport, the days will move by fast and soon enough there will be another conference in 2012.
The past few days, I've been playing "You're Gonna Miss This" by Trace Adkins frequently, and if you listen to the lyrics in the chorus, it makes perfect sense. Especially if you are a first-timer, but we can all relate to it:
"You're gonna miss this, you're gonna want this back, you're gonna wish these days hadn't gone by so fast, these are some good times, so take a good look around, you may not know it now....but you're gonna miss this."
We already do. Just remember, it ain't about how fast you get there, and it ain't about what's waiting on the other side. It's the climb.