Even after 60 years, I can recall the fear that night that rolled through my stomach in pulsating knots.
It’s the late 1950s and I’m at my first two-week summer camp in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. There are a hundred or so of us in a circle around the campfire and the lead counselor says it’s time for us to get to know each other. He asks each camper to stand, tell his name, where he is from and share a sentence or two about himself.
My first reaction is to retreat to the bunk in my cabin, but there is still enough twilight that everyone would see me sneaking away. As my moment in the circle came closer, the convulsions in my stomach became almost paralytic. I especially recall the act of standing to be physically painful.
“My . . . n—–ame is V—- (gave up). F—-rom M—–(gave up.) Like to p—–lay baseball.” This transcription here of what I said is much more fluent than what my fellow campers heard.
I would never again attend a summer camp, preferring to spend my summers hiding on a baseball field where I could let my all-consuming interest in athletics speak for me.
As Betty and I checked into Cabin P-5-R this week at Camp SAY near Hendersonville, N.C., I surveyed the standard bunk beds and the worn wooden floors that had served generations of campers. There was the perfunctory lake out front with the floating docks and swim platforms. Swimsuits dried on lines in the slight August breeze. The birds seemed especially cheerful.
I was at summer camp once again after more than half a century, but what a different camp this was. Camp SAY was full of the infectious laughter of 140 campers, most of whom are young people who stutter. The camp is sponsored by the nonprofit Stuttering Association for the Young, based in New York City.
About half of the campers come from the New York area. SAY was founded 15 years ago by Taro Alexander, an actor-teacher who is a dedicated advocate of those who stutter. The organization’s fund-raising efforts throughout the year support participation in camp and other SAY programs.
I spoke to the campers as a group that night to share with them a few of the things I have learned on my long journey with stuttering. I told them not to think so much about fluency but simply about finding their voices. To speak proudly and to be heard.
What I enjoyed the most, however, was the one-on-one conversations at dinner, breakfast and along the pathways of the camp. These young people were excited to share. They wanted this “paperboy” from Tennessee to hear their stories because they knew he would understand them. Inside of the repetitions, prolongations and hesitations of the words was the freedom to let their voices escape society’s mandate, the freedom to be themselves in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
My sincere thanks to Taro Alexander and Ryan Millager, lead speech-language pathologist, for inviting me to visit Camp SAY. You can learn more about the Stuttering Association for Youth and its camp here.