Sisyphean Speech: words, sounds, and reconciliation

By Andrew Peiser

At thirteen, my life irrevocably changed.

I was on the cusp of puberty. My broad shoulders and lush beard would soon dispel boyhood. For now, I walked in awkwardness from class to class. Once a week was speech therapy.

After a deaf infancy was corrected by surgery, I could not speak comprehensible sounds. My mouth’s muscles were lax. Around the age of four I began the process of learning how to speak. I would say sentences chockfull of s’s through a straw, straining to sense from exhaled air what signified an s sound. I
 felt silly, so I didn’t do it. However, when I entered elementary school, I discovered how much 
sillier it felt to repeat myself in 
front of teachers and classmates than it felt to blow through a straw. I began to do the exercises.

Soon I could articulate vowels. Then,
 q’s, then l’s. By middle school I only really had s
 and r left. At this point, though, the stakes were raised: appearance mattered more, public speaking happened more, and children were cruel. So, I went to speech therapy once a week. I mouth strings of sounds into a tape recorder. Play them back. And repeat; more strained, more ashamed. Progress is indiscernible. But, as a person who does not conceive of himself as someone forever asked to repeat, repeat, repeat: I keep going.

Art by Aurora Rojer

At thirteen, in the eighth grade, my speech therapist told me, “You can do some more, but you’ll never attain normal speech.” I’m sure I had known that, but I hadn’t been able to tell it to myself. I had wanted to believe that my speech impediment was something that would not follow me. I had wanted to believe that my voice was something that I did have power over. Its defects were a blip in my childhood, not a fact of my life. Nonetheless, I did not struggle against what the speech therapist told me. However hard one resists, there are issues that will recur endlessly.

Reinhold Niebuhr knew this. His Serenity Prayer articulates it well: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I say that my life irrevocably changed by being told that I cannot change. This was radical to me then, as it sometimes is now. If I spend undue time trying to tongue sounds that I never will, I forsake the opportunity to speak what I can. To demand oratory precision of myself is Sisyphean, but to strive for precision in diction is something in my power. The process of self-acceptance is long, if there is an end at all. For this lad, it starts with reconciliation: the meaning of my words when I give them to the world with how those words will always be a little off from their intent.

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