'My stammer nearly ended my teaching career before it had even started'

In a heartfelt response to last week’s story about communication difficulties, headmaster Dr Martin Stephen reveals why every child deserves the right to speak...

Thursday 27 January 2011 01:00

It was a joyous experience for the audience watching The King's Speech. Spontaneous applause broke out as the credits rolled. For me, it was exquisite agony. I've been a headmaster for 24 years, a teacher for 40 years. For every day in my professional career I've had to talk clearly to groups of people. My record of speeches is seven in one week, one to a crowd of nearly 3,000.

None of those listening to me knew that at 13 years old I was told I had "an incurable speech defect" and that in 1970, in a shattering blow, I was rejected for a place on the Diploma of Education course, University of Leeds, as I would "not be able to stand up in front of a class without reducing them to uncontrollable laughter". They were more robust in those days, or more cruel. I've made a point of ringing up the University (to which I owe a huge debt for my time as an undergraduate) and telling them every time I've landed a new job. I think they should know.

Only a stammerer knows what the fear is like. However much one thinks one has conquered it, the stammer sits for all one's life like a huge black crow perched on your left shoulder, head cocked to one side, reserving the right to put its vast beak through your ear and in to your brain. You never defeat or remove a stammer: you just force it in to a corner.

I was also cured by a quack with no medical qualifications. An Old Etonian called Burgess, his life had been crippled by a bad stammer. Working as a car mechanic (you don't need to speak to cars), he had been stuck under a car when oil dripped on to his eye. In fit of fury he decided to find a way to cure his stammer. The result was the Burgess System of Speech, which incidentally also cured the inspirational comic Michael Bentine of his stammer.

As with the King in the film, I'd been sent to an unimaginable number of "speech therapists". None of then had ever stammered, and none of them knew what it was like. At the age of eight I've a memory of one such who relied heavily on a sand-pit, but at least I was never asked to stuff marbles in my mouth. The point was that none of it worked.

The truth is that a stammer is psychological, not physiological. We're afraid to admit that, because it smacks of mental illness, a worry shown clearly by both partners in the marriage in The King's Speech. It's in the mind, a stammer, and comes from a massive feeling of inadequacy. One of the reasons why watching the film was so personally awful is that I've spent a lifetime hoping I don't think I'm as important as I pray to God my pupils think I am. What Colin Firth portrayed so brilliantly was the classic Shakespearean theme, the clash between appearance and reality, how the monarch or member of the Royal Family is viewed compared with how they view themselves.

The interesting thing is that it wasn't the Burgess system of speech itself that cured me. It had some clever tricks, and I used them for a while. What I see now is that I used those techniques for a year or so, but most of my clear-speaking life hasn't been based on those techniques, but on the confidence they gave me that I could use them if I needed to. I haven't used what Burgess taught me for 20 years. Why not? I've used instead the confidence he gave me.

There's one danger in The King's Speech. It is beautifully historical, tucking the problem away in a distant age, and with a glorious, feel-good happy ending. For how many children in 2011 does it end so happily? "Bertie" had unlimited money, a loving and loyal wife and job prospects that made it unequivocally clear that he had to conquer his stammer. On a far lesser level, my parents could and were willing to pay the then-unimaginable sum of £100 to Burgess, who for all they knew might be a total fraudster (my father was a GP), and my career aspirations forced me to face up to my disability.

How many children accept that they too have "an incurable speech defect," and will perhaps accept compromises in their life that might deny them the chance to be what they could, and should have been?

Stammers do not kill. They can even appear strangely attractive, as brought out in The King's Speech. They are easy to dismiss. Yet I would argue that losing the ability to speak clearly is no less important to the development of a child than the loss of an arm or a leg, or the capacity to see or to hear.

The difference is that speech impairment is in the mind, not the body. We lack the ability to regrow a limb, or give a child new eyes. We can give a child the gift of speech, albeit too often by what we now call alternative medicine. My plea is that a truly brilliant film might have as a spin-off a real focus on a disability that can destroy life-prospects.

Dr Martin Stephen is High Master of St Paul's Boys' School

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