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“WILL I STUTTER?” How One Alum Built a New Paradigm for Confidence by Sarah Brazier

“I remember standing up, and I just couldn’t talk. It was this moment where all the muscles in my face tightened, I felt sweat going down my neck. It was this feeling where I had all these ideas that I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t say anything.” Ben Koh felt the panic rush through him as the words stuck in his throat. Was it nervousness? It was his first practice round of the year, after all. But still, it wasn’t like this was his first speech ever. Ben was a sophomore in high school, and had been competing since middle school. He didn’t know what was happening. After the round, he chalked it up to first-day-back jitters—until the next time he went to give a speech, and it happened again. A flash of sweat. Muscles tensing. Suddenly, the debate was suspended in midair, waiting for Ben to get the words out. As time went by, this pattern of being unable to speak surfaced into a stutter that Ben just couldn’t shake. For those unfamiliar with stuttering, it may seem odd for the behavior to surface halfway through someone’s speech career. But it’s not unheard of. Stuttering is complicated. Ask any speech language pathologist (I talked to my mom who just happens to be one), and they’ll explain that the roots of stuttering are two-fold: physical and emotional. Some individuals are born with a neurological difference that causes the speech impediment, while others see it surface because of emotional situations. The



two are often tied to each other. The more an individual with a stutter becomes aware of their impediment, the worse it becomes. For emotional stutterers, certain circumstances bring on the stutter with more vehemence. As a young California student participating in speech and debate at

A simple “You can do it!” on a ballot felt condescending. However, when a wellknown and respected judge told Ben he had the capacity to be a good debater, it gave him the confidence to keep going. Loyola High School, the fear of stuttering began to consume Ben. The thought that preoccupied his mind before each round wasn’t whether he’d flip negative or affirmative, or even if his evidence would hold up against his opponent, but instead, the lingering question of, “Will I stutter?” The stutter changed his ballots. Some judges were supportive, but others lacked any sensitivity, asking questions like, “Are you sure this is the right activity for you?” with a score of 19 speaker points next to his name. There were times when judges laughed at Ben as he stuttered through a speech. It was devastating. Like so many students in the activity, a large portion of

Ben’s identity was wrapped up in speech and debate. Ben defined himself as a debater. His community was debate. The negative ballots questioning his place at a tournament were crushing. Ben explains, “Before my sophomore year of high school, I’d never stuttered at all, but [now] I just couldn’t do a debate speech without stuttering. The moment the time began, my speaking pattern would change entirely… That’s what brought me to this question of, what is my relationship to debate, and what does it mean to me?” Ben loved debate because it was a clash of ideas, dueling it out in the intellectual arena. Even now, as a senior in college, Ben can’t think of anything that excites him the way debate does. The competitive opportunity with the academic challenge fueled him in a way no other classroom or athletic activity could. So, Ben became focused on correcting his impediment. In an article written for NSD Update,1 Ben explains, “I went to a speech therapist from my sophomore to senior year… I started to meditate and tried to figure out how to debate slower. I stopped sitting down in rounds and got a table to help the flow of breath. But in truth, at times I felt like giving up (or I did give up) in my career. I find it pretty hilarious now considering how much I miss it.” It was a challenging period for Ben. Going from holding a fluid conversation with teammates to fighting to get the words out in the round was increasingly

Profile for Speech & Debate

2017 Spring Rostrum  

Volume 91 Issue 4

2017 Spring Rostrum  

Volume 91 Issue 4