Overcoming anxiety: Why I benefited from speaking in class as a child despite my debilitating speech disorder

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From complaints that our undergraduates are “mollycoddled babies,” to laments over the disappearance of meritocratic athletic trophies, to descriptions of college students’ “embarrassing fragility,” decrying the cosseting of today’s youth is widespread. And there’s good reason for concern: Despite good intentions, overprotection can be harmful.

Life is hard. Bad stuff happens, and people suffer when we lack the emotional and experiential foundation to deal with it. Sooner or later, just about everyone confronts anxiety, embarrassment, trauma, and tragedy. Expecting people to successfully create the necessary foundation during adulthood is simply unrealistic.

That it’s unrealistic, however, is difficult to prove. There are no solid data or rigorous, gold-standard studies. There can’t be. So those who fret about overprotection do so based on intuition, belief, and personal experience. Often, though, that’s enough. Such was my response upon reading a recent report in the Atlantic about teens protesting in-class presentations.

“In the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options,” reports staff writer Taylor Lorenz. “Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is not only unfair because they are bound to underperform and receive a lower grade, but it can also cause long-term stress and harm.”

This wish and its rationale imply a belief that the costs of accomplishing something despite the anxiety it invokes are greater in magnitude than its benefits.

In my experience, however, that belief is often backwards.

Around the age of five, I developed a stammer. I’ve mostly vanquished it over the years, but I’m now in my thirties and I still have to think about and deal with it with every single day. Would I be better off if I had been “protected” from this anxiety until after college? Not likely.

As you may know, a stammer—or stutter—is an involuntary disruption or blockage of speech. It might manifest as unwanted repetitions of parts of words (as it often da-da-da-did), or a sometimes-unpredictable inability to say certain words or sounds (the first syllable in “Michigan” has always been a problem for me, for example, and I grew up there and went to the state’s eponymous flagship university, so the word has come up a lot).

It’s a physiological condition that’s made worse by psychological or emotional states like fear, excitement, and anxiety. It also, cruelly, causes those feelings. So it can be debilitating. As depicted in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, for instance, it sorely hampered King George VI’s ability to address his nation as Britain was going to war with Nazi Germany. And it led Annie Glenn, in front of every major media outlet in America, to reject Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s forceful wish to enter her home and be filmed alongside her as she and the rest of the country watched her husband complete America’s first orbital spaceflight. (John, for his part, characteristically and unflinchingly supported Annie’s choice when powerful men demanded that he change her mind.)

My most relevant memory is twenty-four years old, but it’s as vivid as yesterday. I’m in the early days of fourth grade at a new school with all-new classmates. We’re doing “popcorn reading,” where the teacher picks a student to read some lines, who then picks a classmate to repeat the process, and so on. I’m terrified—especially because my usual trick, switching to a synonym when I get stuck on a word, doesn’t work when reading aloud from a text. I get called on and try my best, but a few words into it I get stuck. So I panic, then cry, then cover my face with the book, hoping that my classmates won’t catch on. But they do. And my teacher does, too, after which she mercifully calls on someone else. It was a traumatic experience. And my classmates never let me forget it. (Kids can be cruel, too.)

Yet after it happened and despite ongoing speech therapy and ceaseless anxiety about my stammer, I still had to do presentations, read aloud, raise my hand to offer answers, respond to questions when called on, talk to groups, and do everything else that was required of students who could—magically, it seems, even now—speak at will without getting into tangles. My teachers didn’t lower their expectations, and my parents didn’t intervene. It was hard, but the God’s honest truth is that I’m stronger for it. More confident. More resilient.

Had I not been forced to speak in class in those early grades, I would not have developed the ability in adulthood to speak publicly—even knowing as I open my mouth that I’ll often struggle to get all the words out. Instead, fear and insecurity would have limited my career prospects and perhaps my aspirations to situations where I wouldn’t have to say much. Or in a job like the one I have now, where I (and my employer) benefit from speaking, I would have stayed quiet and foregone the radio interviews that I’ve done, the podcasts, the dinner meetings, the conference presentations, and umpteen other instances in which I’ve been plenty anxious yet have been able to power through whatever it is was that was worth saying. It would have hurt me professionally, lessened my earning potential, harmed my family’s well-being, impeded romance, and hindered my ability to provide for my (future) children. Worst of all, it would have damaged my own sense of self-worth, all because of well-meaning adults who could have tried to save me from being embarrassed in front of my peers. I’m so grateful that they didn’t.

That’s why the idea of letting students forgo presentations because of social anxiety worries me, even when it’s associated with a bona fide physical affliction like mine. I’m sure there are individuals and instances where such an accommodation is right and appropriate. But in many other cases—like mine—that kind of protectiveness would end up doing more harm.

In most situations, and for most people, I’m quite sure they can overcome their anxiety and do everything their peers can. At least that was my experience—and the love and trust of my parents and teachers made it possible.

Brandon L. Wright
Brandon L. Wright is the Editorial Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.