This is a story about a stutter. Not the soon-to-be presidential stutter, but the stutter of a man named Ted Hoagland, a writer and teacher of mine at the University of Iowa. Ted himself has written eloquently about his stutter in an essay called “On Stuttering,” which I recommend to you, but his experience of his stutter was necessarily different than my experience as a student in his classroom. Every week I walked into the overlit room in which he taught, and whatever hesitation filled my mind, I let go of it at the sight of Ted at his desk, surrounded by arrogant young apprentice-writers who droned on and on before the class began, while he, the teacher and accomplished writer, sat silently, working out what I assumed to be his own hesitation.
We critiqued two student short stories each week, in a way that now reminds me of a cat playing with a mouse for sport. One student named Jeffrey loved the word irony and worked it into his criticism of every piece. “I think you’ve overdone it on the irony here,” he’d say, or “Scrap the ending. Too ironic.” I believe I succeeded in being respectful to every windbag I met in the halls of the English Philosophy Building where we converged for workshops and classes called Forms of Fiction, but sometimes I found it extremely challenging. To watch the windbags’ antithesis at work in the form of our teacher, Ted, was the balance my education needed.
Ted began each class with a short monologue. He’d speak about the themes that appeared in both of the week’s submissions, and the pitfalls both pieces presented and how they dealt with them. He’d thank the students who were about to go under the knife, and from that point on he’d say no more. He was a head-wagger and full body stutterer. His shoulders contorted and his back arched as he tried to speak. I don’t know the technical terms involved in stuttering, but I do know that for Ted, with a stutter as extreme as his was, making himself understood, unless on paper, was a magnificent act of courage. And endurance. Even that short monologue was an endurance exercise for him, and for the class of young whipper-snappers who’d decided they had enough to write about to try and make a career of it. Or they knew enough about writing to imagine themselves right there in Ted’s seat one day. And not just one day, but one day soon.
I understand now, looking back on all of us, that of course we had little to write about and that was the reason for all the talk. All the windy holding-forth that happened in that classroom was the direct result of having nothing to say. And the fact that Ted didn’t interrupt us, didn’t intervene and scold us, or at least beg us to tame our bulging egos, the fact that he sat in silence while we all carried on, strikes me now as its own teaching tool, but a tool we didn’t know how to accept when it was given to us, nor how to use if we could accept it. Silence wasn’t fashionable in our twenties. We believed language was our life. And the subtleties of silence, the wide worlds of difference between deference, defeat, and tact, wouldn’t dawn on us for a long time.
I hear that some years ago Ted lost his sight, and through a risky operation it was restored to him, but during that time he lost his stutter, or most of it. What an extraordinary development for a man, a writer, who has always expressed himself within the safety of the written word. To venture out into the spoken, but with the understanding that less said is often the greater gift. A lesson for all of us.
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