When a tittering teacher was no laughing matter
At secondary school a chemistry teacher used to pull me up on the fact I couldn’t pronounce my r’s and l’s properly and get kicks out of doing it. On one occasion, she asked me a question regarding the molecular structure of some compound or another. She seemed to derive great pleasure out of asking me to repeat the answer - ‘three’ – over and over again, under the pretext that she couldn’t understand me. My cheeks grew redder as she continued to say ‘Pardon?’ I could tell my classmates felt just as embarrassed as I did.
Thankfully, with my tormentor showing no sign of giving up, one kind soul amongst the class shouted out the answer. The ritual humiliation that always seemed to be part of chemistry lessons was over. I dropped out of chemistry soon after that particular episode. I’d had enough. I never did get to learn the table of elements inside out.
I first realised that I spoke differently to other children when were asked to make the revving sound of an engine during a primary one lesson. For some reason, I couldn’t roll my r’s the way the other kids could. Before then, I’d been oblivious to the burr that caused my r’s and l’s to sound like w’s long before Jonathan Ross came onto the scene.
To this day, I still don’t understand why I have this speech defect. Perhaps it’s because children learn through repetition and my mother also has a burr – but that doesn’t explain why all but one of her other children have no such difficulty. My mother was always told that I would probably grow out of it. Initially her burr had been pretty fairly pronounced, but over the years it had become virtually undetectable (which was just as well as her maiden name was Rosemary Brown). But that’s little comfort to a child being constantly ridiculed.
The image-conscious teenage years were particularly testing. When you feel so self-conscious about something – as you do about most things when you’re in your teens – it inevitably exacerbates the problem. Even seeing sentences we had to read out where the r’s and l’s featured prominently would make me break out in a cold sweat. I would shift uneasily at my desk in a tizzy, avoiding the teacher’s gaze in the hope that I wouldn’t be asked to read that particular excerpt. And you know what? Yep, I always was.
I would desperately try to pronounce the words properly, but usually succeeded only in bringing attention to my speech defect. The cacophony of giggles and mimicry that often greeted me when I spoke made me feel much worse and I would bury my head for the rest of the lesson praying that no one would remember.
Funnily enough, those people who stopped and started when they read aloud, pronounced words wrongly and were often inarticulate to the point of illiteracy always led the chorus of sniggers and tittering. Undoubtedly, they too felt self-conscious about their inability to form words and reflected the inferiority they felt about themselves onto me. The best way to distract attention from yourself is to ensure people focus on others after all.
The word ‘three’ in particular became taboo. Even when I was asked to go to the shops and ask for three of something or even an amount with three in it, I would panic. If I couldn’t get out of it – and boy did I try – I would do my best to ensure I was the only person in the queue, so that when the shop assistant asked me to repeat what I’d said, as they often did because my burr was more pronounced when I was nervous, no one was within earshot to witness my embarrassment. I swear sometimes my head would disappear into my shoulders so I no longer had a neck!
Few of us, if any, can honestly say we are monuments to perfection. Everyone has at least one feature that could leave them open to ridicule whether it’s a big nose, plumpness, clumsiness or a tendency to laugh like a hyena under the influence of nitrous oxide. Although many of my teenage peers suffered similar harassment because of some personal trait or another, I was so engrossed in my own plight that I didn’t notice. My so-called speech impediment had always been a problem for other people and they in turn made it mine.
Things changed when I became friends with Sean, who stood out more than anyone I knew. Sean has an effeminate voice and preferred to hang around with the girls. He had strong beliefs that extended far beyond the usual fads associated with youth. Unlike me, he made absolutely no attempt to disguise the idiosyncrasies that so riled others.
Sean was comfortable with himself at a time when no one else really was. This confidence was infectious. My burr didn’t matter any more. Now, although its still there, I hardly notice it and no one else seems to either.
This piece appeared in Scotland On Sunday