My name is B-Ben and I’m in the P-Peace Corps

By Ben Steiner
July 14, 2015

I’m a stutterer. That’s not an easy thing for me to say, figuratively or literally. Talking about stuttering has always brought out the worst of it, so stuttering has been in the category of “things I never want to talk about” for quite some time now.

Nonetheless, I always have been, and odds are always will be. Simple everyday tasks were never simple everyday tasks for me. For most of my life, ordering food was always preceded with a brief flash of red-hot fear. Telling people my name always entailed a 50 percent chance I’d look like I’d forgotten what people have been calling me for 20-some years. Reading aloud in school was avoided at all costs, including but not limited to creating elaborate escape plans and running to the bathroom for a pretend episode of random vomiting. This continued all the way through college, where participation in advanced seminars was nearly impossible. Trying to formulate an opinion on the Muslim Brotherhood’s school of Islamic jurisprudence was supremely difficult when counterbalanced with trying to decide if I would be able to get the word “Muslim” to roll off my tongue unencumbered.

Stuttering is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t stutter. And we’re not talking about that “sometimes I stutter when I get nervous” kind of stutter. I mean, the kind where sounds literally get stuck in your throat, your tongue tenses up and, to an unaccustomed observer, you may look like you’re having some kind of seizure.

So, when I thought about the Peace Corps, I always knew what the most difficult part would be. It’s the same thing it’s always been for me: talking.

Admittedly, my stutter hasn’t been that bad in quite some time. Depending on regular fluctuations in severity, I can always communicate, and sometimes it’s like I don’t stutter at all. But that said, the idea of standing in front of a classroom full of students who don’t know me, are from a culture not as prone to politely ignore these things and sometimes speak in a mixture of three languages, was a truly terrifying prospect.

Unsurprisingly, my first day of teaching was preceded by the usual pre-public speaking terror. I sweated profusely. The idea of walking out and quitting Peace Corps crossed my mind. I went through the whole lesson, painstakingly reviewing every theoretical syllable and developing a strategy to work around them. It was an inescapable pre-public speaking tradition I’d suffered through since the fourth grade.

I got on stage (classes here have stages) and started talking. By some sort of small miracle, my first 10 or so classes were totally free of speech hiccups. As the novelty wore off teaching so did the temporary reprieve from speech-impediments.

So, when I got to site I did, and still do, sometimes have trouble getting the words to come out of my throat. At first, standing in front of 40 giggling hijabi girls and struggling to say my own name was an unacceptable prospect. That’s probably one of the most petrifying things pre-Peace Corps Ben could have imagined. Standing in front of 200 giggling hijabi girls and making an impromptu speech, therefore, would’ve been unfathomable.

The first time I looked at a crowd, I refused to speak. The second and third time, I reluctantly obliged. By the tenth time I thought, “oh, this again?” and took the microphone. Twelve months later I present in class every day, give speeches in Indonesian to village elders and facilitate trainings for my American peers. Sometimes I stutter – that hasn’t changed – but something else has: I don’t care as much. Every instance of public speaking — or, for that matter, simply ordering food — is still accompanied by a wave of fear. But for every presentation that wave becomes a little smaller and a little easier to swim past.

I’ve done enough presentations now to be comfortable presenting on just about anything. I’m no longer shy in front of a crowd. I’ve given enough well-received speeches, classes and trainings to know my stutter isn’t really impacting my message and that I can still get all the same (or more) laughs and high-fives as my more fluent peers.

Gradually I’ve transitioned to point where if someone laughs when I stutter, I don’t lapse into self-loathing. Instead, I think, “wow, that guy looks like a jerk,” and move on with my life. That’s a victory that has taken 25 years to achieve.  Apparently, all I had to do was join the Peace Corps.

Extrapolate what you want from this. Maybe it’s got some deeper meaning, like ‘do the things that scare you’ or ‘face your fears’ or whatever. But I’ll tell you this much: These days I’m spending a lot less time worrying about saying my own name, and that’s enough meaning for me.

Ben Steiner

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