Joe Biden is my hero.
Contrary to what may first enter your mind, this is not a political statement. I’m not sure who won the debate last week, or who will become president in less than a week — but, I know personal courage when I see it.
As a child, Joe Biden was what has been described as a serious stutterer, and suffered as his schoolmates teased and bullied. He lived the fear of that day in English class when oral book reports were due and the sleepless nights that preceded, or the disappointing look from a teacher who equated a stutter with stupidity.
He felt the sting of the chuckles when simple introductions in class became a source of endless anxiety, or attempting to answer an easy question using only the limited volume of words that came out easily.
And, somehow through all the indignities that accompany individuals who have a speech impediment like stuttering, he chose to not only endure, but over-achieve. That might seem like ambition to some, but, to me, it’s a badge of courage displayed by the few who decide to live and achieve despite the uncomfortable situations or disabilities. To the contrary, Biden placed himself in the fray, and fought through speeches and public appearances that might have intimidated many with the good fortune of perfect speech.
During the recent debate, I sat with nervous anticipation as I noticed Biden’s stutter become more noticeable than in past performances. I stumbled over the words with him, and noted each time a word was changed at the last possible second to avoid a stutter.
I suppose only a few could realize the difficulty in answering a difficult question while also juggling a selection of “usable” words. Somehow, it always leaves one robbed or shortchanged of an opportunity to say more, if only the words could have arrived more easily.
So, how do I know so much about the intricacies of stuttering and how it can affect what seems like simple communication to most of the population?
Years ago, I was asked to speak at a support group for stutterers. As I visited with the attendees before the event, I was amazed at the cross-section of America represented by these people who found solace among friends. In this one place, they were judged on who they were, and their thoughts were valuable, no longer how long it took to express them.
I spoke with doctors, lawyers and other professionals as well as deliverymen, plumbers and IT specialists. Some told me that their careers mirrored their desire to perform tasks that required a minimum of oral communication or explanation.
Others seemed to have selected careers that challenged their speech limitations, purposely accepting careers that required constant interaction and speech.
All had suffered the same indignities I described above, and the shared suffering was somewhat the tie that bound this unlikely band of brothers. It was a unique experience just being in an environment where jokes with delayed punch lines were appreciated, and moments of strained silence were approached with patience and understanding.
As the time approached for the event to begin, I felt some very familiar emotions brewing in my mind, and I immediately rushed through a mental checklist of preventative measures. I thought briefly of those horrifying oral book reports, but there was no time to dwell on the unpleasantness.
I slowly walked to a podium, carefully timing my arrival with the first words of my comments.
“I am a stutterer and you are my heroes,” I said with words that emerged without a hint of hesitation.
So, as Joe Biden spoke to millions of Americans in what would have a difficult forum for any former or current stutterer, he placed himself in glorified air in my mind.
Voters decided who won the debate, and who knows how the election evolved, but Joe Biden’s words represented a victory for the millions of Americans who suffer through uninvited silence, and reminds us all that all words are important.