It comes when I’m tired or when I’ve talked too much or too fast. It comes during competitions when I’m nervous and when I’m trying to make a point. Sometimes it comes while I’m with my friends and family and I’m just trying to have a good time. Most people don’t notice it, but it’s there waiting to come out. I try to control it, keep it caged, but it escapes. It is my tongue. It is my teeth. It is my lisp.
My first word was “shoo,” but now I wonder if baby me was trying to say “chew” instead because I couldn’t pronounce the ch sound as a child. Whenever I tried, it would come out sh. I couldn’t pronounce s’s properly, either. My tongue refused to stay behind my teeth and would snake out between them to create a th sound.
Thankfully, my Mom didn’t let me live with my lisp and took me to a speech therapist when I was five years old. Even though the therapist didn’t think it was serious enough to bother with, Mom decided that she’d be my therapist. I remember driving home with her in our van and asking for some gum, my favorite candy.
“You can’t have any gum until you can say ‘peach,’ ‘church,’ and ‘chewing gum,’” she told me.
“But I can say ‘peash,’ ‘shursh,’ and ‘shewing gum’!” I protested.
She looked at me and smiled knowingly. “Keep practicing.”
I sank down into the brown van seat and sulked. “Peash-ch,shursh-ch, ch-shewing gum.”
“Pea-ch, ch-ur-ch, ch-ewing gum.” Mom enunciated the ch pointedly.
“Peash-ch, ch-shursh-ch, ch-shewing gum,” I repeated.
It took a few months, but I eventually mastered the ch sound and got my gum. Unfortunately, my s’s continued to come out sounding like th. By concentrating really hard, I could force my tongue to stay behind my teeth, but then would end up hissing like a snake.
Still, I managed to subdue my lisp significantly so that I could pronounce s’s followed by hard consonants such as k’s and t’s and liquid consonants such as l’s and d’s. But when there was an s pressed against a vowel, I struggled.
I would have stopped bothering with my lisp if it hadn’t been for speech competitions with 4-H, a youth organization where I met kids my age and learned to do things like act, cook, sew, and make crafts. At first, I did my best to avoid s’s in my speeches, but after a while, I gave up. There were just too many s’s in the English language. To win any prizes, I had to work on my lisp and became a frequent champion on county and regional levels. The lisp was my downfall at the state levels, and I walked away with only a reserve champion. But I didn’t let losing bother me and I learned to enjoy performing in front of crowds. People only knew I had a lisp if I told them.
One day at band practice, while in the practice room putting my flute together, I told my friend Cadence about the 4-H speech competitions and my frustration at never making state champion.
“Why don’t you think you can get champion?” Cadence asked.
“Because of my lisp.”
“You have a lisp?” I frowned at her sudden interest and excitement. She had a look in her eyes that reminded me of the look my siblings got whenever they found something new to tease people about. I chose my next word carefully, avoiding all s’s. “Yeah.”
“Say something with an s!”
“Come on, Debi! I want to hear your lisp! Say something with an s!”
“No!” I grabbed my flute and music stand and started to leave.
She followed me, grabbing my long, brown ponytail and tugging it. “Come on, Debi! Just one word!”
She tugged my hair again. “Please? Please? Please? Please?” Each “please” was accompanied by another tug.
My head was starting to ache; I grabbed my pony tail and yanked it away. “Cut it out!”
“Please?” She grabbed my hair and pulled it again, hard.
“Cadenthe! Thtop it!”
She released my hair, laughed, and clapped her hands in delight. “Say another s-word!”
“No!” I dropped my stand and dashed into the bathroom, bolting the door behind me. I sat on the floor, holding my aching head, and waited for Cadence to stop pounding on the door. She stopped after a few minutes, but I waited a little longer just to make sure. I slipped out, retrieved my stand, and hurried down into the band room where I would be protected by the teacher. Cadence hadn’t hurt my feelings that day; she’d only annoyed me—and given me a headache. But I didn’t let the teasing bother me even when a fateful incident made my lisp the brunt of a family joke.
My grandfather had treated our family to dinner at Texas Roadhouse, shoving us six Overstreets into the raised wooden booth. I ordered my normal eight-ounce steak, medium rare with onions; a loaded baked potato; and my favorite side Caesar salad. After the waiter left with our orders, my mother noticed my siblings, Beckie and Simeon, were snickering behind their menus.
“What are you two laughing about?” Mom asked suspiciously.
“Thide thaethar thalad!” Beckie said. Then she and Simeon burst out laughing like only an Overstreet could.
I frowned. “I said ‘thide thaethar thalad,’ not ‘thide thaethar thalad.’”
They laughed louder.
I realized what I had said and tried again. “Thide thaethar thalad!”
They were red in the face by now, and Beckie started to turn purple.
I huffed in exasperation and didn’t try again. “Thide thaethar thalad” was stuck in my mouth now, and I probably wouldn’t be able to say it correctly until we got home—and by then it would be pointless. Folding my arms across my chest, I glared at them.
Mom leaned over to me. “You can smack them if you want to.”
I won’t lie, it was a tempting proposition. But—mother’s permission or no—if you smack a sibling, be prepared to get smacked back and harder. Since I didn’t feel like adding a stinging arm to my stinging ego, I said very purposefully, “Thut up!”
If they had died then, they would have deserved it. Now it doesn’t matter if I say “side Caesar salad” or “thide thaethar thalad,” they laugh just as hard either way. I just tell them to “thut up” and move on with whatever I’m doing.
Sometimes people refer to my lisp as a speech impediment to keep from hurting my feelings. My lisp doesn’t impede me; it just gives me one more mountain to conquer. I realized this one Friday dinner during my senior year at college.
Sitting at a table to my left, another student I had never met caught my attention and pointed to his friend. “This guy can’t pronounce his r’s. They come out like w’s, like ‘sowwy.’ Do you feel sorry for him?”
I wondered if this was a joke, but instead of lying and saying “yes” to spare his feelings, I told them the truth. “No.”
He was taken back. “Why not?”
I knew I’d sounded like a jerk and my reasons probably wouldn’t help, but I explained anyway. “I have a lisp, and I’ve never wanted to be pitied. I’ve never pitied anyone with any kind of handicap. I admire them. They have to work to get past their handicap, and by doing so, become better than those without a handicap.”
“Oh. I’m sorry about your lisp.”
It was then that I realized I actually feel sorry for those without one. I admire those with severe handicaps who, in trying to keep up with the normal world, surpass “normal” people. In trying to be Clark Kent, they become Superman. The difference for some people is how they react to the handicap. People need to wait until they can say “chewing gum” before they can have their chewing gum.