The Human Spirit

My high school job that I loved was eliminated in June due to budget cuts. I had worked in the role of career counselor with grade 11 and 12 students for almost 4 years. I have worked primarily with young people, ages 16-24, for most of my 28 years in education.

I went through the gamut of emotions this summer – anger, shock, fear, and denial. Most people go through similar feelings when faced with unemployment, especially compounded with a very poor economy. I had a particularly hard time with my employment situation since my employer had all but guaranteed me that they would have me working in a new title at the start of the school year.

The new position would be similar to what I had been doing, but with a special focus on special populations. I would work to ensure that entry into our career programs were fair and accessible to under-represented groups, including people with disabilities.

My boss had been telling me for months that I would be perfect for this position because I had a disability. He refers to my stuttering as a disability, even when I choose not to. It bothered me when I heard him tell others that he had someone with a disability in his department that would bring the right perspective to this new job. Sometimes it felt to me that I was an “extra point” on his evaluation or something, because he mentioned my disability so often.

My job ended on June 30. My employer kept me on in a temporary assignment for the summer, working in a different location. At the end of August, I was sent back to my school to prepare for the pending school year, and told that my temporary assignment would be extended for one more month. They were waiting for official approval for the new position.

So I flirted with hope all summer. I was hopeful that I really would not end up jobless, as my employer seemed confident that all that was needed was a county clerk’s signature. With that hope, I did not actively search for other work. I believed I would be in the high school, doing a job I loved. Even if it was different and a little scary, (change always is) I had been looking forward to seeing what I could make of the new job!

On September 29, I was called in and told that the next day would be my last. I was shocked and devastated. Unfortunately, they had tried everything possible to make this new job happen, but the governing unit would not approve it.

I had one day to pack up my stuff and say farewell. One day was not much time to say good-bye to colleagues and students. I felt robbed of the opportunity to have closure.

My last day was so hard that I wound up sneaking out the back door with my stuff an hour early so that I didn’t have to say good-bye in person to the principals and front office staff. I didn’t want to cry anymore that day.

Someone encouraged me to apply for an open position within the same organization that was completely different and way out of my comfort zone. The position is a manager role in Adult Education. It entails providing support to part-time adult literacy and ESOL instructors, and overseeing incarcerated youth programs in three county jails. The job would require quite a bit of local travel, getting up to speed with adult education requirements and acclimating myself to new people who don’t know I stutter.

I started that job two weeks ago, after being unemployed for six weeks. I was anxious, scared and uncertain if I could adapt quickly enough to all these new challenges.

I am now a manager, with15 part-time staff scattered about in remote places. I had previously only met one of them. These teachers have several hundred adult students, many of whom are not US citizens and are learning English. Many other adults never finished high school. Some want to earn their diploma. Others are learning to read.

In the first week, I visited many of the sites, introduced myself to the teachers and asked if I could observe classes and introduce myself to the students.

It would end up being the best move I could have made. I visited beginning and intermediate ESOL classes (English for Speakers of Other Languages.)  I talked to people from Bangladesh, Mexico, Turkey, Russia and India. I asked them to introduce themselves to me and tell me a little bit about why they were in the class and their goals.

One thing was very striking. Many of the beginner English students started off by apologizing that their English was “not so good.”  I immediately responded by admitting that my Spanish and Turkish wasn’t very good either. We broke the ice with each other.

When I used an “American” idiom (slang), I was a little surprised when the teacher stopped and asked the class, “Do you know what she means by that?” Then the class had a discussion and translated phrases we take for granted into words they can understand.

When I mentioned I stutter, the teacher, without skipping a beat, stopped and asked the class if they knew what “stutter” means. He wrote it on the board, and they discussed it for a few minutes. Then I found myself demonstrating stuttering, voluntarily, and saw some heads nod.

One man, in a literacy class for over two years, said that he used to be ashamed that he couldn’t read. Now he is proud that he can read his daughter’s notes from her teacher.

I shared that I stutter with his class, and used to be ashamed to stutter openly. I talked about fear of being judged and having people make assumptions about me.

That same man commented, “You sound pretty intelligent to me. We can relate. People think I am stupid because I can’t read. I am not stupid. It’s just that no one ever taught me the way I needed to learn.”

I learned a lot about the human spirit in my first two weeks in my new job. We all have something we fear someone will “find out about us.” But it’s OK when they do.

It connects us.

No matter how different we are, we are all really the same!

About the Author: Pamela (Pam) Mertz is a woman who stutters who loves talking about stuttering, after years of self-imposed silence. Once she found her voice, she found herself using it to help others tell their stories. Pam enjoys writing, music, theater and of course storytelling! You can find out more about Pam at her popular blog Make Room For The Stuttering.

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