Darlene and I lean over an easy reading text that’s open on the table. Her index finger presses beneath the letters of one word. Both of us stare intently. “Bbbbuuh,” she groans out and for just a moment I enter her world and the printed word loses its meaning, becomes nothing more than a series of black marks on white paper.

I began my elementary teaching career as a resource room teacher. That’s a teacher who works with students who have difficulty learning in the regular classroom. Darla not only had trouble reading, but had trouble understanding and using oral language.

It wasn’t unusual for me to work with students like Darla, but there were some kids who had language problems that didn’t interfere with their learning. They did fine on tests and didn’t need to come to the resource room for extra help, but instead received services from a speech and language specialist. It was only when these students had to speak out loud that their problems became evident. These were the kids who stuttered.

A lot more is known now about stuttering than 30 or 40 years ago. Many people have seen the movie, The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI and his work with a speech therapist, or are aware of the fact that our current president, Joe Biden, has struggled with a speech disorder.

Betsy Sholl served as poet laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011. She’s the author of nine collections of poetry, most recently “House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems,” from the Wisconsin Poetry Series, 2019. Many of her books, including this one, have been honored with awards. You can learn more about her here: betsysholl.com/.

Betsy is also a stutterer. Because of this, Betsy says, “I am always interested in how to think about that experience, how to find the largest, most generous way of looking at it. There were times in childhood when it was agonizing. But like any wound it also can be a gift, so I’m always looking for that.”

Besides her insights about stuttering, Betsy has included in this poem experiences in reading similar to her own, particularly with the book, “Saints Every Child Should Know.” She said she was drawn to the pattern of hardship and overcoming in that book, particularly the story of Joan of Arc.

At the time she wrote this poem, Betsy was volunteering at a soup kitchen. She told me, “I was very taken by the kindness and generosity of our patrons. I felt connected to many of them, and was moved by how caring they were. I think the irony of assuming you’re helping someone, only to realize that really they’re helping you, was part of what led to the reversal in the poem. Also, when you’re a stutterer what you long for most is fluidity, so the tension between a logjam and a fluid river became an image for that. I grew up near the shore and just a block or two from a river.”

The Tiny Gate

The steady turning of pages, students murmuring

in the stacks, children in boots clomping the stairs

with armfuls of picture books, easy to read aloud —

 

but I remember a stammering child, an engine chug

that couldn’t get started, who only spoke alone

under the blankets, or along the riverbank practicing

 

plosives, fricatives. She’d poke the shallows with a stick,

murmuring stories from an overdue book of “Saints

Every Child Should Know”: Joan’s one phobia, fire,

 

how they broke chair legs, bed posts, brush wood,

raised her higher on the stake. They twisted oily rags

around a split branch. The girl dog-eared that page,

 

threw rocks in the water. Joan begged,

she writhed and shrieked as flames caught her hem,

then just when she thought she’d burst, the book said

 

the voices which had left her flew back. A whole

volume of this, each story a roller coaster ratcheting up

its steep laborious crank on flimsy scaffolding —

 

then lights! voices! wings! — a plunge into fluency,

the dream of a hesitant child. What she couldn’t say

bunched up like paper and twigs snagged in the reeds.

 

Weeks later, with the book, its spine cracked, clueless

how to answer the librarian’s wagging finger —

“What have you done?” — stammering, stammering,

 

her mouth was a tiny gate. To pass through the words

broke themselves again and again, so even now I feel

the weight of that child, wishing for the drunk’s smooth tongue

 

at the front desk, demanding yesterday’s paper.

And when he kneels down to beg, it’s the soldier painted

in my old book, dropped to his knees, finding Joan’s heart

 

still beating in the ashes, the ecstasy I never had:

this fellow in frayed tweed, enjoying every second of his plea,

of the librarian flapping her arms, crying “Out! Out!”

 

All those years of logjam, afternoons leaning over the bank,

wishing I could just give myself to the river — and now I see

the river was giving itself to me.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.

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