Meghan Dodaballapur, please come to the main office. After hearing this, I excitedly scramble to stuff my composition notebook in my backpack. My classmates sit in their seats learning multiplication tables while I get ready to leave early. My quick footsteps echo in the long elementary school hallways that are quiet and empty in the middle of the afternoon. I swing open the doors to the main office and see my mom waiting for me. Braces time, I happily think to myself.
Once I get to the dentist’s office, my mom checks me in, and we sit in the waiting chairs. I pass the time by counting fish in the fish tank. I count about nine by the time they call me to come in to see the dentist. As soon as I sit down on the dentist’s chair, they give me a white palette that has more than 30 different braces bracket colors to choose from. I choose pink. The dentist starts up the drill, and soon after, the braces are screwed onto my middle four teeth. This is the first time I realize that it’s possible for teeth, of all things, to be sore. I end up exclusively eating ice cream, yogurt and rice that’s so mushy you don’t even need to chew it.
At school the next day, we begin with multiplication tables. My teacher hands out a worksheet for us to do independently. When we’re done, we are supposed to share our answers and explain them. I was excited about this because my parents had placed me in Kumon at an early age, so I already had the table memorized. We start correcting the worksheet and I raise my hand high to answer a question, excited to be able to show off my skills. My teacher calls my name, and while explaining the answer, I realize that I have a lisp. My classmates snicker quietly enough that my teacher can’t hear, but loud enough that I can. My cheeks flush red with embarrassment. My excitement for the braces is long gone.
Soon after this moment, my teacher pulls me aside to talk to me. He has a blank expression on his face as he says that it would be highly beneficial for me to not read with the class anymore. This is probably just routine for him, but it feels like my world is crumbling. He explains that when the class breaks into small groups to read our short novels, I have to leave to go to speech classes with one of the paraprofessionals. I protest, saying that I only have a lisp from my braces. I tell him that I know how to read at a fourth-grade level. He ignores me and sends me to speech classes anyway.
Later on in the week, my teacher tells us to get out our class books and then looks in my direction, signaling that this task isn’t for me. I grab my backpack and leave the classroom to go to the para room. The room is long and narrow, so only a small table and two chairs fit. The walls are white as snow. When I walk in, there is a woman sitting next to a pile of books that seem like they were pulled from the kindergarten classroom. We are the only ones in this room. I sit on the empty chair next to her, and she hands me a book from the pile as I pull out my short novel that I’ve been reading with my small group in class. When I look at her puzzled, she explains to me that I should start learning how to properly say lower-level words because of my lisp. It feels like my intelligence is being ignored because I can’t speak the way I used to. It feels like she is saying that I was too broken to read the way I used to read. Reflecting back on this moment, I remember being so confused as to how the metal on my teeth had taken away other peoples’ ability to see that I was smart for a third-grader. When I went home that day, I debated asking my mom if I could get them off.
I was in speech classes for roughly four days before my lisp magically went away. I was then allowed to stop going to speech classes and join my small group for our short novel readings and discussions. I was allowed to read out loud to the class at my reading level. My classmates no longer poked fun at me. This was the first time I learned that people who can clearly speak are perceived in a different manner than people who have speech impediments; their words have more weight in society. It didn’t matter that I knew my multiplication tables because I had a lisp. In the eyes of my teacher and classmates, my intelligence was erased by my short-term speech impediment.
And what about the people with long-term speech impediments? It has been proven that lisps don’t affect a person’s intelligence, yet still, research has shown employers are less likely to hire someone who has a lisp. In college settings, students stereotype people with lisps to have a “lower occupational competence,” even though it has been proven that lisps don’t affect a person’s IQ. Society’s negative views on not being able to communicate “normally” teaches people with speech impediments to doubt their intellectual capabilities. I internalized this societal viewpoint and silenced myself, thinking I wouldn’t “stand out” if I didn’t speak. It’s likely that my experience pertains to many others who were told that there was a problem with their speech.
The United States, specifically, has a toxic culture of expecting everyone to speak “standard” English in order to be treated with respect. This mentality is not only applied to people with speech impediments, but also people whose first language is not English. It is long overdue that we, as a society, change our mentality. People deserve fair treatment, regardless of how they communicate. Their words still hold weight, regardless of how they get their point across. Workplaces and schools should not doubt the legitimacy and intelligence of people who don’t speak in a conventional manner. English is not a measure of intelligence. It’s time we start believing this statement.
MiC Columnist Meghan Dodaballapur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.