By the time many of you read this post, the second and final US presidential debate will have aired. It’s highly unlikely the debate will sway the outcome of the election on November 3rd. Still, I anticipate it to be a spectacle. Don’t worry, this is not a political post.
I’m only bringing it up in the context of the first debate, which occurred September 29th.
Earlier that evening, I had signed up for a virtual lecture series put on by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. That night’s talk was entitled “Looking for Language in the Ruins.” Among the speakers was JJJJJerome Ellis, an Afro-Caribbean composer, performer, and writer.
Credit: Gema Galiana
I wondered about his name. Why was it written as JJJJJerome? Was it a typo? It was only after he spoke that I knew why. It’s been decades since I’ve known someone with a stutter (or stammer as some call it). My friend, Simon, had a stutter all through grade school. It was a source of shame and agony for him. I was so relieved when he outgrew his stutter once he entered high school.
Stuttering is considered a communication disorder, an impediment. Generally, people with a stutter seek to have it corrected. In listening to JJJJJerome speak however, I was fascinated by his choice of words, by his eloquence, and by how the other speakers gave him space to express himself. They shared in the silence when he searched for his words. And even though his speech was not fluid, his sentences were cohesive and his points well-thought out. He had our undivided attention. That was evident via the online comments section, where attendees heaped praise on JJJJJerome and the other two members.
I tuned in to the US presidential debate shortly thereafter, which turned out to be a shouting match of interruptions, moderated by a journalist who was unable to control the situation. The rules of debate were ignored, an embarrassment, underscored by the fact that I had just witnessed articulate, passionate, and respectful communication with three people, one who had a stutter.
The next day, I opened up Facebook and saw two things that reconnected me to the previous night’s events. As a writer, I’ll take this opportunity to invoke the “the rule of three,” which suggests we process information more easily if there is a pattern. As you will see, serendipity played a role as well.
The first item was the following meme, which is meant to be funny of course.
In case you don’t know this man, it's Samuel L. Jackson, the award-winning actor famous for cursing with the word “Motherfuc*er.” What I didn’t know is that he is also a stutterer.
The second item was a serious post that a friend sent me. It talked about another stutterer—Joe Biden, the candidate running for US president. The post was in response to the debate, to how the current president had used an abusive tone of voice, insults, and rapid-fire interruptions to scramble Biden’s ability to speak and make him appear weak and confused.
If that was the aim, it didn't work. I had forgotten that Biden stuttered, even though he has discussed it publicly on many occasions.
The past months, perhaps even longer, have seen angst-filled times for many of my American friends and family. As a Canadian, I have felt their pain as well. Our countries share a border, but the world is linked even if we don’t share borders. Covid has made that abundantly clear.
It’s time for a reset—a reconnection to our humanity and compassion. I can’t think of a better way to accomplish this than by listening to JJJJJerome Ellis in this podcast episode of This American Life. It’s entitled “Time Bandit.”
Credit: Ted Roeder
The podcaster, Sean Cole described it like this:
“Jerome Ellis is a composer and musician. But this year, at an annual New Year's Day performance event, he got on stage with no instrument, or anything else, and broke a small rule in a monumental way.”
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