Every one of us probably has a moment of dread from our grade school days squirreled away in the dusty recesses of our memories. Or, many such moments.
For me, it was in elementary school when it was my turn to sing a solo in music class. I would have given anything to be spared from having the spotlight on me that day.
In the grand scheme of things, however, my agony quickly passed. But not every student’s moment of dread is as fleeting as mine.
Over the weekend, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero of the “miracle on the Hudson,” wrote in the New York Times about his most agonizing moments.
Sullenberger was the pilot 11 years ago who crashed-landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after Canada geese were sucked into the jet’s two engines. The bird strike knocked the engines out of commission two minutes after takeoff from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.
Sully’s skillful water landing four minutes later saved the lives of all 155 people on the jet.
But he didn’t write in the Times to reminisce about the landing. Instead, he wrote about his childhood scars that remain with him today, and he provided an important message that should guide all of us as we deal with people who have challenges we don’t face.
“I remember vividly the anguish of being called on in grade school, knowing that I was going to have a hard time getting the words out; that my words could not keep up with my mind, and they would often come out jumbled,” he wrote.
“My neck and face would quickly begin to flush a bright red, the searing heat rising all the way to the top of my head; every eye in the room on me; the intense and painful humiliation, and the bullying that would follow, all because of my inability to get the words out.”
Sully was a stutterer. And his childhood feelings came flooding back recently when he heard Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, mocking Joe Biden for his stutter.
Regardless of what your politics are, regardless of whether you are a supporter of our president or prefer one of the Democrats, whether you think Joe Biden should be revered or reviled, can’t we all agree that there should be no place in adult society for the kind of playground taunts Lara Trump expressed? Are her comments — “Joe, can you get it out? Let’s get the words out, Joe.” — really making our country better?
Sullenberger’s reaction was clear.
“What might a child who stutters, as I did, feel when they hear a grown-up on a public stage trying to make a bunch of other adults laugh by ridiculing a public figure who also stutters?” he asked.
“Stop. Grow up. Show some decency. People who can’t, have no place in public life.”
Sully said that as he grew older, he learned to overcome his stuttering by slowing his speaking and enunciating each word precisely. In time, he was so proficient he had the communication skills necessary to be a military fighter pilot and for many years after that, an airline pilot.
“I learned to resist and overcome the bullying,” he wrote. “I also learned that our imperfections do not define us.”
He had important advice for all of us, young and old, fat and skinny, tall and short, D’s and R’s, liberals and conservatives:
“A speech disorder is a lot easier to treat than a character defect. You become a true leader, not because of how you speak, but because of what you have to say — and the challenges you have overcome to help others. Ignore kids (and adults) who are mean, or don’t know what it feels like to stutter. Respond by showing them how to be kind, polite, respectful and generous, to be brave enough to try big things, even though you are not perfect.”
Biden has talked about one incident from his seventh grade that is seared into his brain 66 years later. Students were taking turns reading aloud to the class. When it came Biden’s turn, he stumbled pronouncing “gentleman.”
The teacher, a nun who should have known better, spoke to him in a way that humiliated the boy and drove him from the classroom: “Mr. Biden, what is that word? Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what’s that word?”
It’s bad enough that kids have to be subjected to this kind of bullying from their classmates. But from adults, too?
This world of ours would be a nicer place if we all would show more compassion, especially toward people who, for whatever reason, are not like us.