“No te preocupes. Tranquilo. Una palabra a la vez.” Don’t worry. Relax. One word at a time, my mother will tell me, while I struggled to formulate sentences asking her for the whereabouts of my G.I. Joe toys.
Until the age of 8, I struggled with a speech impediment. I had a difficult time pronouncing words and sounds. It was hard making friends and I was bullied a lot in school because I couldn’t express myself clearly.
My experience in grades K through 2 was not ordinary. School involved strenuous speech therapy sessions outside of my regular classroom schedule. Classmates would mock me when my speech therapist, Mrs. Williams, picked me up from class for each session. As I walked towards the front of the classroom to meet the therapist, I would hear several students whispering insulting names or imitating my speech impediment. “Ge-Ge-rome ta-ta-talks like a-a-a-a b-b-b-baby!” Laughter would erupt as I walked between the rows of desks, staring at the floor, wishing this wasn’t real, hoping that I’d wake up from an awful dream.
In hindsight, I understand why making friends was difficult. Kids would exhaust themselves trying to decipher every sentence that came hurling out of my mouth. It wasn’t fun to play with me.
Eventually, I gave up on speaking and began to point at objects while making various sounds. During recess, I would ask every student in my class if they wanted to play with me. “Eh, eh,” I would say to grab their attention, “play cars?” As I stood there waiting for their response, they would just look at me dumbfounded and wonderstruck by my caveman behavior.
Over time, I developed a low self-esteem, which negatively impacted my social relationships. I hated attending school. I constantly faked sick to excuse myself from getting out of bed. Home was my refuge. It was my safe place away from the bullying, and watching my favorite television shows – specifically The Busy World of Richard Scarry and Little Bear – was my retreat from the real world.
After feeling defeated from all the friendship rejections I received over the years, I begged my mother to “fix me.” I really did not understand what was wrong with me. I wanted friends so to play manhunt with and to create new elaborate war stories with my collection of G.I. Joes. I craved for the normal boyhood experience.
My mother never displayed weakness nor the feeling of struggling. She always found a way to fix things no matter how bad they got. But when I asked her to fix me, she felt powerless given her capabilities in this realm. She only knew enough English to defend herself, and teaching me was going to prove too difficult.
So together, we sat down with Mrs. Williams and created a home lesson plan to help with the improvement of my speech. It consisted of reading many books out loud and having my family correct me whenever they heard me struggling. Every weekend, my mother would take me to the library to check out dozens of books, and every night I would read one-by-one, over-and-over again, while my brother and sister taught me unfamiliar words and phrases. Getting through the steep uphill battle was a family effort. As the weeks passed by, I was pronouncing a lot more words correctly and speaking much clearer.
Near the end of the school year, Mrs. Williams administered my final speech therapy test. As she showed me words on index cards, I pronounced each word flawlessly. “BAL-LOON” and not “BA-YOO.” “PEO-PLE” and not “PEE-POO.”
After the test ended, Mrs. Williams handed me an envelope marked “TO THE PARENTS OF GEROME CABRERA.” She did not tell me if I had passed, nor did she say if I did well. She just handed me the letter and walked me back to class.
When we entered the classroom, Mrs. Williams pulled my 2nd-grade teacher to the side. I was ashamed that class was interrupted because of my entrance. I could sense the students staring and pointing fingers at me. At my desk, I placed my head down and prayed for Superman to fly me far away from this school. I was embarrassed, but mostly terrified, at the possibility of still being in speech class next year in 3rd grade.
With my head still down, and as if hours have passed by, Mrs. Williams finally tapped me on my shoulder. “Gerome,” and before Mrs. Williams could even begin, I burst into tears. I just couldn’t handle the attention. I felt like I was backed into a corner, with nowhere to go.
“Gerome,” Mrs. Williams tried again, “you no longer will be seeing me next year.” I looked at her, puzzled, while she continued.
“You passed all my tests. I am so proud of you! Congratulations! Your mother is going to be so happy when she reads my letter. Remember Gerome, you can do anything your heart desires if you work hard.”
She hugged me and bid farewell.
An applause from the students followed. I was even surprised to see those that mocked me in the past, participating in the class’s congratulatory effort. At last, I was now accepted and felt belonged.
As I watched Mrs. Williams exit the room, I sat at my desk with my head up high, proud to have people like her by my side. I couldn’t wait to get home and see the smiles on my family’s faces when I read them the letter, loud and proud.
That was a turning point in my life. Something had triggered inside of me and I felt fearless and motivated.
The following year, we moved out of our hometown of Sweetwater to a better school district in Kendall. I was the new kid in a new school, and finally, I was going to make my first REAL friends.
The start of 3rd grade was a breeze. I quickly made friends and I got along with all my teachers, notably Ms. Jackson. She was Jamaican, full of laughter, spirit, and warmth. Ms. Jackson was especially fond of me since she knew about my past speech impediment and continued to push me to work harder. She expanded my horizons and inspired me to never stop reaching for the stars.
My confidence grew and I was participating in every school event, making friends, and receiving a bunch of invitations to birthday parties. Surprising myself, I even auditioned for the role of Harry Belafonte in Ms. Jackson’s holiday show based on the hit single “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” just so I can dance with my girl crush.
Every year, the school administers the Florida State Examinations in reading and mathematics. It was one of those typical state exams that gauge how well each school is performing and ranks the students’ math and reading levels.
To be honest, I never paid any mind to these throughout the years, but little did I know, the state exam I would take in 3rd grade would change the course of my education.
Weeks after the exams took place, during lunchtime, the school’s counselor walked into the cafeteria and pulled Ms. Jackson to the side. From my vantage point, I saw Ms. Jackson direct her towards my table. I assumed the counselor was walking towards another student in my vicinity, so I continued to eat my lunch and joke around with my buddies.
And then, the counselor called out my name. I slowly raised my hand and looked at her with a frightful stare on my face and a mouthful of chocolate milk. I gulped the warm milk as she handed me a letter, marked “TO THE PARENTS OF GEROME CABRERA”, and asked me to give this to my mother. All my friends immediately stopped what they were doing, and as soon as the counselor left the cafeteria, you can imagine the “oohs” that ensued.
So many things were going through my head as I held this letter in my hand. I didn’t recall doing anything requiring a congratulatory letter, so I assumed this was something really bad. Either I failed my state exams, or even worse, indications of my past speech impediment started to show again and they wanted me back in speech therapy.
Rumors spread around the class, from me failing 3rd grade to being expelled. Once again, I was feeling like an outcast. Traumatic memories from 2nd grade came rolling in. More importantly, I was afraid to go home and see what my punishment will be after my mom reads the letter. So, I jammed the envelope into my backpack and for the remainder of the day, I watched each second tick on the clock, hoping the bell never rings.
Hours felt like seconds when the bell rang. My mother was waiting out front and noticed I was acting odd and a little too quiet. She asked me if everything was okay in school.
“Leave me alone,” I yelled as we walked home.
“No me faltas de respeto!” Don’t disrespect me, my mother would shout back.
I was stupid to talk back to a Dominican mother! I knew, that right when I got home, I would have to choose between a belt, hanger, or chancletas, sometimes even all three. As soon as we got home, I sprinted to my room, locked myself in, and hid under the bed sheets for the remainder of the day.
Days passed and I continued to hide the letter from my mother. Ms. Jackson kept asking me about it, and I persisted with lie after lie:
“Sorry, my mother worked late.”
“My mom is visiting her family in Dominican Republic and won’t be back until next week.”
“I left my backpack in the trunk of my friend’s car. I haven’t seen him since.”
I turned into a pathological liar. And then my mom found the letter.
“TO THE PARENTS OF GEROME CABRERA,” she read out loud. Before she read the rest, my mom began to interrogate me as to why I never gave her the letter. I didn’t know what to say and began to stutter inexplicable reasons. I couldn’t lie this time, so I told her I was afraid that they will stick me in speech therapy again.
As she read the letter, her anger did not subside. It stated that the principal and counselor have requested a meeting with my mother and me. It is usually never good news when they send a letter with the child requesting a meeting.
“Ve a tu cuarto ahora!” Go to your room now, my mother exclaimed. As anticipated, she was not happy. She assumed I had gotten in trouble and must have done something horrific to justify a parent-teacher meeting.
The following morning, my mother accompanied me to school for the requested meeting. Ms. Jackson escorted us to the counselor’s office, and there waiting, was the counselor, principal and a teacher I’ve never seen before.
“Ay dios, Girón, que hiciste?” Oh god, Gerome, what did you do, my mother whispered to me. I shrugged and practically soiled my whitey-tighties as we took our seat in the roundtable.
The counselor wasted no time and began.
“Rufina, we wanted to speak to you in person regarding Gerome’s state exam result. Your son scored an astonishing 99% on the state’s mathematics exam. That means he only received one incorrect answer. We would love for him to join the gifted program here in our school. Students like him need more of a challenge outside of the regular class schedule. Gerome will work on exciting projects, learn about new things, and be surrounded by other high performing and strong intellectual developed students. I think this will be great for Gerome’s future.”
Gifted. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Do I have superpowers? Was I now a part of X-Men? My mother and I just sat there in silence, staring at the teachers, not really understanding how to respond. My mother’s insight into education was limited to what my siblings and I share with her. Uncomprehending the impact this will have on my education, we quickly accepted the offer.
But, I could tell that there was something concerning my mother as she shook hands with each of the administrators. And just as we were about to leave the office, my mother turned to the counselor and asked: “Wait, is it free?” Not a surprising reaction coming from a concerned Hispanic mother.
I was now officially in the gifted program. Ironically, I was back to a similar routine that I had during my speech therapy sessions, where the second half of the school day, I was away from my regular class. This time, I looked forward to it and I was having a lot of fun. I solved brainteasers, worked on challenging projects, learned about different cultures, and made some great friendships that continued for many years.
The gifted program took me to the next step of my education. As the years passed, honors and advanced classes became the norm. I was getting straight “A”‘s on my report cards and coming home with plenty of academic achievement awards to fill our entire living room wall.
Even though I overcame my speech impediment and got accepted to the gifted program, I still, to this day, consciously fear that traces of my speech impediment is lurking in the back of my mind somewhere. It affects my social life because if I stutter, forget a specific word, or even mumble words as a result of speaking too quickly, I assume people think there is something wrong with me.
As I reflect on my childhood experience growing up with a speech impediment, all the pain and frustration caused by it are overshadowed by my accomplishments and moments of support from family and friends. Some will say that eventually, I would have grown out of it and these achievements do not mean anything. But, they are wrong, because just attending class or passing one school grade and moving to the next is a triumph when growing up in the Hispanic community. Every accomplishment, no matter how small it may be, builds character and is a victory in our eyes. Throughout the years, this view in life pushed me to work harder and never settle, never be complacent, no matter how long, or how hard, it takes to succeed.