When I was a kid I had a stutter. A bad one: the kind that’s hard not to laugh at even if you’re not the type who laughs at that sort of thing. But I don’t remember people laughing very much. I was lucky enough to have good family and friends who didn’t make it an issue. A pre-kindergarten teacher told me once that if I couldn’t talk right I shouldn’t talk at all, but I don’t remember being particularly bummed out about it, and that’s probably the worst of the treatment I received. And despite that teacher’s suggestion, I kept talking.
Still, though nobody ever really teased me about it (to my face), it was embarrassing. I was a kid with a stutter. It would come up at the worst times, when I was excited or under pressure or trying to respond quickly, and it frustrated the hell out of me. So my parents tried to fix it. During elementary school a speech therapy teacher – a sweet, endlessly patient woman to whom I will be forever grateful – would come and pull me out of class once a week and take me to a little classroom to do corrective exercises. She would have me read out loud and talk to her for about an hour at a time, all the while gently coaching me to slow down, form my mouth this way, breathe that way, helping me get over those tricky letters (M, B, P, S) without straining until I was red in the face.
And it worked. Between her lessons and just growing up, eventually the stutter receded. By the time I got to high school it was basically gone, though even now it’ll still resurface in slight hiccups from time to time. Nothing like it used to be, though. Having a simple conversation is no longer something to be planned for, rehearsed, or dreaded. I just talk.
Fast forward a few years. I’m in my first year of law school. There’s a competition to get on this thing called the Moot Court Board. The competition involves writing a brief about a fictional case and then defending your position in front of a panel of judges, many of whom are practicing lawyers and maybe even a real judge or two. For fifteen minutes or so, it’s just you standing up at a podium trying to argue your case while the judges take turns cutting you off and asking you whatever they want about any aspect of the case that grabs them at the moment. Talking. Out loud. Under pressure. Oh man, I have to do this.
I prepared hard. I studied the case until I knew the facts and the law cold. I wrote every word of what I wanted to say and wrote out answers to potential questions. I practiced in the mirror by myself, to my girlfriend, to my roommate. I worked harder for that competition than I did for any class that year. And it paid off. I went through I-forget-how-many rounds of argument over the course of two days and when they posted the names of the people who made the Board, mine was among them. The stutterer made the Board for people who stand up and talk good. And I didn’t even have Sandra Bullock there to Southern-accent-sassy talk me through it (unless you count my speech therapist, who I guess kind of does count now that I think about it, even though she wasn’t southern, and I never slept at her house).
As far as the world is concerned, my making the Moot Court Board wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t make a lot of money or get famous when my name went up on the announcement board in the student lounge. But for me, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Using my strengths – organization skills, discipline, the ability to synthesize information and turn it into narrative – I conquered something that had dogged me since I was a kid. I proved I could do it for myself.
And this, I think, is illustrative of the kinds of goals that are worth setting. The personal goals. The goals that force you to confront your weaknesses and figure out how to overcome them with your strengths. The goals that test your will to make yourself the person you want to be, not for applause and awards from the great faceless crowd, but for the look of respect in the eye of the person that stares out at you from the mirror every day. Those, I think, are the goals worth setting and striving for. Those are why we’re here.