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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Issac Bailey on finding his voice

Issac Bailey:  2014. I’m sorry, I got to do it. I had to do it.

Real quick. There is an assignment for you tonight. You’re a journalist, right? Yes, you have an assignment and a deadline. It’s a two-minute deadline. Here is what’s you’re going to do. You are actually going to answer this question with your neighbor.

It is, “Can a journalist be an activist?” But there is a catch. Turn all the way to the final page of your program and pick one, two, three or five. Follow those instructions as you are speaking with your neighbor about this question. Is that clear?

Just pick one. Pick any one you want. One, two, three or five. Is that clear? Yes?

Audience:  Yes.

Issac:  Marks, get set, discuss.

[background sounds only]

Issac:  One more minute.

[background sounds only]

Issac:  Thirty seconds.

[background sounds only]

Issac:  All right. Thank you. Hello. Thank you.

My … to that quickly. How did it feel? Just real quick?

Woman 1:  Hard.

Issac:  Hard.

Man 1:  Impossible.

Issac:  Impossible

Woman 2:  Awkward.

Issac:  Awkward.

Man 2:  Enlightening.

Issac:  Enlightening. Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.

It is a small glimpse into the life of a stutterer. A severe adult stutterer like me. From very early on, over and over again—I was actually told this—that Issac is too dumb to talk. I heard it on the playground. I was really young. Over and over again.

Even as I try to rock the words free or tap on the side of my head in order to get it just right so the words would go free. Issac is too dumb to talk. Issac is too dumb to talk.

I had two teachers. The first teacher’s name is Ms. Clarke. She actually was an English teacher. She actually looked like an English teacher.

She was tall. She wasn’t too tall. She wasn’t thin. She wasn’t really wide either.

She actually wore those English teacher glasses on the tip of her nose with a chain behind her back. She looked the part of an English teacher.

One day in class. It was for a verbal assignment. She told the entire class. She said, simply, “Because Issac will actually never be a public speaker, therefore we are not going to force him to do these assignments.”

When she said that, I was overjoyed. It was so much relief. Finally, somebody understood, oh my God, that yes, I am not good enough, that I am not worthy, that I am too dumb to talk. She didn’t use those words like the bullies on the playground. She said the same message anyway — Issac is too dumb to talk.

Many years later, I am a journalist. I’m writing in all these places. All these people are reading my words. Then I get calls from CNN and MSNBC and NPR. They say, “Hey, dude. This is some good stuff you’re talking about here. You can come on our shows.”

Then they heard that I was a sever stutterer. Then they said, “Never mind.” Year after year, it went this way. They did not use the words, “Issac is too dumb to talk,” but they sent the same message.

Now, imagine sitting in an interview and you have somebody who’s asking you, “Where exactly do you see yourself in five years?” Then you have to think about whether or not you are actually going to sit there.

Then you are actually going to die silently, snap your fingers in order to get the rhythm, or tap the side of your head looking crazy, or shuffling your feet simply because you know that if you stutter there, then this comes back front and center again.

Everybody questions your abilities, your intellect, your worth again, again, and again. Here is something that you actually need to know. I don’t stutter simply because I’m nervous or I talk too fast or I did not get my words together beforehand. I stutter simply because my body does not work like yours.

This is something that I need you to know, also. My struggle on certain days, at least actually on my worst days, feels like a mama elephant sitting on my diaphragm. I actually have to find just the right rhythm in order to move that elephant just enough in order to get the words out right. On my easy days, it is just a baby elephant sitting there. That’s what it is.

I am not different in the sense of difference. I am just me, yet most of this tapping and this rocking actually is not about me. It is actually about you simply because I am trying to make you more comfortable listening to me. That is one of the oddest things about [laughs] this world. The already burdened actually take on this extra burden just to make the privileged feel better.

That’s what we do just so you can feel better, so you can actually feel more comfortable. As a journalist, our job is to listen even when it’s hard and especially when it is hard. Our job is to tell those stories that nobody else wants to tell or even wants to hear, even through a stutter or any other kind of burden. That is supposed to be our job, even for people who are too dumb to talk.

Even for people who don’t smell good, don’t look good, don’t sound right, it is our job to reach beyond our own comfort. It is our job to try to understand better. “Issac is too dumb to talk.” Stop sending that message. Stop sending that message to me and to others simply because you feel uncomfortable with my difference.

It is exceedingly [laughs] important to stop silencing those folks who are already voiceless. Our job, your job, is to do your job and do it better. I’m actually going to wrap up with my second teacher, Ms. Schiver, who was also an English teacher. She did not tell me that I was too dumb to talk. This is what she did. Before every verbal assignment, she would actually pull me to the side.

She would tap me on the shoulder. She would say, “Issac. I am actually going to call on all of your classmates in order, but I’m actually going to look your way. Just when you are ready to talk, then I’m going to call on you instantly.” It worked. It worked why? Simply because she actually gave me just a small sense of control right in a world where I felt that I had none.

Your job, our job as journalists, is to be more like Ms. Schiver than Ms. Clarke. Yes, that means even if you actually have to tap me on the shoulder and let me tell my story just a little bit differently instead of always telling the stories that you already know and tell well. Thank you.