Archived Opinion

Stuttering, understanding race and Merle Haggard

op merleWhen I was a little girl, I had a stuttering problem. The memories of struggling with words that started with “S” or “N” are vivid in my mind. Sometimes I would try to come up with ways to completely avoid saying anything that started with those letters.

When my mom asked the doctor for advice, he told her that a young child often thinks of a word faster than the mouth can articulate it. He said the brain usually figures out a way to compensate and things would straighten out eventually. By first grade, the stuttering had decreased significantly, and while it would flare up occasionally throughout childhood and adolescence, it had basically subsided. 

And the doc was right; I found a way to compensate. I became a really fast talker. 

People in the South often tell me I don’t have a Southern accent. A sugary sweet drawl has never been part of my persona, so to a fellow Southerner, it seems like I don’t speak as a typical North Carolinian should. In actuality, I just talk so quickly that the long, lazy vowel sounds are cut off before an accent is detected. 

Last week we were in D.C. visiting my sister, and a couple of people asked if I was from the South. This also happened when I visited Boston and California. Every time this occurs when I’m away from home, it brings to light regional differences. 

A variance in accents wasn’t the only discrepancy brought to light during our most recent trip to the capital city.

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We’ve been traveling to D.C. since our 7-year-old was a baby, and for the first time he noticed the many colorful faces of our nation’s capital. With fervid curiosity, he asked a multitude of “why” questions about hair color, skin color, languages, women’s head scarves, etc. 

When he asked about skin color, I said something like, “The reason for different skin colors is based on how close their ancestors lived to the equator. Darker skin can handle more heat and ultraviolet rays. That’s why a lot of Hispanic students in your class have dark skin and dark hair. And that’s why we have lighter skin and hair. Our ancestors are from England, Germany and France.” 

He responded with, “Hmmmm.”

I continued. “Most of the time, skin color is the only difference. We all have the same color of blood, the same-sized brain and the same number of organs and bones. So really, skin color is just a side-effect of living close to or far from the sun.” 

So that was that. I decided it wasn’t the time to get into a complicated sociological conversation about centuries of racial strife, misunderstandings, conflict, ignorance, stereotypes, unfair legislation and biases. 

Our oldest child is very logical by nature, so I decided to start with the logical answer. 

Traveling with the boys exposes them to the world at large. Our small town is rather homogenous and consequently, there isn’t much variety in the way of race and ethnicity. 

Traveling also stretches their comfort level. In D.C., it’s not so easy to hop in a car and quickly arrive at one’s destination. Big cities are masters at public transit. We always use the Metro when we visit my sister, which shows the boys a different, more environmentally-friendly way to travel. 

We also talked about the cost to live in a large, populated Northeast city compared to a small Southern town. Our oldest boy is pretty good about understanding money and when we got our bill one night at a Hibachi restaurant, his eyes bugged. We ordered the same thing as we do at Ichiban in Asheville, but the bill was double. This started a conversation about cost of living, downsizing, etc. 

And not to neglect mentioning our 4-year-old in this column, but his concerns during the trip were playing hide and seek in the hotel room and pretending like he was the host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. I’m enjoying these last couple of years before I have two little ones asking deep, complicated questions.

On the way home, we heard that Merle Haggard had passed away. The voices of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Hank, Willie, Waylon and the boys were all a huge part of my childhood. My dad still listens to their records when driving and tinkering in the garage, so it really did break my heart to hear another one of the gang had died. This announcement on the radio spawned a brief conversation about country music and Nashville. 

I’m not sure how I started out talking about stuttering and concluded with a tribute to Merle Haggard. I guess that’s just part of being a writer, the freedom to let my mind take me where it must. 

The truth is both stuttering and Merle Haggard shaped my personality. And I know the experiences we provide our boys will shape their minds and hearts for years to come. Seemingly simple, logical conversations are laying a foundation for more complicated conversations in the future. My goal as a mom is to help my children navigate and understand their world in a way that hopefully fosters understanding, compassion and tolerance. 

Because if there was ever a time those traits are needed, it is now.

(Susanna Barbee lives in Haywood County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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