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“S-P-H-E-R-I-C-A-L,” I declared. Flashing a grin to the 600-person audience, I glanced at the ink stains dotting my clasped hands. These hands had suffered for months practicing obscure words from the dictionary. One person away from winning the county bee, I felt destined to continue to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. A sharp “Ting!” rang, interrupting my daydream. I heard a judge proclaim, “The correct spelling is S-P-H-E-R-I-C-A-L.” The glaring stage lights taunted me, and I watched confusion overtake my parents’ faces. I had pronounced the R in “spherical” as an L: “S-P-H-E-L-I-C-A-L.” Simmering tears gathered in my eyes. Scurrying off the stage, I crumpled up my participatory ribbon.
Although that spelling bee happened four years ago, it serves to remind me of my uniqueness. I have lived in Southern Asia and on a Mediterranean Isle, resulting in my peculiar accent. This amalgam creates my lisp of the letter R, which has often singled me out from my peers.
In elementary school, a speech pathologist made me see this lisp as a disability.
“Ripe white wheat reapers reap ripe white wheat right,” I’d say.
“Again!” she’d relentlessly respond.
With less determination, I’d repeat “Ripe white wheat reapers reap ripe white wheat right. Enough!” With all the time wasted on one letter, I learned to avoid words with R, even my name.
In the ninth grade, I agonized over my every word. Did Mr. Roricks notice my lisp? Did my friends discern it? With these fears, I struggled to break the flaw for a long time. For months, I dashed home from school to practice monotonous R tongue twisters, but I showed little progress. I spoke impassively, concentrating on enunciating my Rs normally.
This endeavor continued until I realized how phony my articulated Rs sounded during a day in my sophomore year. Shoving through my school cafeteria’s lunch line, I heard a brittle voice piercing the bedlam. I turned to see my friend Kaarin animatedly screech “OMG! I totally RUINED my hair, like, it’s raining outside?” I inwardly groaned. Kaarin spoke flawless English in her Estonian accent, but often grumbled that she felt foolish when speaking to her classmates. She abandoned her perfectly understandable speech to imitate a stereotypical teenager. Frankly, I thought her façade was ridiculous. I walked towards her, intent on telling her to quit trying to be someone she was not. Abruptly, I realized my own hypocrisy. If I tried to change the way I spoke simply to please others, I had little right to find fault in Kaarin. And if Kaarin sounded laughable, I wondered how silly I seemed when I enunciated my Rs.
I began to realize that I communicated better when I relaxed and spoke naturally. I chose to celebrate my difference by unreservedly expressing myself. Although I still lisp, my lack of self-consciousness improves my speech, freeing me to passionately ask questions and eagerly converse. The way I pronounce R defines me. It says that while I’m not perfect, I value myself as I am. As for the crumpled participatory ribbon, it sits on my windowsill today. It reminds me that I’ve matured from an anxious boy who loathed his lisp to a confident young man who embraces his pronunciation of S-P-H-E-L-I-C-A-L.
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