VIOLA - Twice a week I’d climb the steep, rickety steps to a solid wooden door and knock, while my bony knees tapped together in a panicky Morse code. Before a knight on horseback could save me, Mrs. Grimaster would open the door and I’d follow her into the pitiful room I called the dungeon—but only to my family. My parents seemed unmoved by the hours of misery I spent in that torture chamber.
I was attending Hales Corners Elementary. My homeroom class was in what we called the Old Building: a three-story, square building made of brick and full of dark, lackluster wood.
Calling it a three-story building is a stretch. The third floor consisted only of the ‘dungeon,’ a foreboding room with two cold metal chairs, an enormous chalkboard-mirror contraption on wheels, and a single light bulb hanging on a dirty cord from the rafters. The light may have existed only in my imagination. Certainly, the ashtrays overflowing with non-filtered cigarette butts did.
Mrs. Grimaster would sit primly on one chair, while I slouched on the other. I’d pinch my nose shut from the dank smell penetrating my sensitive young nostrils. Often the smell would stay in my hair, clothes, and skin, singling me out even more than did being pulled out of math class twice a week for speech therapy.
While I stared into the mirror, Mrs. Grimaster would encourage me to keep my tongue down and teeth together and make a hissing sound, similar to one I imagined an irate badger would make.
“Thally that at the theashore thipping thoda,” I’d say over and over until Mrs. Grimaster’s patience ran thin. Out would come the thicker-than-normal Popsicle stick that she’d try to wedge between my lips to press my tongue down.
Each week, I suffered through speech class, while my math skills lagged and my fear took full flight. When I started asking to go to the nurse's room, the school or maybe my parents finally put two and two together.
The first time I told the nurse I had a headache and needed two orange chewable aspirin, she squinted and insisted I was too young to know what a headache was. But I wasn’t. My mom had been telling me for years that I gave her a headache, andI had been insisting for months that speech class and Mrs. Grimaster were giving meheadaches!
Because of the frequency of my head pain—twice a week—I was taken to Dr. Clementine. The good doctor probed inside my mouth with the same type of stick Mrs. Grimaster used. Next, he poked a cold metal gadget inside both my ears and ended by squeezing my skull between his large hands.
And then, with my parents safely out of the room, he talked with me. He asked me in three different ways how I was feeling about home life and school, and on the third one I cracked.
I hated going to speech therapy, I told him. The room was horrid, Mrs. Grimaster was a monster, the kids were teasing me, and Thally wasn't even thupposed to be drinking thoda.
Soon, though not soon enough, I wasn’t climbing those stairs anymore.
At home, my dad would sit in his ratty gold recliner, sipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, with me on his lap. He’d have me hold my teeth together and my tongue low in my mouth, and coach me to practice making that hissing sound. Then he’d say a sentence and I’d repeat it while trying to keep my teeth together without pushing my tongue out like a snake
“Thally that at the theashore thipping Thlitz, a thitty beer.” I’d say over and over while he made corrections.
At last, one day I said it loud and clear enough for my mom to hear: “Sally sat at the seashore sipping Schlitz, a sh---y beer.”
My dad wasn’t a knight in shining armor, just an ordinary man sitting on an old chair, but it was he and not the dungeon that saved my speech.Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to catch me lisping—nor do I ever drink Schlitz.