As a small boy in Denison, Texas, I remember vividly the anguish of being called on in grade school, knowing that I was going to have a hard time getting the words out; that my words could not keep up with my mind, and they would often come out jumbled. My neck and face would quickly begin to flush a bright red, the searing heat rising all the way to the top of my head; every eye in the room on me; the intense and painful humiliation, and bullying that would follow, all because of my inability to get the words out.
Those feelings came rushing back, when I heard Lara Trump mocking former Vice President Joe Biden at a Trump campaign event, with the very words that caused my childhood agony. “Joe, can you get it out?” Ms. Trump was seen saying onstage, as a few giggles are heard from an otherwise silent audience. “Let’s get the words out, Joe.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a fundraiser last year for the Biden campaign, but this issue goes beyond politics. Regardless of how you feel about Joe Biden, or his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee for president; whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or none of the above; whether you stuttered as a child or laughed at one who did; whether as a parent you try to protect your own stuttering child from taunts such as those made by the president’s daughter-in-law; these words come without hesitation: Stop. Grow up. Show some decency. People who can’t, have no place in public life.
What might a child who stutters, as I did, feel when they hear a grown-up on a public stage trying to make a bunch of other adults laugh by ridiculing a public figure who also stutters?
This culture of cruelty is what drives decent people from public service, and what makes millions of Americans recoil from politics, and even from participating in our democracy. Vice President Biden has spoken openly — and courageously, in my view — about the pain of his severe childhood stutter. He takes time to reach out to children who have suffered as he did.
As I grew older, I learned to manage and overcome my stuttering, through much hard work and intense focus. I learned to slow down and to enunciate each word with precision. I joined the church choir, and found that singing helped me to practice controlling my breath, and the formation of words. I learned to resist and overcome the bullying.
I also learned that our imperfections do not define us.
The fact that I once stuttered did not keep me from being a successful U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, an airline pilot, or even a public speaker.
And on that frigid day in January 2009, when I had to tell the air traffic controller at New York Departure Control that I was about to land US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, after a bird strike following takeoff caused both engines to fail, my words came out with precision and control, even in the stress of a life-threatening emergency.
So, to every child who feels today, what I felt, after hearing those cruel remarks by an adult who should know better, here is what I want you to know:
You are fine, just as you are. You can do any job you dream of when you grow up. You can be a pilot who lands your plane on a river and helps save lives, or a president who treats people with respect, rather than making fun of them. You can become a teacher to kids who stutter. A speech disorder is a lot easier to treat than a character defect. You become a true leader, not because of how you speak, but because of what you have to say — and the challenges you have overcome to help others. Ignore kids (and adults) who are mean, or don’t know what it feels like to stutter. Respond by showing them how to be kind, polite, respectful and generous, to be brave enough to try big things, even though you are not perfect.
Do that, and the sky is the limit. Take it from me.
Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III is a retired pilot, safety expert, author and public speaker.
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