Word by word — and stranger by stranger — law student works to overcome speech impediment
On Sundays, law student Chase Hamilton rides the Blue Line from Minneapolis to the Mall of America in Bloomington to talk to strangers — 100 of them, in fact, one by one, mostly at random.
The questions are seemingly mundane — “Where’s the restroom?” “Do you have a sale?” “I’m looking for new jeans.” But the process is terrifying.
Sometimes, every word requires Hamilton’s focus, not just on the syllables, but on the awkward breaths from his tightened diaphragm.
It’s his trial by fire, the most rigorous courtroom preparation he can think of as someone who suffers from chronic stuttering.
Hamilton, who completed his second year at the University of Minnesota Law School in April, used to avoid mentioning “the elephant in the room” on the job, during dates or in any other context.
His reluctance to raise his hand in college classes or speak up at work meetings was sometimes construed as disinterest, a lack of passion or boredom.
But Hamilton, who recently spent seven months fighting corruption in the fledgling Southeast Asian democracy of East Timor, is anything but disinterested.
As a student of the law he has strong views on the importance of democratic institutions and personal freedoms. But if his mouth makes the mistake of trying to catch up to his mind, and he attempts to force words that don’t want to be said, he’s left dizzy and breathless, almost to the point of passing out. So far, it’s never come to that.
He points out it’s not “developmental stuttering” — the kind associated with children learning a new word for the first time. He talks about suffering “blocks” where the air volume between his diaphragm and his vocal cords drops, causing his cords to spasm.
Instead of talking, he’s left drowning.
“I’m basically gasping for air,” Hamilton said. “Many people would ask if I was having a seizure.”
Hamilton has a few new approaches to dealing with blocks, including accepting them, letting the air out and letting the word go.
Before entering law school, he got help from an intensive program for stuttering, run by those suffering from it, founded in the United Kingdom.
He talks about suffering “blocks” where the air volume between his diaphragm and his vocal cords drops, causing his cords to spasm.
The training, he said, has not only improved his speech — it’s also helped his love life.
Now he’s trying to recruit others to join the same program and start a local social chapter.
“I’ve been on enough dates where I’ve tried to hide it, and failed miserably,” said Hamilton, with a reminiscent chuckle. “In every (job) interview I do, I disclose it right up front: ‘You may notice me using some slow and mechanical speech. I need to focus on my breathing and my articulation. Please bear with me.’ Most people appreciate that candor.”
Even legal employers.
“It’s an extremely verbal profession,” said Hamilton, who clerked for the criminal division of the Anoka County attorney’s office last year and will join Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid this summer. “They don’t often have people walk in and say ‘Here’s my weaknesses, hire me!'”
His first few courtroom appearances last summer were difficult ones, he acknowledges.
But things got better as the summer went on. Legal Aid, which sometimes allows student attorneys to argue cases before federal judges, could be an even tougher challenge.
Hamilton said he’s grateful to have supportive parents, siblings, and a girlfriend who is a doctoral student in developmental psychology.
Then came the 2010 movie “The King’s Speech,” a British biopic on the stuttering Duke of York, who became King George VI in 1936.
He’s watched it several times, and it never fails to move him.
Employers “don’t often have people walk in and say ‘Here’s my weaknesses, hire me!’ “
Despite all the scientific advances of the modern era, there’s still still no sure-shot cure for stuttering, and common understanding is fleeting at best.
“I think that movie showed the amount of frustration and the pain of not being able to communicate,” Hamilton said. “I can really relate. He had high hopes for himself, and aspirations … but was really shaken to the core.”
IN EAST TIMOR
For Hamilton, who speaks in calm, measured tones, the stuttering is not immediately obvious. That’s one reason it’s taken him 23 years to seek help beyond the once-a-week speech therapy appointments of his youth in Jacksonville, Fla. By high school, he figured he had his stuttering under control and didn’t even need that.
Then came college — Tulane University in New Orleans — where Hamilton majored in international development and international relations with a minor in sociology.
The summer after his freshman year, the stuttering came back hard. It came back so hard, in fact, that Hamilton sometimes found himself unable to breathe as he tried to push past a word blocked in his throat. At Starbucks, he went by “Matt,” which was easier to get his lips around than “Chase.”
After college, a nonprofit service organization associated with Princeton University, “Princeton in Asia,” funded his way to East Timor, a former colony that established its independence from Indonesia in 2002.
But the locals had no patience for an American wasting their time with slow talk. They called him names.
“That’s when things got really bad speech-wise, just communicating in a non-native language,” Hamilton said. “I got teased and heckled quite a bit. … I was really proud of being on this fellowship program, and I felt like I had a lot to offer, but I couldn’t speak to my boss. It would take me a full minute to say a couple words. Maybe 10 percent of my voice was heard. … I was in a place where I could only do it in writing.”
After seven months and a bad illness, Hamilton came home and got help.
“It felt awful at the time, but it took a kick in the teeth,” he said.
Isolated and depressed, he turned to the only community that truly understood his plight: others who stutter.
In June 2015, while preparing to enter law school, he attended his first course of the McGuire Programme, an intensive group training that, in Hamilton’s view, condenses the rough equivalent of a year’s worth of work with a speech therapist into a matter of days. The program, founded in the United Kingdom, is run by those with chronic stuttering and tends to draw young professionals who have gotten a taste of the working world and felt they hit roadblocks.
As therapy goes, it wasn’t for the half-hearted.
“On the first night, they kind of put you through the wringer,” Hamilton said. “They take a video of you (presenting to the class). It’s the scariest thing in the world to present to a roomful of strangers as a really out-of-control stutterer. And that is forever a measuring point. I still have that video, and I still watch that video to remind myself how far I’ve come, and where I don’t want to ever return.”
Meeting others dealing with stuttering was helpful, he said.
“One of the really snowballing emotions was the sense of isolation — the more you feel like you’re the only one who has this, you’re the only one who can’t order a sandwich at a restaurant,” Hamilton said. “It really takes a toll on your sense of self-worth.”
Officials with the McGuire Programme say Hamilton has helped others as well.
“Chase is a model coach and McGP member, and we’re very lucky to have him as part of the McGuire Programme family,” said Brian Sellers, regional director of the program in the U.S. and Canada. “He’s already been able to help many people along their own journeys toward articulate speaking, and I’m excited about his ability to continue to help many more people — and himself — in the future.”
Hamilton’s weekly outing to meet strangers at the Mall of America — a program exercise he calls “Contacts” — isn’t just personal and professional training for the life of a stuttering attorney. It’s also his way of readying himself to be a coach and mentor for others with chronic stuttering, who reach out to him daily using the program’s contact lists.
He figures he fields three or four calls a day, with some heart-to-hearts lasting as long as half an hour. Sometimes, when he needs someone to talk to, he picks up the phone, looks up the support network and makes some calls of his own.
His next goal is to start a local chapter of the McGuire Programme and host monthly coffee meetings. Membership, he points out, is for life.