Sometimes it’s difficult to talk to Ron Pennington. It takes him so long to get one word out. “Come on man, get those words out.”
Occasionally, as a child, he would get “whooped up” emotionally by schoolmates’ laughter and teasing. The chiding was so bad at times that all he had to hold on to was the loving lifeline from his grandmother.
Pennington is a cheerful, gregarious man, whom I now count as one of my new best friends. He can make you stronger by just listening to him, even if you have to work hard to do it.
Pennington is a 51-year-old, married father of three with a fluency disorder. In short, he stutters. Sometimes it’s pretty bad.
Pennington gets twice-weekly help at the Southern University Department of Speech Language and Pathology. Graduate students sit with him twice a week in a fluency support group, listening to him pronounce words, breathe and focus.
I heard about him a few weeks ago. It was his age that got my attention. Many his age would have been resigned to “this is the way I will be.” But that’s not Pennington. He continues to work, even if his progress is in inches when he has many yards to the finish line.
So, I had to meet him. Please note that each quote I attribute to him took a few extra seconds.
When he was in elementary school, Pennington said he would practice before he had to read, hoping that preparation would help. “But, when my turn came, it turned out rough all the time,” he said.
He had two other siblings who did not stutter. “I never really asked, ‘Why me?’ I just dealt with it.”
For the most part, Pennington said, elementary school wasn’t awful. The students “knew me and accepted me.”
But by high school, things had changed some. “I would come home crushed. That’s when my grandmother would tell me that they are not laughing at you; they are laughing with you. She told me to laugh at them.”
“My grandmother was a very positive woman. … She showed me so much love that I could conquer anything,” he said.
Pennington said he never had a girlfriend in high school. He attended college for a while. “But you know, it was at Southern University where, for the first time, nobody cared about the way I talked. I could breathe here,” he said.
As time went on, Pennington wanted to be a husband and father. He wanted his own family.
“I never thought I would get married unless I owned a car and a house and my own stuff. I felt for me to get a wife I needed to have all of these things to compensate for my stuttering,” he said.
But then he met someone who saw him as the jovial, smart young man that he was. Then, Pennington looked at me, smiled and said, “We got married when we had nothing.” It was the first sentence in the interview in which he did not stutter. “She really liked me for me.”
Pennington said there was a 15-year gap in his treatment for stuttering. That was caused by the job he had, which required him to be out of town and unable to make the sessions.
He returned to treatment when the oldest of his three children stuttered and required him. His son, he said, now barely shows a trace of the disorder. But, he said, his son’s treatment compelled him to get back to work on himself.
He has another full-time job now and owns a heating and refrigeration business. “I had to make my own job because when people would think about giving someone a promotion and they had to choose between me and someone else, I think they would choose the person who didn’t have my problem.”
As we parted, Pennington said he will continue to get fluency support. He won’t stop trying to get better. “I got to,” he said with a laugh, “because I love to talk.”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.