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A stutterer finds his voice

Marcus Hill, urged to join his college speech team, recently helped the squad shine in a national competition.

April 30, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It's a point that bears repeating. Silencing a stutter is a matter of putting mind over mouth, according to Marcus Hill.

That's what the 20-year-old Arleta resident did to become one of the country's top speakers this month by winning a national public-speaking contest for community college students.

The Los Angeles Valley College sophomore has stuttered since age 7, when he suffered a deep cut on a leg and was so traumatized that he couldn't explain to his family what had happened.

Elementary and middle school were traumatic in a different way. Schoolmates teased him mercilessly when he became tongue-tied.

"I stuttered in front of other kids a lot. You get slammed for it, especially when you're younger," he said.

Ethan Braun, a 20-year-old Cal State Northridge student who attended eighth grade with Hill, remembers his friend's struggle.

"It would take him a long time to begin a sentence," Braun said.

By high school, Hill had come to accept stuttering as a way of life, particularly when he was nervous or under stress.

His moment of truth came when he enrolled in a required speech class as a freshman at the Valley College campus in Valley Glen.

Teacher Duane Smith challenged the 40 students at the opening-day session to memorize every classmate's name.

"Nobody raised their hand after we went around the room and introduced ourselves. So I did. I repeated everybody's name," Hill recalled.

"I'm really weird about remembering small things. They're big things to me. And people always appreciate that you remember their names after hearing it only once."

Impressed, Smith asked Hill if he wanted to join the college's speech and debate team. In forensics contests, the ability to memorize presentations and talking points is invaluable.

But Hill shook his head. "I have a stuttering problem," he confided.

Smith set out to change that. "The speech team is for anybody with a pulse and a mouth," he explained.

It was slow going at first.

"In my class he couldn't get through a sentence without what we call a flub in speech competition," Smith said. "His tongue was always getting tied.

"After three or four months, I wasn't certain how much competitive success he'd have. You have to get through a speech perfectly because your competition can. If you can't, you're not going to win."

Hill was urged by Smith to coordinate his talking with his thinking. "He said it's just a matter of clearing my thoughts and having confidence when I speak," Hill said.

"I repeated a catchphrase over and over to clear my mind. I'd repeat 'I'm here to win gold' again and again. Coach Duane called it a 'positive internal refrain.' Early on, stuttering would get the best of me. I'd forget what I was saying. It cost me a couple of tournaments."

Finally, in a competition at Azusa Pacific University, Hill seemed ready to give up after he stammered and flubbed a few lines of his carefully prepared speech.

"I looked at the judges, and instead of frowns on their faces I saw smiles. They encouraged me to go on," he said. And he came away with his first competition medal.

During this year's forensics contest season, Hill worked at keeping his stuttering in check.

When the Valley College speech team traveled to St. Charles, Ill., in mid-April for the Phi Rho Pi National Public Speaking Championships, the "positive internal refrain" technique paid off. Hill took first place in the theater, prose and persuasive categories and second place in drama and speech to entertain.

His showing -- and medals won by teammates Ashley Bashioum, Annie Leroux, Thomas Petersen, Arthur Valenzuela, Eric Patten, LeCoya LeJeune, Corina Adaskaveg and Pariya Beheshti -- helped Valley College edge out the 74 other community college teams for first place.

The team's success has had a ripple effect, according to speech teacher Josh Miller, who with Paul Davis helped Smith coach the squad. "At the beginning of this year I was thinking about retiring from forensics," Miller said. "Now I'm engaged more than ever."

So is Hill. He plans to study political science and communications at Cal State Long Beach this fall and eventually attend law school. After that, he wants to teach at the community college level.

"In Illinois, a guy from New York came up and said he had been so discouraged that he was going to quit until he saw me and got pumped up," Hill said.

"Stuttering can come back when you get nervous. But I've learned to be confident; don't doubt yourself. If you do, other people will see it and feed on it."

Nicely put.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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