Excerpt from Me
Talk Pretty One Day
ANYONE WHO WATCHES EVEN THE SLIGHTEST amount of TV is familiar
with the scene: An agent knocks on the door of some seemingly ordinary
home or office. The door opens, and the person holding the knob
is asked to identify himself. The agent then says, "I'm going to
ask you to come with me."
They're always remarkably calm, these agents. If asked "Why do
I need to go anywhere with you?" they'll straighten their shirt
cuffs or idly brush stray hairs from the sleeves of their sport
coats and say, "Oh, I think we both know why."
The suspect then chooses between doing things the hard way and
doing things the easy way, and the scene ends with either gunfire
or the gentlemanly application of handcuffs. Occasionally it's a
case of mistaken identity, but most often the suspect knows exactly
why he's being taken. It seems he's been expecting this to happen.
The anticipation has ruled his life, and now, finally, the wait
is over. You're sometimes led to believe that this person is actually
relieved, but I've never bought it. Though it probably has its moments,
the average day spent in hiding is bound to beat the average day
spent in prison. When it comes time to decide who gets the bottom
bunk, I think anyone would agree that there's a lot to be said for
doing things the hard way.
The agent came for me during a geography lesson. She entered the
room and nodded at my fifth-grade teacher, who stood frowning at
a map of Europe. What would needle me later was the realization
that this had all been prearranged. My capture had been scheduled
to go down at exactly 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The agent would
be wearing a dung-colored blazer over a red knit turtleneck, her
heels sensibly low in case the suspect should attempt a quick getaway.
"David," the teacher said, "this is Miss Samson, and she'd like
you to go with her now."
No one else had been called, so why me? I ran down a list of recent
crimes, looking for a conviction that might stick. Setting fire
to a reportedly flameproof Halloween costume, stealing a set of
barbecue tongs from an unguarded patio, altering the word on a list
of rules posted on the gymnasium door; never did it occur to me
that I might be innocent.
"You might want to take your books with you," the teacher said.
"And your jacket. You probably won't be back before the bell rings."
Though she seemed old at the time, the agent was most likely fresh
out of college. She walked beside me and asked what appeared to
be an innocent and unrelated question: "So, which do you like better,
State or Carolina?"
She was referring to the athletic rivalry between the Triangle
area's two largest universities. Those who cared about such things
tended to express their allegiance by wearing either Tar Heel powder
blue, or Wolf Pack red, two colors that managed to look good on
no one. The question of team preference was common in our part of
North Carolina, and the answer supposedly spoke volumes about the
kind of person you either were or hoped to become. I had no interest
in football or basketball but had learned it was best to pretend
otherwise. If a boy didn't care for barbecued chicken or potato
chips, people would accept it as a matter of personal taste, saying,
"Oh well, I guess it takes all kinds." You could turn up your nose
at the president or Coke or even God, but there were names for boys
who didn't like sports. When the subject came up, I found it best
to ask which team my questioner preferred. Then I'd say, "Really?
Asked by the agent which team I supported, I took my cue from
her red turtleneck and told her that I was for State. "Definitely
State. State all the way."
It was an answer I would regret for years to come.
"State, did you say?" the agent asked.
"Yes, State. They're the greatest."
"I see." She led me through an unmarked door near the principal's
office, into a small, windowless room furnished with two facing
desks. It was the kind of room where you'd grill someone until they
snapped, the kind frequently painted so as to cover the bloodstains.
She gestured toward what was to become my regular seat, then continued
her line of questioning.
"And what exactly are they, State and Carolina?"
She opened a file on her desk, saying, "Yes, you're right. Your
answers are correct, but you're saying them incorrectly. You're
telling me that they're colleg eth and univeritie th,
when actually they're college s and univer s itie
s. You're giving me a th sound instead of a nice clear
s. "Can you hear the di s tinction between the two
different s sound s?"
"May I plea s e have an actual an s wer?"
" 'Uh-huh' i s not a word."
"Okay," I said. "Sure, I can hear it."
"You can hear what, the di s tinction? The contra s
It was the first battle of my war against the letter s,
and I was determined to dig my foxhole before the sun went down.
According to Agent Samson, a s tate c ertified s
peech therapi s t," my s was sibilate, meaning that
This was not news to me.
"Our goal i s to work together until eventually you can
s peak correctly," Agent Samson said. She made a great show
of enunciating her own sparkling s's, and the effect was
profoundly irritating. "I'm trying to help you, but the longer you
play the s e little game s the longer thi s
i s going to take."
The woman spoke with a heavy western North Carolina accent, which
I used to discredit her authority. Here was a person for whom the
word pen had two syllables. Her people undoubtedly drank
from clay jugs and hollered for Paw when the vittles were ready
so who was she to advise me on anything? Over the coming
years I would find a crack in each of the therapists sent to train
what Miss Samson now defined as my lazy tongue. "That 's
it s problem," she said. "It's ju s t plain
My sisters Amy and Gretchen were, at the time, undergoing therapy
for their lazy eyes, while my older sister, Lisa, had been born
with a lazy leg that had refused to grow at the same rate as its
twin. She'd worn a corrective brace for the first two years of her
life, and wherever she roamed she left a trail of scratch marks
in the soft pine floor. I liked the idea that a part of one's body
might be thought of as lazy not thoughtless or hostile, just
unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team. My father
often accused my mother of having a lazy mind, while she in turn
accused him of having a lazy index finger, unable to dial the phone
when he knew damn well he was going to be late.
My therapy sessions were scheduled for every Thursday at 2: 30,
and with the exception of my mother, I discussed them with no one.
The word therapy suggested a profound failure on my part.
Mental patients had therapy. Normal people did not. I didn't see
my sessions as the sort of thing that one would want to advertise,
but as my teacher liked to say, "I guess it takes all kinds." Whereas
my goal was to keep it a secret, hers was to inform the entire class.
If I got up from my seat at 2:30 , she'd say, "Sit back down, David.
You've still got five minutes before your speech therapy session."
If I remained seated until 2:30 , she'd say, "David, don't forget
you have a speech therapy session at two-thirty." On the days I
was absent, I imagined she addressed the room, saying, "David's
not here today but if he were, he'd have a speech therapy session
My sessions varied from week to week. Sometimes I'd spend the
half hour parroting whatever Agent Samson had to say. We'd occasionally
pass the time examining charts on tongue position or reading childish
s-laden texts recounting the adventures of seals or settlers
named Sassy or Samuel. On the worst of days she'd haul out a tape
recorder and show me just how much progress I was failing to make.
"My s peech therapi s "t's name i s
Mi ss Chri ss y S am s on." She'd hand
me the microphone and lean back with her arms crossed. "Go ahead,
s ay it. I want you to hear what you s ound like."
She was in love with the sound of her own name and seemed to view
my speech impediment as a personal assault. If I wanted to spend
the rest of my life as David Thedarith, then so be it. She, however,
was going to be called Mi ss Chri ss y S am
s on. Had her name included no s's, she probably would
have bypassed a career in therapy and devoted herself to yanking
out healthy molars or performing unwanted clitoridectomies on the
schoolgirls of Africa. Such was her personality.
"Oh, come on," my mother would say. "I'm sure she's not that
bad. Give her a break. The girl's just trying to do her job."
I was a few minutes early one week and entered the office to find
Agent Samson doing her job on Garth Barclay, a slight, kittenish
boy I'd met back in the fourth grade. "You may wait out s
ide in the hallway until it i s your turn," she told me.
A week or two later my session was interrupted by mincing Steve
Bixler, who popped his head in the door and announced that his parents
were taking him out of town for a long weekend, meaning that he
would miss his regular Friday session. "Thorry about that," he said.
I started keeping watch over the speech therapy door, taking note
of who came and went. Had I seen one popular student leaving the
office, I could have believed my mother and viewed my lisp as the
sort of thing that might happen to anyone. Unfortunately, I saw
no popular students. Chuck Coggins, Sam Shelton, Louis Delucca:
obviously, there was some connection between a sibilate s
and a complete lack of interest in the State versus Carolina issue.
None of the therapy students were girls. They were all boys like
me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains. "You
don't want to be doing that," the men in our families would say.
"That's a girl thing." Baking scones and cupcakes for the school
janitors, watching Guiding Light with our mothers, collecting
rose petals for use in a fragrant potpourri: anything worth doing
turned out to be a girl thing. In order to enjoy ourselves, we learned
to be duplicitous. Our stacks of Cosmopolitan were topped
with an unread issue of Boy's Life or Sports Illustrated,
and our decoupage projects were concealed beneath the sporting equipment
we never asked for but always received. When asked what we wanted
to be when we grew up, we hid the truth and listed who we wanted
to sleep with when we grew up. "A policeman or a fireman or one
of those guys who works with high-tension wires." Symptoms were
feigned, and our mothers wrote notes excusing our absences on the
day of the intramural softball tournament. Brian had a stomach virus
or Ted suffered from that twenty-four-hour bug that seemed to be
One of the s e day s I'm going to have to hang a
s ign on that door," Agent Samson used to say. She was probably
thinking along the lines of SPEECH THERAPY LAB, though a more appropriate
marker would have read FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA. We knocked
ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our
tongues. At the beginning of the school year, while we were congratulating
ourselves on successfully passing for normal, Agent Samson was taking
names as our assembled teachers raised their hands, saying, "I've
got one in my homeroom," and "There are two in my fourth-period
math class." Were they also able to spot the future drunks and depressives?
Did they hope that by eliminating our lisps, they might set us on
a different path, or were they trying to prepare us for future stage
and choral careers?
Miss Samson instructed me, when forming an s, to position
the tip of my tongue against the rear of my top teeth, right up
against the gum line. The effect produced a sound not unlike that
of a tire releasing air. It was awkward and strange-sounding, and
elicited much more attention than the original lisp. I failed to
see the hissy s as a solution to the problem and continued
to talk normally, at least at home, where my lazy tongue fell upon
equally lazy ears. At school, where every teacher was a potential
spy, I tried to avoid an s ound whenever possible. "Yes,"
became "correct," or a military "affirmative." "Please," became
"with your kind permission," and questions were pleaded rather than
asked. After a few weeks of what she called "endless pestering"
and what I called "repeated badgering," my mother bought me a pocket
thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to
just about everything. I consulted the book both at home in my room
and at the daily learning academy other people called our school.
Agent Samson was not amused when I began referring to her as an
articulation coach, but the majority of my teachers were delighted.
"What a nice vocabulary," they said. "My goodness, such big words!"
Plurals presented a considerable problem, but I worked around
them as best I could; "rivers," for example, became either "a river
or two" or "many a river." Possessives were a similar headache,
and it was easier to say nothing than to announce that the left-hand
and the right-hand glove of Janet had fallen to the floor. After
all the compliments I had received on my improved vocabulary, it
seemed prudent to lie low and keep my mouth shut. I didn't want
anyone thinking I was trying to be a pet of the teacher.
When I first began my speech therapy, I worried that the Agent
Samson plan might work for everyone but me, that the other boys
might strengthen their lazy tongues, turn their lives around, and
leave me stranded. Luckily my fears were never realized. Despite
the woman's best efforts, no one seemed to make any significant
improvement. The only difference was that we were all a little quieter.
Thanks to Agent Samson's tape recorder, I, along with the others,
now had a clear sense of what I actually sounded like. There was
the lisp, of course, but more troubling was my voice itself, with
its excitable tone and high, girlish pitch. I'd hear myself ordering
lunch in the cafeteria, and the sound would turn my stomach. How
could anyone stand to listen to me? Whereas those around me might
grow up to be lawyers or movie stars, my only option was to take
a vow of silence and become a monk. My former classmates would call
the abbey, wondering how I was doing, and the priest would answer
the phone. "You can't talk to him!" he'd say. "Why, Brother David
hasn't spoken to anyone in thirty-five years!"
"Oh, relax," my mother said. "Your voice will change eventually."
"And what if it doesn't?"
She shuddered. "Don't be so morbid."
It turned out that Agent Samson was something along the lines
of a circuit-court speech therapist. She spent four months at our
school and then moved on to another. Our last meeting was held the
day before school let out for Christmas. My classrooms were all
decorated, the halls everything but her office, which remained
as bare as ever. I was expecting a regular half hour of Sassy the
seal and was delighted to find her packing up her tape recorder.
"I thought that thi s afternoon we might let loo s
e and have a party, you and I. How doe s that s ound?"
She reached into her desk drawer and withdrew a festive tin of cookies.
"Here, have one. I made them my s elf from s cratch
and, boy, was it a me ss! Do you ever make cookie s?"
I lied, saying that no, I never had.
"Well, it 's hard work," she said. "E s pecially
if you don't have a mixer."
It was unlike Agent Samson to speak so casually, and awkward to
sit in the hot little room, pretending to have a normal conversation.
"S o," she said, "what are your plan s for the holiday
"Well, I usually remain here and, you know, open a gift from my
"Only one?" she asked.
"Maybe eight or ten."
"Never s ix or s even?"
"Rarely," I said.
"And what do you do on De c ember thirty-fir s t,
New Year's Eve?"
"On the final day of the year we take down the pine tree in our
living room and eat marine life."
"You're pretty good at avoiding those s's," she said. "I
have to hand it to you, you're tougher than most."
I thought she would continue trying to trip me up, but instead
she talked about her own holiday plans. "It 's pretty hard
with my fian c in Vietnam," she said. "La s t year
we went up to see hi s folk s in Roanoke, but thi
s year I'll spend Chri s tma s with my grandmother
out s ide of Asheville. My parent
s] ITL will come, and we'll all try our be s t to have a good
time. I'll eat s ome turkey and go to church, and then, the next day,
a friend and I will drive down to Jack s onville to watch Florida
play Tenne ss ee in the Gator Bowl."
I couldn't imagine anything worse than driving down to Florida
to watch a football game, but I pretended to be impressed. "Wow,
that ought to be eventful."
"I wa s in Memphi s la s t year when N C State whooped Georgia
fourteen to s even in the Liberty Bowl," she said. "And next year,
I don't care who'
s ITL playing, but I want to be s itting front-row c enter at
the Tangerine Bowl. Have you ever been to Orlando? It's a super fun
pla c e. If my future hu s band can find a job in hi s field, we're
hoping to move down there within a year or two. Me living in Florida.
I bet that would make you happy, wouldn't it?"
I didn't quite know how to respond. Who was this college bowl
fanatic with no mixer and a fiancé in Vietnam, and why had
she taken so long to reveal herself? Here I'd thought of her as
a cold-blooded agent when she was really nothing but a slightly
dopey, inexperienced speech teacher. She wasn't a bad person, Miss
Samson, but her timing was off. She should have acted friendly at
the beginning of the year instead of waiting until now, when all
I could do was feel sorry for her.
"I tried my be s t to work with you and the other s, but s
s]TL a per s on's be s t ju s t i s n't good enough."
She took another cookie and turned it over in her hands. "I
really wanted to prove my s elf and make a differen c in people's
live s, but it's hard to do your job when you're met with s o much
re s i s tan c e. My student s don't like me, and I gue ss that's
ju s t the way it i s. What can I s ay? A s a s peech teacher, I'm
a complete failure."
She moved her hands toward her face, and I worried that she
might start to cry. "Hey, look," I said. "I'm thorry."
"Ha-ha," she said. "I got you." She laughed much more than
she needed to and was still at it when she signed the form recommending
me for the following year's speech therapy program. "Thorry, indeed.
You've got some work ahead of you, mi s ter."
I related the story to my mother, who got a huge kick out of
it. "You've got to admit that you really are a sucker," she said.
I agreed but, because none of my speech classes ever made a
difference, I still prefer to use the word chump.
Copyright © 2000 David Sedaris. All rights reserved.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. © May 2, 2000
, David Sedaris used by permission.