We were gathered together in our usual weekend potpourri of parents and children when I overheard two small people discussing Miss M's speech. "Do you know how Miss M says fishy? She says sishy!" "Yeah! Sishy! That's dumb!" I could feel my spine go rigid as I looked at my daughter, who clearly heard the conversation. She was just sitting there quietly, taking it in, not objecting or defending. Before the mama bear in me had a chance to emerge, another parent gracefully stepped in and explained why such comments were inappropriate. I'm sure it's happened before, but it was the first time I really heard other kids picking on mine. Not just the usual "you're a stupidhead poopoo-face" kind of stuff, but actually singling out a mockable trait and digging in. And of course, it had to be the one thing that I'm most sensitive about.
I know that it's completely normal for a three-year-old to have speech quirks. I'm not stressed about it, and I'm actually reluctant for her to leave her personal lingo behind as she grows older. I smile when she asks to borrow my "sundasses" and pout when she refuses to give me a "tiss." But because I spent the entirety of my formative years as a spectator to my sister's speech therapy sessions, I immediately bristle when I feel that anyone else is poking fun at the way Miss M talks. Due to her cleft lip and palate, my sister spent over ten years being coached on her pronunciation. She was pulled out of her classes to see her school's speech therapist on a regular basis, inciting a weird sort of curiosity and derision from her classmates. And then there were the intensive annual evaluations at the local university hospital where, among other high-pressure activities, she'd have to recite words back with a mirror under her nose to make sure she was exhaling correctly.
As much as I diligently fulfilled my little sister role as her constant tormentor, I instinctively knew what was off-limits: scars and sibilance. I lived in my sister's hand-me-downs but not her shoes, so I don't know for sure how much she was teased for the way she looked or talked. But I know that she was, and I know that it hurt. Fortunately, she took those way-too-early challenges and pushed her way through every one, eventually growing into the kickass woman she is today. But if I'd had any power to suppress even a single unkind remark, I would have. There are lots of ways to build character. Making a little kid feel even smaller isn't an essential one.
I know that if it weren't her refusal to pronounce Fs, there would be something else that other kids would tease Miss M about. Like the obnoxiously perfect bow of her mouth, or her devastating gift for joke-telling, or how aggravatingly smart she is. But of course, thanks to the ever-ironic Universe's sense of humor, it's something that hearkens back my own trove of childhood issues, albeit second-hand ones. All I can do is hope she handles it with the same strength and resilience as her annoyingly brilliant and beautiful aunt.