Tuesday, April 20, 2010

No Grad School for Mark

UGA's Sociology Department recently informed me that I was "not recommended" for their PhD program. When life hands you a lemon, what should you do?

You should kick life in the crotch.

Since UGA has no use for my letter of intent, I figured I would post it here:

My name is Mark Babcock, and I am a severe stutterer. I don’t just repeat a word here and there, and I don’t just “have a little trouble when I’m nervous.” I struggle to put my thoughts into words. In my head, my thoughts are clear and concise, but they come out garbled and truncated. When I talk, I sometimes contort my face and run out of breath. My head often jerks uncontrollably. My listener usually breaks eye contact, and I follow suit out of shame. I feel like I make quite a spectacle.

I used to say “I don’t know” in school when a teacher would call upon me to answer a question. I did know. I always knew, but the knock to my pride was easier to deal with than the shame of stuttering in front of my peers.

I do not tell you this to gain your sympathy. I tell you this because my “affliction” has made me a natural sociologist. Let me explain.

When I talk to someone, I get two reactions. The first is the person’s response to what I say. For example, they might say “eleven fifteen” if I ask for the time. The second is the person’s response to my stuttering. Some people give a look of shock or confusion. Some laugh or make a joke. Some try to finish my sentence for me. Others give a sad, sympathetic smile.

As a child, I began to notice patterns in these responses. Men tended to be less sympathetic than women. Older people were more patient than younger people. As a teen, I found that the “popular” kids would make fun of me in a group but not in a one-on-one encounter.

In my head, I began to catalog people into types based upon the reaction that I expected from them. I used these types to avoid confrontation in my life. If I went to the grocery store and had the choice between a male cashier and a female cashier, I would always choose the female. If I encountered a pretty girl, I would not talk to her when she was around her friends. The list goes on and on.

Without realizing it, I was “doing sociology.” I developed an interest in why people from similar backgrounds or with similar character traits tend to do similar things. I never had a name for this interest, but it was always there. It was not until well into my college career that I found sociology.

I began college with high hopes. I was going to UGA where I would get a degree in math or chemistry, meet new friends, meet the girl of my dreams, and graduate in four years with my life planned out. The reality was different. My first year at UGA was difficult for me. I was going through an especially bad stuttering cycle, and I failed to meet friends. I endured a very public disappointment with the SpeechEasy device. [To make a long story short, I became the poster child for a device that was supposed to cure stuttering. I went on Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote this device. The device “cured” me for a few weeks, but then my stuttering came back.]

This series of events led me into a long depression. I began to work full time at a bar and nearly failed out of school. I just didn’t care. For the next few years, I bounced from major to major making B’s and C’s when I was capable of A’s. I began to manage a bar and toyed with the idea of dropping out of college. I loved learning, but I felt that my stuttering would keep me from doing anything useful with a college degree. Somewhere in my head, I knew that I was settling for less than I was capable of, but like I said, I just didn’t care.

After two years of this, I met Sarah, the woman that I would eventually marry. She helped me see that I was more than just a stutterer. She helped me get my college career back on track and urged me to look into psychology or sociology. When I took my first sociology class, a light bulb went off in my head. This was what I had been doing my entire life! As I sat in that crowded auditorium listening to Dr. Beck explain the basic tenets of sociological thinking, I felt like I knew what he was going to say before he said it. I went home that evening with a sense of purpose.

There is much more to me than stuttering. I am a semi-professional cyclist, I love music (I play the string bass and the guitar), and I have a soft spot for animals (especially dogs). I am a dedicated husband, a devoted son, and a reliable brother. I only focus on stuttering for this letter because I feel that it is the best way to convey to you why I am a good candidate in “1-2 pages.”

Thank you very much for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


Mark Babcock


  1. Mark,
    I can relate to your disappointment. I have a genius IQ, and as a kid, I would think in paragraphs instead of simple fragments as most people do. My mother said that they started to worry about me because I didn’t start talking at the same age as most children. But soon, I didn’t have a first word: I had a first sentence.

    I didn’t realize until about ten years ago that I don’t even think in words. I think in colors and shapes. That is the method that my childhood brain came up with for handling the massive amount of ideas that I had. Words in my mind were just speed-bumps for ideas, so my mind discarded words. Abstract thinking allowed for lightning fast computation of math and big-picture ideas. No numbers, no nouns, no verbs. Just ideas, possibilities, and solutions.

    So when I was little, I started telling people about my big ideas. But I soon found out that people either weren’t interested or didn’t care. But I thought that the ideas were important, so it drove me deeper into my mind of “big ideas.”

    Eventually, I had a struggle similar to yours. But instead of trying to get the words out, I had to find a way to keep them in. That eventually led to me being very introverted, but also intuitive. That is a gift that I treasure more than most introverted people do.

    I have an intuition about people who also have big ideas, and I’m very interested in hearing what they have to say. To people like me, it is obvious that you have something important to say, and we will pay attention. You just haven’t gotten the attention of the right person, and the next step will fall into place. There are people at universities who want you.

  2. Maybe one thing you might consider is going into schools and using your stuttering experience to teach kids about tolerance, respect, teasing and bullying prevention. That will build up skills and resume which might help grad schools see how valuable you really are, and teach kids something important in the mean time. I do that several times a year for National Stuttering Awareness Week in May and International Stuttering Awareness Day in October.
    Btw, I am a career counselor who also happens to stutter.

  3. Hi Mark. I just wanted to assure you that there are people in this world who will see you for the person that you are, and not your disability. I know it's tough, I can only imagine the difficulty you have to go through each day, but just remember that we (people who see past personal afflictions) exist. So while you might see yourself as a walking hazard for embarrassing situations, we just see a really nice, bright guy with a small problem. It's like having a friend named Andy who only wears trucker hats or a pal named Amy who's addicted to wearing orange. Yes, I know I'm quite simplifying the situation but I just wanted to get an alternative view on things.

    Shape your own reality. Construct your own definition of what is stigmatized and what is not; redefine what is ridiculed. Be empowered by it. Embrace it. When in conversation with someone pretend like it's no big thing. There are stutterers in the world. Consider those who look at you strangely naive. And please, please never think that you are impinging on someone by your presence. Or that you are giving them inconvenience. That's not the case, believe it Mark. What really happened is you just added some color to that person's life.

    Lastly, I just wanted to let you know that I'm a young kid. I have many friends, who are an assortment of personalities (including "popular"), and I do not think those people would ever ridicule you. There's a lot of us compassionate young people here, too.

    I know this was a bit of a ramble but I just wanted help you redefine your environment a little bit. So when you step out into the world, don't see enemies, see people might have a lot of understanding.

    Wishing you the best in life :)

  4. Mark,

    I saw that segment on the Oprah show years ago and wept openly at the "kitchen scene." It was so powerful and still speaks powerfully to me all these years later. I did not know of the outcome and your further experience with the device until looking you up just now... I was prompted to look you up again all these years later when reading the blog post of a deaf mother with deaf children just a moment ago. She related the experience of running into another deaf boy in a Target store and how, when he saw that she and her children were deaf also (they were signing), he stared at them with rapt attention, and then when she signed, "hi" to him, he brightened, as if it brought him tremendous joy and relief to see other deaf people and to not feel so peculiar and alone in his "deaf world." Anyway, the device not providing the hoped for long-term "cure" IS very disappointing, and I think your feelings and reactions are VERY understandable. I still find you to be an inspiration, though, and I am really happy to hear that you married a loving, supportive woman who sees the whole package and the amazing person that you obviously are.

    I read with interest the sentence about your love of music. I am a professional musician and do quite a lot of programs. An emphasis I have taken in some of my programming is featuring performers who love music and have worked hard and developed their skills and talents in spite of their challenges. Mostly this has been in the autism community. (One of my own sons is autistic. It was fascinating to read about the clear, concise thoughts going on in your mind that don't come out right when you try to verbalize them, because I've seen glimpses of my son's mind that make me think the same thing is going on... moments of tremendous clarity, yet he struggles very much with communication.) These concerts and programs are always incredibly powerful and inspiring to audience members and really help a lot of people, because the truth is, we ALL have challenges, heartache, disappointment, sorrow. People like you are an example and shine a light on the fact that we CAN keep going, we CAN press on, even in the face of challenges, that there IS still joy to be had and dreams to pursue. Any chance you are in the Midwest? And if so, would you ever want to perform on such a program? I think it would be awesome. See my website at emilyspencer.com and contact me via the "Contact" page if you think that might be something you'd be interested in pursuing sometime.