Roy Exum: I Can’t Say My First Name

Thursday, October 31, 2013
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Hours after an NPR broadcast revealed a Southern accent is far-and-away the most attractive drawl to most Americans, I was standing at a late-afternoon reception when I noticed a very attractive lady who had just moved to Chattanooga to my right. As I have been taught to do since early childhood, I smiled and introduced myself.  She warmly replied, “Hi, Rory.”

“ No ma’am … it’s Roy … Roy,” I said as her face grew inquisitive. “Oy, like Chinese? … or, Awoy?”

“No ma’am,” I forced a smile, looking around to see if a friend was close by to help in a challenge that has confronted me my entire life. You see, a remarkable truth is that I have never been able to easily pronounce my first name. Realizing I didn’t have a business card which is always in my front pocket, I went to my No. 2 defense. “You know the alphabet?,” I asked her. “Take the letter that comes between “Q” and “S” and then add an “O” and an “Y.”

“Roy?” her eyebrows arched in question and I said, “Yes ma’am. That’s it. Roy. Yes ma’am. It is so nice to meet you … ”

Embarrassed? Not at all. It has happened to me so many times in my life I figure it’s just part of my landscape. When I was real little my mother took me to our pediatrician, the late H.D. Long, in concern I had been born with a physical impediment or a mangled palate that caused me to not talk clearly. Dr. Long, who had been raised in Mississippi, studied me as I struggled to read a book out loud, finally laughed and told my mother, “This child has the heaviest Southern accent I believe I have ever heard.”

Instantly I fretted about it – every kid wants to be like everybody else -- and Dr. Long later said he believed I had inherited some far-away gene from my father’s family (he was from rural Mississippi) that caused me to talk like two generations before. That only made things worse until Dad explained I should never be ashamed of my heritage, to celebrate who I was and where I came from. The storm clouds passed but I’ve had to repeat myself so often ever since – particularly all through elementary school and constantly up north – that I don’t give it a second thought.

By the time I got to high school there was this social worker who traveled around to all the schools in search of kids who were malnourished, abused and otherwise afflicted. Early in my very first year I was called to the guidance counselor’s office where, joined by two other adults wearing long faces, she handed me a book, opened it to the middle, and asked me to read aloud. Oh, Lordy, I knew what was happening but I was a good reader by then and breezed through the exercise.

They immediately let me go back to class and I figured everything was swell. But, oh no, we soon got a letter from the Board of Education requiring me to go to speech class at Siskin Children’s Center. Are you kidding me? I mean this was something like a court order and, when the Siskin people called mother to see when it would be convenient for her to bring me in for my therapy, my mom cheerfully said, “He can come anytime. He has his own car.”

Growing up I just accepted the fact I talked different. “Mother” was “Mu-thah.” Anything that ended in “er” came out “ah” Anything that started in “R” came out “wha.” A word like “football, came out “FO-ball.” My pet rodent was a “HAM-stah” and I drove a “Fawd” truck. Sure, I got kidded by people who had big ears, funny noses, and awful-looking hairdos, but I really didn’t care less. I had a heritage. So what? Let’s drink a “co-cola” and have a smoke.

The first day at the Siskin Center was humbling. I dreaded it because I knew I didn’t talk like anybody else. Are they gonna’ use electrodes?  When you are just 16, have had nothing to do with any gene you inherited, and they start talking about “old dogs -- new tricks” it is pretty daunting.

So the Siskin receptionist escorted me to this little classroom where I am told to wait for my “therapist.” Every chair in the place was designed for three- to five-year olds – about six inches off the floor -- and there were coloring books. This was before I became a renowned escape artist from such a trial and this time I was stuck, miserable. I picked up a Crayola, looking at it before I said in that empty room, “AH-g” (orange).

I heard clinking heels on the linoleum and stood, which is what Southern boys are taught early on, and through the door stepped the most incredibly beautiful red-haired woman I had ever seen.  She looked like Jayne Mansfield, that’s month’s Playmate in the gentleman’s magazine, except she had a bigger bust or a tighter sweater. And when she sat very lady-like on one of those midget chairs, I wondered how many worms it would take to make just one pair of silk stockings that were that long.

Oh, boy, I loved speech therapy school.

We would spend an hour working on various tasks. Since I had an extreme case of “lazy tongue,” we would work at pronouncing the back half of words, “foot-BALL,” “ele-PHANT,” “hippa-POTMUS” … “no, you have to say each letter … try “hippo-pot-e-MUS.”

The killers, of course, were any words with an “r.”  She would take a map and point to cities. “DE-twoit.” “Sanfa-SICO,” “la-TAH,” “Win-CHES-tuh” “WASH-ton,” “Chals-TON.” Whew! Those maps were awful. You see, the trick to saying an “r” is to curl your tongue backwards and a great many in the South have a hard time learning to do it. Trust me on this, mine hates to curl more than most without ice cream in my mouth.

One day my gorgeous “teach-UH” told me to go home and practice just saying “ah-ER” real fast, just repeating it as fast as I could. So I walked down the hall huffing “ah-ER, “ah-ER”  “ah-ER” and one of my brothers soon yelled from his room, “Somebody hush that dog!” 

How I ever graduated from speech school I’ll never know, but for all my life I’ve had people comment on the way I talk. I don’t reckon it will ever stop, either. When I am in Minnesota, this before two sentences come out of my mouth, I’ll be interrupted with, “Where are you from?” I always say “MINN-aplus” just to watch their face. In “NAW-yolk” the same thing happens and I say “new-UCK,” as in New Jersey.

And let me let you in on another fact: a Southern accent doesn’t attract the opposite sex. If it did I’d be Clark Gable but my accent, coupled with a $20 bill and a Snickers bar, wouldn’t get me a date to the movie (Southern boys still call it “the pic-CHA show.”) Forget any romance. Just take your time saying words on the menu very carefully and pointing to things you know you will garble whenever you can.

All my accent is – in truth – is my heritage but don’t ask me to pronounce that word either. “Heah-TIGE?” Maybe.

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