This article was originally published for the International Stuttering Awareness Day Conference in August 2000.
You’ve all got one, haven’t you?
Role models – Sports players, popstars, actors. . . the list is tremendous. Anyone can choose a role model from any walk of life. Because I stuttered, my choice was immediate and easy. The hero I needed was uncomplicated, and John “Scatman” Larkin was mine.
Now, years later, it hurts that my childhood idol died of cancer – too soon and too painfully. The death of a man I loved and even got to know as a friend has brought many thoughts to mind: the main one being how lucky I was to have him as a mentor, through my teenage years struggling with stuttering.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a completely different person from who I was about four or five years ago. Why? Because of a strange song I heard on the radio when I was 14 years old. Yeah, it’s a long, crazy story. But now I realise that this story can be repeated in the lives of teenagers across the world, if people could see the importance of an influence like John in their lives.
You see, he stuttered too.
Aah, now we’re getting somewhere. Let me tell you the story.
If you stutter. . . picture yourself at 13 or 14 years old. Feel good about yourself? Naah, I didn’t think so. At least, I certainly didn’t. What about school? Maybe just the thought of it makes you shiver like it does to me. If you didn’t get bullied, count yourself lucky. “Once bitten, twice shy”, and I was ripped to shreds.
It’s not that I stutter severely, in fact, it’s often so mild that I think I’ve lost it forever. But, as I always say, it’s the feelings and not the level of fluency behind stuttering that makes it so awful. Heck, imagine if only one percent of the population were fluent. They’d hold conventions for fluent people! (Bear with me while I savour that thought).
Anyway, back to reality. You’ve got a depressed, shy, isolated young girl on your hands. This girl is listening to the car radio one morning when this insane noise jabbering “scabadabadiddlybobadoobyopadopaliddlbopbop” suddenly blurts out of the radio. Cue a dance beat and the same weird voice starts singing:
“Everybody stutters one way or the other, so check out my message to you,
As a matter of fact, don’t let nothin’ hold you back,
If the Scatman can do it, so can you. . . “
Followed by more vocal acrobatics.
Oooh, my goodness, what IS this? Who’s the Scatman? He said something about stuttering!
A three-minute song was about to send me on a three-year journey, but of course I didn’t know that. I pictured this “Scatman” character to be a young black rapper.
I was in for a shock, when later that day I saw the music video on TV. No young black rapper in sight. Here was a guy in his fifties, dressed in a suit, jumping around all over the place singing those unmistakable lines through a bushy moustache.
Then the programme said something along the lines of “Scatman” being a lifelong stutterer who had overcome the fear and shame behind it by becoming “Scatman John” and releasing such music – a cross between Jazz, pop, and techno, which I had instantly fallen in love with. This man, I decided, was really something. I made a mental note to find out more about him. Goodbye socially acceptable music taste, hello role model.
I don’t know how you found your role model. Perhaps they inspired you over time, or they made one great achievement that awes you. Or like me, it came to you with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The thing is, this sledgehammer took a few more swings at me. . . on with my story.
Fast forward to the summer of 1997. I was 16 years old and just as excited about all things Scatman as I was before. I was still listening. Let’s face it, we stutterers are good at it. John’s lyrics were unique, speaking about triumph over adversity, facing problems in a chaotic world, and being friends with yourself. What other people dismissed, I knew was sincere and drew strength from.
I decided to give the Internet a go at home only because I was bored. I was trawling around and by some fluke I decided to look up the name ‘John Larkin’ – Scatman’s real name – on the same network as me.
It returned about five names, but one of them made me stare – this John Larkin seemed to be the one I knew as Scatman John. Same birthdate, same location. . . heeeey, I was going to give this a go.
I thought maybe some kid had just filled in a profile for a laugh, but, I took a chance and wrote a long email to the address, talking about stuttering, my life, my fears, my shame, my isolation, and told John how his music was inspiring me. I sent it off, and being my usual pessimistic self, expected it a) not to be him, b) that he would trash it before reading it, or c) trash it after reading it.
How wrong could I be?
Your mail deserves quality time with a quality answer. I would love to give you both, however, I don’t have either right now. I am off to Frankfurt. I will answer your mail soon when things calm down. . . .
I will get back to you. . . .
Love to you. . . . . . .John
I can’t describe the happiness I felt . . . I was astounded. So-called ‘popstars’ weren’t supposed to be like this. Why on earth would an extremely busy, universally famous man take some time out of his schedule to help this 16 year-old, one of millions who were all trying to grab a piece of his attention?
My theory is that I’m a very lucky so-and-so, maybe there is a God, and he gave me a break. John’s theory is the same, except he added that he had a gut feeling that I was “important”. I even get an ego-trip into the bargain…
Well, boy, did he get back to me. The next day, I spoke to John. That first conversation was very intense, and I ended up telling John things I’d never really told anyone before. I found a quality in him that I think is vital to every mentor or teacher – trust. I have to call him my mentor at this stage. I found it easy to confide in him from the start because he genuinely cared and took an awful lot of his time to help me.
Later, he noted “I think you know who John Larkin really is”. The connection forged that day took me through those life changes I was talking about. But how? You’re gonna relate to this bit.
One of the first things John asked me was if I was a member of the British Stammering Association (BSA). I said no, I thought I would be frowned upon because of my reasonable fluency (I hid my stuttering to the point where it became covert), and that I would just find a load of people crying on each other’s shoulders (I know, I know, couldn’t be further from the truth. . . )
Well, John took it upon himself there and then to make me go to a BSA meeting. He sang the not-unfounded praises of the US groups he was a member of, and also gave me a contact address for the BSA – Edwin Farr, now also a friend of mine. The day came of the BSA’s National conference and off I went, a bag of nerves armed only with John’s notes he wrote for me to read on the train to stop me turning back:
“Congratulations. You are a miracle. You have moved into recovery and you are taking action for yourself. You are a brave human being. I hope you are taking time to give yourself a pat on the back. You are confronting some of the worst fears in your life. You will have a wonderful time at the convention. Again. . . ..YOU ARE A MIRACLE. . . ..DON’T FORGET THAT. . . . . . SAY IT TO YOURSELF.”
I’m a miracle, I’m a miracle. . . . yeah right. . . I’m scared, I’m scared. .
John also had a Plan B, which I only realised later – he had emailed me four or five times that same day to make sure I had set off!
This is what I loved about John. . . not only could he make you feel good about doing something for yourself and praise you, he could also give you a swift kick up the backside when you needed one. He called it his ‘footwork’ (pun probably intended). And the results were mine. . . or maybe not. . . because. . .
I didn’t get to the convention. Not my fault. . . major train problems. I came home feeling very sorry for myself and found my PC clogged with John’s messages, the last one saying “Welcome back! I know you had a great time!”. I unplugged the phone in case he tried to call me because I didn’t want to explain I hadn’t been, I was so disappointed with myself. Stupid, stupid me, because when I explained to John by mail the next day, he immediately brought me back up again:
The compliment of giving yourself a pat on the back applies immediately!!!!!!! You are looking at your stuttering straight in the eye. You are confronting it. That is what matters. You are in the process of “owning your stuttering” instead of “stuttering owning you”. . . ..You are moving out of being a victim of stuttering.
Your genuine attempt to get to the convention is every bit as meaningful as getting to the convention itself.
You are into recovery now. You are doing this for yourself and no-one else. You are taking charge of your life’s direction. . . .this is the bravest thing that a human being can do. You know in your heart that you did your best. . . ..and the best is all you can do.
STAY IN TOUCH WITH ME. . . .this stuttering business is a little too big to handle by yourself.
You can do it for yourself. . . ..but not by yourself. . . . I would ask God to bless you but He already has.
Keep in touch Gina. . . . . . ..John
Well, I felt much better. I even began to find it funny in retrospect and my disastrous journey became my first BSA Magazine article (and constant source of teasing at every meeting afterwards!).
That kick-started my involvement with the BSA. The first meeting I ever attended was in Birmingham, requiring me to get up at about 4:30am, go on the trains again, and try to get there in one piece. The ever-optimistic John told me that getting up at 4:30 wasn’t necessarily so bad, because it meant I could watch the sun rise. I reminded him that this was England, so he quickly told me that I could watch a “fog-rise” instead. This joke, however small and trivial, made me get up and go. Only one short note from John this time –
“DON’T LET THE LAST TIME STOP YOU – IF YOU DON’T MAKE IT THIS TIME I’LL GO CRAZY AND COME GET YOU MYSELF.”
Good job I got there, then. It was fantastic. I opened the door of the meeting hall to find 50 or so voices talking and laughing, and every one a stutterer. I was overwhelmed – in the best possible way. John explained what I would find. . . “You will feel like you are home for the first time in your life. The love may even shock you, but let yourself embrace it.” I did, and talked, laughed and listened and had a great time. I returned home and immediately got talking to John – he went nuts, telling me how proud he was and how much he loved me for making that step. He’d launched me into “recovery” and since then I’ve never looked back.
John remained in my life the next few years, as a friend and confidante, a hero and role model. I had more ups and downs – being fired from a job due to stuttering, career worries, family conflicts, spirituality, inferiority, depression. . . he took me through everything.
His impact on me and his tireless selflessness brought me to the stage where I am comfortable with stuttering and the person I am. Stuttering has never been pleasant, but it didn’t stop John – and now, I’m not letting it stop me.
But then came the day when the sledgehammer that was pounding my life into shape stopped swinging.
It was late August last year when John and I were having one of our telephone conversations where we’d talk for ages about anything and everything. Suddenly he turned and started telling me he thought his life was “falling into a black hole”, and that he had to tell me, before it was “too late”, that I was special, a darling, his soul-daughter, and thanked me over and over for coming into his life. My suspicions and fear then became a reality. Just over a month later, I was told that John was dying of terminal cancer.
I was in my first week of University – and I made the decision straight away to use all my university money to fly from the UK to Los Angeles to see him.
Judy, John’s wife, was absolutely great and made me feel okay about being there at such a tough time. I owe her so much for her kindness and patience during my visit. I don’t think John knew I was coming, because I remember walking in the door, both of us catching sight of each other at the same time, me taken aback because John looked so different from when I had last seen him, and him astounded because I was supposed to be nearly six thousand miles away, not standing in front of him.
He responded to me better than I could have hoped. . . he was slipping and had stopped recognising people. But as soon as I walked in he started saying “Oh my God, it’s you, it’s you!” He had me sit next to him on his bed and we began to talk. I told him about my decision to come, and between the bouts of pain he kept having, he got hold of both my hands and said “Well. . . I love you, honey”.
I managed to tell him I loved him too, and thanked him over and over before I started fighting the tears. At one point he turned around and told everyone in the room – “This girl loves me one hundred thousand percent for saving her stuttering life!” – and he was right.
I was there for four days, each day spent at John’s side. The best conversation we had was when neither of us said a word. Thinking John was asleep, I patted his hand, and without any warning he turned his over and grabbed mine, squeezed it, and wouldn’t let go. We sat like that for a long time, and when he finally did let go, he had started to cry. He told me then that he wished I didn’t have to go, but I had to leave. When I did, I cried like a baby most of the way back to England, knowing I would never see him again.
John died peacefully on the evening of the 3rd of December 1999.
Three years of his direction, friendship and support have given me a design for life that will never fade. Although I miss John terribly. . . in a way, he’s still around. I still see young kids hearing his music for the first time and for them, the message is as fresh and inspiring as it was for me over five years ago. As role models go, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better than this remarkable and special man. It almost makes me feel good to be a person who stutters.
Every kid should have a John Larkin. I hope you find yours.
20th August, 2000
Gina is currently writing John’s biography, due out in 2024. She also co-runs his official website.