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Richland grad shines despite struggle with stuttering

TY BEAVER Tri-City Herald
RICHLAND, Wash. — Colin Serkowski was a freshman in high school when he realized he could rap. Since that day, he’s printed off lyrics from the internet and memorized them, doing impromptu performances for his friends almost anywhere. Now, the Hanford High School senior is planning to rap his salutatorian speech at commencement tonight. “I was blown away,” Ken Gosney, Colin’s principal at Hanford High School, said of the first time he heard the 17-year-old rap. This might not seem remarkable, until you hear Colin speak. “I’ve always stuttered,” Colin said, his face contorting as he worked to get the words out, his right foot tapping the ground involuntarily until he finished. “Ever since I’ve learned to talk.” It’s clear Colin’s stuttering hasn’t prevented him from succeeding. He has a 3.9 GPA, is a pitcher for Hanford High’s baseball team and has gained the friendship and loyalty of students and players, teachers and coaches. But he wants people to understand him when he goes up to the podium. And rapping is one way he can do that. “It was an easy choice to pick fluency over struggling up there,” Colin said. Colin’s father, John, still remembers the day he first heard his son stutter. Colin was 18 months old and John Serkowski had just returned from a ski trip. “It was pretty severe on all counts,” said John Serkowski. Colin’s father and mother, Mia, stuttered as children and adolescents, but it disappeared before they each finished college. Colin’s younger brother doesn’t stutter and never has. John Serkowski said he dreaded Colin would have the same experience he did. “It caused a great deal of anxiety in me, and I was a shier person,” he said. People stutter when their vocal cords close or seal up during “a block” — the sound or word the speaker struggles with. With their vocal cords locked up, air can’t pass through them to speak words. Colin can only go about four or five words at most before he encounters a block, and it will take him five to 10 seconds to pronounce the word he’s stuck on. The senior has spent much of his life working with speech therapists to learn techniques to mask his stutter and improve his speaking fluidity. Mark Underwood, a speech therapist who has known Colin most of his life and worked with him until he started his senior year, said it’s not known what causes people to stutter, as there usually is nothing physically different. A case like Colin’s is particularly noteworthy. “It’s dramatic,” Underwood said. “People who carry it as long as he has are rare.” Because Colin’s parents knew how difficult a stutter could make daily living, they always made sure to email his teachers or speak with them in person at the beginning of each school year. They asked that their son only be called on in class if he volunteered and was comfortable. Oral presentations were asked to be given only in front of the teacher, not in front of the whole class. Sometimes, John Serkowski would visit Colin’s class and they’d both explain his situation to his classmates. “It was toughest in elementary and middle school,” Colin said. “I’d get made fun of because back when you’re that young, you don’t know any better. But people are more mature in high school and I just explain.” During the years, he’s built up a core group of friends and others who have been good to him and are fiercely loyal. At an away basketball game he played in this year, rival fans began heckling him about his stuttering from the moment Colin stepped on the court to warm up. “In the second half, five of my friends were so upset about it that they walked over to (the rival) student section and they told the 200 kids to pretty much shut up about it,” he said. Tom DeWitz, Colin’s baseball coach at Hanford High and during summer play for the American Legion, said that last summer there was a player from an opposing team who mocked Colin’s stutter during an American Legion game. When that player came up to bat, a pitcher on Colin’s team intentionally drilled the batter in retribution. “I didn’t know why it happened until afterward,” said DeWitz, who also struggled with a stutter as a young man. Gosney said he attributes Colin’s current status and expansive friendships to his perseverance and good nature. “I’d take 1,500 (students) just like him,” Gosney said. “There’s almost a built-in excuse to not succeed, whereas Colin has stood up to the challenge and become better and stronger because of it.” Colin’s friend Tommy Cassidy, 19, said it was the morning after Colin rapped at a school assembly that he started receiving text messages. “Everyone was asking if I’d seen it or knew that he could do that,” said Cassidy, a 2011 Hanford High graduate. Cassidy said he didn’t get to see Colin’s performance, but had always wondered whether his friend could rap. He first met Colin on the basketball court two years ago. Cassidy said he noticed Colin’s stutter during that first meeting but he’d known others with stutters and didn’t really think about it. “If you’re going to have a conversation with Colin, it’s just going to take a little longer,” he said. Eventually, Cassidy heard his friend rap and said he was amazed. “You would never think he had (a stutter),” he said. “He’s on rhythm all the time.” Cassidy, who runs his own media company, Pacific Roots, and recording studio, helped Colin write his commencement speech. Colin wrote or thought of a line and Cassidy said he would then help develop it into the rap’s beat. “The speech he’s writing, it’s all coming from him,” Cassidy said. A rap isn’t a traditional way of giving a speech at graduation, but school officials and Colin’s parents said they support his decision. “I don’t see how students couldn’t be inspired,” Gosney said. Underwood said he doesn’t expect Colin to outgrow his stutter at this point, describing the stutter as being “firmly ingrained.” That’s not to say it couldn’t go away, he said, nor that Colin could learn techniques, such as learning to induce a stutter early to end it prematurely or to avoid problematic words, so that the stutter’s prominence decreases or even is completely hidden. “Knowing Colin, he could overcome it,” Underwood said. But that’s just it — you can’t treat a stutter. People with stutters either outgrow them or learn to mask them, some so successfully that many don’t realize they have them. “These techniques aren’t cures, but avoidance measures,” said John Serkowski. Colin has been in speech therapy for much of his life and has been learning techniques and tricks and it was only at the end of his junior year that he dropped his sessions. “We’ve tried just about every technique in the book,” Colin said. But his father said while Colin hasn’t allowed his life to be limited by his stutter; it is a part of who he is, a part of his voice. John Serkowski said his son wrote his college admissions essay to Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, on his stutter, but not as a negative aspect. “His conclusion was that it’s had a real positive effect on his life,” said John Serkowski, explaining that Colin learned to make loyal friends and work hard because of his stutter. Colin was accepted at Trinity and received a scholarship, though he still is undecided on what he’ll study. He also will be playing baseball there — one of the best schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III. He still looks forward to the day when his stutter may pass and he’ll speak without being caught up on a word or phrase. But until then, he’s going to approach his life as he has his stutter. “It’s also part of my nature to push through and finish it,” Colin said.
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