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'If you will listen to me patiently ...'

I didn't graduate with my high school class 35 years ago. Instead, I had to take three makeup courses in summer school, after which I was quietly handed my diploma.

Last spring, I was invited back to my school, Riverside Military Academy, in Gainesville, Ga., to give the commencement address. I had been sent to Riverside reluctantly by a concerned family, who had no history of sending their sons to military schools. But I was not doing well in public school, which was less the fault of the school than of the fact that I was a stutterer.

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I spent most of my time in public school trying to avoid speaking, or trying to anticipate when I would be called upon so I could find some way to escape it. Even at Riverside, I managed to get through three years without saying a word in class.

I was constantly in some kind of trouble. Perhaps it was a way of protesting the silence my speech impediment imposed on me; today, psychologists would no doubt label it ''acting out.''

Because of my infractions, I was seldom allowed to go into town with my classmates on the traditional Saturday afternoon trips. In my desperation to take a break from school, I volunteered to attend the local Roman Catholic church services on Sunday, which I can see now must have taken a certain persuasive talent, since I'm Jewish.

But the instructors did something for me that I didn't fully appreciate until years later: They took a sullen, rebellious boy and introduced him to the world of gymnastics. One instructor, noting my slight build, saw that I was probably not cut out for the football team or the basketball court but had the ideal body structure for doing giant swings, uprises, and flyaway dismounts on the horizontal bar.

Soon I flew through the air with a grace and power that were nowhere evident in the classroom. After a year of hard training, I became skilled enough to represent Riverside in gymnastics competitions.

It was my first taste of success in life. I was getting the respect on the athletic field that I didn't get in the classroom. Most important, gymnastics made me realize that if I could direct my body to do what I wanted it to do, then I could direct the rest of my life.

My father, a successful New England businessman, was somewhat taken aback by suddenly acquiring a gymnast in the family; it wasn't quite what he had in mind as a career for the middle of his three sons. But he didn't actively oppose it. And gymnastics became a way of life for me.

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I went on to get four degrees and become a college teacher. This year I was invited to serve on a judging team in gymnastics at the Los Angeles Olympics.

I still have my speech impediment to a certain extent. But I plow ahead anyway. Like Mel Tillis and Annie Glenn, I learned to look the world in the eye and say, ''I'm a stutterer, but if you will listen to me patiently you may find I have something to offer.''

And when I stood before the commencement crowd last May, if I stuttered a few times, it didn't matter. What mattered, I told them, was that you don't have to be No. 1 in your class to make it in life. And to all parents of troubled, rebellious youngsters I want to add: Support your sons and daughters early in life, even though they may not be what you expect, even though they may not be first in their class or even in the middle of the class; give them the patience and understanding and love to show them they are No. 1 in your hearts.

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