Last week, a story about Joe Biden’s stutter gave Americans better insights into his speaking style and “gaffes.”
Also last week, a Westport 7th grader’s video about his own stutter went viral. It’s as personal as the vice president’s tale — and perhaps even more powerful.
Jonathan Costello’s stutter began when he was 5. He was bullied a bit in his New York City school — but there were moments of kindness too. When his 2nd grade teacher explained to the class that Jonathan was trying to get over his speech disorder, a girl said, “Don’t change! I like you just the way you are.”
His family — father Sean, mother Lauren and younger brother William — moved to Westport just before 4th grade. Jonathan was very nervous. He worried that kids would think he was “weird.” He might have no friends.
From left: Sean, William, Jonathan and Lauren Costello. They’ve got a “soccer room” in their Westport home.
Jonathan is an excellent soccer player. A week before school began, he went to Mickey Kydes’ soccer camp. He made a good friend.
On the first day at Coleytown Elementary School, Jonathan blasted a home run in kickball. “I got known as the soccer kid, not the stutter kid,” he says proudly.
Jonathan’s stutter is caused by his vocal cords shutting when he speaks. He has no trouble putting thoughts together. They just don’t always come out as quickly as he’d like.
For the past 5 years, Jonathan has worked with world renowned speech therapist Becca Grusgott. She was just minutes from his Riverdale Country School.
But he moved to Westport, and she to Kansas City. They’ve continued their work via FaceTime. Jonathan has flourished. Now a 7th grader at Bedford Middle School, he plays premier soccer for Inter Connecticut FC, basketball for the Westport PAL travel squad, and attends Hebrew school at Temple Israel.
Soccer — the world’s sport –has helped give Jonathan confidence and poise.
Last spring, as his bar mitzvah loomed, Jonathan wanted to do his “mitzvah” (good deed) project about his stutter. His mother suggested a public service announcement.
A project should involve “tikkun olam” — an element of “repairing the world” — Lauren explains. A PSA video could help repair not only the world around him, but also Jonathan’s world.
Lauren and Sean were happy to help. But, she notes, “we’re not helicopter parents. We did not want to do this for him.”
Jonathan loved the idea. But he felt nervous too.
He was a fan of John Green’s crash courses. (The novelist creates clever, quick videos that use words and illustrations to explain history and science.) Green is also a Liverpool soccer fan. Sean suggested to Jonathan that he use the “crash course” model himself.
Jonathan wrote a script. Through a website for graphic artists, the family found someone in Utah to add illustrations.
His parents recorded Jonathan in their basement (they put up a green screen background, just like the pros). He created a teleprompter, and read his script.
Jonathan Costello, with the improvised green screen in his basement.
He stuttered a bit. But that’s what the whole video is about. Jonathan explains what stuttering is. He talks about his own life (including a worker at Subway, who asks what’s wrong when he’s trying to order).
And he offers strategies for family members, teachers, friends and strangers: Be patient. Don’t finish sentences for someone. Be kind.
Plus: “Share this video.”
That’s a fantastic idea.
Jonathan’s video debuted at his bar mitzvah, earlier this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman agreed to show it during the ceremony.
It was a powerful moment. There was not a dry eye in the synagogue — and then everyone erupted in cheers.
Much of the ceremony involves speaking. Jonathan stuttered often. But he delivered his words with poise and confidence.
The next morning, Sean and Lauren emailed the video to everyone at the bar mitzvah — and all the guests who could not attend. Jonathan’s parents also uploaded the video to YouTube. Temple Israel forwarded it too.
Almost immediately, people shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Quickly, it rocketed around the world.
Speech therapists in Sweden and Portugal asked for translations. A girl watched it 4 times, then asked her teacher to show it to the class. An 18-year-old who had lived his life “in the shadows” said that Jonathan’s video perfectly articulated his life.
Becca — Jonathan’s speech therapist — shared it with a number of professional groups. Many members said other people had already sent it to them.
Referring back to “tikkun olam,” Lauren says, “The reaction has been amazing. But we feel like we’re just getting started repairing the world.”
What a start! With stuttering in the news, the Costellos sent Jonathan’s video to the Biden campaign. A staff member quickly responded.
Soon, Jonathan will meet the former vice president.
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