Speaking for Herself
A few months before she enrolled at Valdosta State University, Kayla Robles stood in front of her bedroom mirror and practiced a slew of familiar phrases.
“Can I take your order?” One slip-up, and she would try again.
“Do you want cheese with that?” And again.
“Do you want that fully involved?” And again.
She needed the lines for her first job, working as a cashier at a new Firehouse Subs in her hometown of Flowery Branch, Georgia. Robles wanted the work experience and extra cash in her pocket. But her gig also meant subjecting herself to something the high school senior desperately didn’t want: attention on her speech impediment.
So Robles practiced. Nearly every evening after work, she would escape to her bedroom and rehearse until the lines came out fluidly and confidence swelled inside her.
But the next day? It never got easier. The stutter would return from behind the register, deflating the confidence that had brimmed just hours before. I don’t know if I can do this, Robles thought repeatedly. Sometimes, after a painful encounter with a customer, she would rush to the back room to take a few deep breaths. On other days, she would burst into tears on her car ride home.
It was somewhere between those teary-eyed drives and those hopeful bedroom rehearsals that Robles reached a crossroads. She could quit the job and return to comfort.
Or, she could push through it.
Robles doesn’t remember life before soccer. For her, the love always has been there, the field always a safe place.
In elementary school, she was regularly pulled from class to work with a speech therapist. Kids made comments and asked questions about the way she talked. But on the soccer field, Robles could express herself with ease. She was confident and skilled, and she had an entire team of girls who respected her, understood her and had her back. One time in middle school, Robles was in the library when a kid made a teasing remark. Her team’s goalkeeper was nearby: “If you don’t have anything nice to say,” the teammate chimed in, “you shouldn’t say anything at all.”
A good student and an athlete with a bright smile and a bubbly personality, Robles got by in high school just fine. It wasn’t until her senior year that she realized she didn’t want to just “get by” — she could do so much more. She took a peer leadership class that year and vowed to begin putting the lessons she learned to work. “I had a really hard time putting myself out there in high school,” Robles says. “But the class opened my eyes a little bit. I didn’t want something like my speech to hold me back.”
Robles set a personal goal: She would get involved in college. “Because I knew after college, it’s real life,” she says. “And with a speech impediment or not, I still have to keep going forward.”
She did so without looking back. In addition to joining the soccer team at Valdosta State, Robles applied for a freshman emerging leaders program that included a semester-long class and ongoing leadership activities. She developed relationships through the program that led to more opportunities, including serving as an orientation leader for incoming freshmen and their families.
On the field, Robles enjoyed significant playing time her freshman season. But those minutes declined in year two, when the coach who had recruited her left and new head coach Rebecca Nolin stepped in. “She was always in my office asking, ‘What can I do? What do I need to work on? How can I contribute to the team?’” Nolin recalls. “It was never in a selfish or negative way. The way she dealt with it was just absolutely tremendous.”
Robles went on to start every game as a junior and is expected to do the same this year, her final season. Her positive attitude and leadership skills secured her spots first on the Valdosta State Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and then on the Division II SAAC, where she represents the Gulf South Conference on a national level.
To Nolin, Robles was an obvious pick for team captain this year. “She’s very good at communicating with everyone, all the time,” Nolin says. “She’s a very good listener and neutralizer, where every single person on the team has her respect.”
And when it comes to communicating in a game or practice, Robles is the most vocal of them all.
“I don’t know if she even realizes it or not,” Nolin says. “But never once is there a stutter on the soccer field.”
Tucked inside a drawer of her bedside table, Robles keeps a note from her days at Firehouse Subs.
It came to her after a couple of months on the job, through a comment box the restaurant left out for customers. Robles remembers her boss calling her in a back room to share it.
The anonymous writer praised Robles’ customer service and courage. The person wrote that her speech impediment was not a weakness but one of her assets. At the time, those were just the words Robles needed to hear. “It was like a spark in me,” she recalls.
Sometimes on hard days, Robles will pull out the note and give it a read, soaking in a little encouragement from someone she’ll never be able to thank.
Those boosts aren’t needed quite as much today. Yes, public speaking still requires extra preparation. Stutters still slip through. But Robles will never again return to those days of holding herself back, of being afraid to speak out.
Now, her voice is heard loud and clear.
Originally published at championmagazine.org on October 19, 2016.