Nathan Tingen had every reason to look forward to his senior year at Augusta Christian Schools.
His friends were there, and so was his younger brother Joseph. The Tingens were poised to win a third straight state tennis championship in doubles during the spring season, and they also were determined to help AC defend its team tennis title at the state tournament.
But last fall, Nathan came home and told his mother, Martha, that he wanted to transfer to another school.
Nathan was required to take a speech class at Augusta Christian, and in order to graduate, he would have to do the unthinkable.
"I can't stand up in front of a class and give a speech," Nathan told his mother. "Asking me to give a speech is like putting a boy who is paralyzed and cripple at the end of the football field and saying, 'Get up and walk down that field five times if you want to graduate."'
Augusta Christian senior Nate Tingen will attend Georgia Southern this fall.
Photo by Mike Howell
The words flowed, each sentence coming in fluent succession, but Nathan's pain overshadowed every syllable.
"That broke my heart," Mrs. Tingen said.
For Nathan, tennis comes easily. Speaking is not so simple.
Nathan suffers from speech disfluency, a problem which surfaced when he was an infant.
"If I meet somebody I haven't talked to before, I might say, 'Hi, I'm Nate,' and I can have a hard time getting it out," he explained. "People take for granted being able to talk fine."
Last week at Newman Tennis Center, Nathan teamed with his brother to win the Region 4-AAA doubles title. After a full day of tennis, Nathan seemed to have plenty or energy, but it was a real effort to discuss his plight.
"I just talk with my racket," he said.
The 18-year-old has been in and out of speech therapy for most of his life. Over the years there has been progress, usually followed by a regression. Nobody knows the root cause, or why Nathan sometimes has no difficulty with words.
"Some days at home he talks perfectly. Other days he can hardly speak, and I'm not trying to exaggerate," Mrs. Tingen said. "If you ask Nathan to sing a song or do a rap thing, he wouldn't miss a beat. The best way I can describe his speech if that it's just a real mystery."
Joseph, on the other hand, thinks his older brother has conquered most of the adversity.
"It's not a huge deal to him anymore. He gets out what he wants to tell me," Joseph said. "He's never had a problem holding anything back. I guess he has a harder time socializing when he's around people he doesn't know."
When Nathan is alone, he'll often pick up a book and start reading aloud. It's just practice, but he finds the solo success very baffling.
"This doesn't make sense, that I can sit here and say every word perfectly, and at other times I can't get a word out of my mouth."
There is something to be said for Nathan's outgoing personality and friendly demeanor. He makes friends easily, and impresses observers with his athletic ability.
For those reasons, he hasn't endured much taunting from his peers, and manages to take any ridicule in stride.
"People that make fun of me are the ones that really have a problem," he says. " People look at me and say, 'Why can't you talk?' That's just the way God wants me."
There are times, though, when the burden weighs heavily. As captain of the tennis team, Nathan feels a certain responsibility, but he can't always follow through.
"In tennis you see somebody who is not doing so well, and you want to offer encouragement, and you can't say a word. That hurts."
Augusta Christian tennis coach Mike Giddens thinks Nathan's contribution to the team speaks volumes.
"He's well-rounded, he's sociable and I think tennis is an ability God's given him, and he uses it to his advantage," Giddens said.
The Tingens will compete in the Georgia Independent Schools Association Class AAA individual state tournament this week in Tifton, where they will attempt to win a third consecutive doubles title.
Later this spring, Nathan will graduate from Augusta Christian. He fulfilled the school's speech requirement after he was allowed to make his presentation privately with his instructor.
Before heading to Georgia Southern University next fall, he'll visit Roanoke, Va. This summer Nathan will undergo an intensive program at the Hollins Research Institute, which specializes in helping people with speech disorders.
Those 19 days in Virginia may be of some help, and with time, improvement is a distinct possibility.
In the meantime, Nathan doesn't mince words. He has things in perspective, and readily says what's on his mind.
"A cure would be fine for me, if that's what God wants," Nathan said. "If God wants me to have a speech problem, I'm still happy."
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