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Shutterstock.com (Background); Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo (Darth Vader); James Earl Jones Collection (James Earl Jones)

Becoming Darth Vader

How a boy who stuttered grew up to have one of the most famous voices in the world

By Allison Friedman
From the February 2022 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will synthesize ideas in two articles about people who stutter but have become successful. The first article is about the actor James Earl Jones, and the second article is about a teenage girl who participates in a theater group for kids who stutter.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
Other Key Skills: synthesizing, vocabulary, text evidence, author’s craft, problem and solution, cause and effect, text features, compare and contrast, text-to-self, narrative writing

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As you read about the people in these articles, think about how facing a big challenge has helped them succeed.

Becoming Darth Vader

How a boy who stuttered grew up to have one of the most famous voices in the world

Icy snowflakes whipped and whirled through the air. The wind howled. And 10-year-old James Earl Jones was racing through mountains of snow.

It was 1941, and a fierce blizzard was raging across Western Michigan. Back at home, James Earl’s uncle Randy had fallen to the ground, dangerously sick. James Earl had been sent out into the storm to get help.

Finally, he reached the local store and burst through the door.

“Call a doctor!” he wanted to shout to the store owner. But it felt like the words were stuck in his throat.

James Earl had a speech disorder known as stuttering, which made it difficult for him to say words out loud. Worried that others would make fun of him, he rarely spoke at all.

Now, he had to break his silence. Uncle Randy’s life depended on it.

Snowflakes flew through the air. The wind howled. And a 10-year-old boy named James Earl Jones was racing through the snow.

It was 1941. Western Michigan was caught in a huge snowstorm. Back at home, James Earl’s uncle Randy had fallen to the ground. He was very sick. James Earl had been sent out to get help.

Finally, he reached a nearby store. He burst through the door.

“Call a doctor!” he wanted to shout. But it felt like the words were stuck in his throat.

James Earl had a speech disorder known as stuttering. This made it hard for him to say words out loud. He often worried that other people would make fun of him. So he almost never spoke at all.

Now, he had to try. He had to save Uncle Randy’s life.

Life on the Farm

Today, James Earl Jones is a world-famous actor. He is best known for his deep, booming voice. You might know him as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies, Mufasa in The Lion King, and many famous TV commercials. But when he was 6, James Earl stopped speaking almost completely.

He was born in 1931 in a small Mississippi town, more than 600 miles south of Michigan. His dad had left the family before he was born, and when James Earl was little, his mom moved away to find a job. So he was raised by his grandparents, John Henry and Maggie.

Life on the family’s farm was busy and joyful. When he wasn’t helping his grandfather with chores, James Earl ran around playing with his young aunts and uncles, including Randy. They were so close to James Earl’s age that he saw them more as brothers and sisters.

But John Henry and Maggie worried about their futures. In Mississippi and other Southern states back then, Black people couldn’t vote or work in many jobs. Black kids had to go to different schools from White kids. These schools were often run-down.

John Henry and Maggie wanted James Earl, Randy, and their other children to have a good education and a life of greater freedom.

Today, James Earl Jones is a famous actor. He is best known for his deep voice. You might know him as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies. He has acted in many other movies and commercials too. But when he was 6, James Earl stopped talking.

He was born in 1931. His first home was in a small Mississippi town, more than 600 miles south of Michigan. His dad had left the family before he was born. And when James Earl was little, his mom moved away to find a job. So he was raised by his grandparents, John Henry and Maggie.

Life on the family’s farm was busy and happy. James Earl loved playing with his young aunts and uncles, including Randy. They were close to James Earl’s age. He saw them as brothers and sisters.

But John Henry and Maggie worried about their futures. In Mississippi and other Southern states back then, Black people couldn’t vote. They couldn’t work in many jobs. Black kids had to go to different schools from White kids. These schools were often run-down.

John Henry and Maggie wanted James Earl, Randy, and their other children to go to good schools. They wanted the kids to grow up with more freedom.

James Earl Jones Collection

James Earl Jones with his uncle Randy (far right), a cousin, and two aunts around 1941

Fear and Uncertainty

Fear and Worry

In 1936, the family took a train up North to move to a new farm in Michigan. For young James Earl, the trip was full of fear and uncertainty.

Where was Michigan? he wondered. Would he ever see his mom again? Soon after the family arrived at their new home, he began to stutter.

Scientists don’t fully understand the causes of stuttering. Most think that it has to do with small differences in the brain. The disorder tends to run in families. In rare cases, it can be brought on by a very sad or frightening experience. James Earl believes this is what happened to him.

“I began to find it painfully difficult to talk,” he remembers. Like many other people who stutter, James Earl would stretch out or repeat sounds. In his new town in Michigan, other kids laughed at him. And so little by little, James Earl stopped talking.

But on that night in 1941, when he ran through the blizzard to save Randy, he knew he had to try. James Earl breathed deeply, forcing his hammering heart to slow down. At last, he was able to get the words out. The doctor was called, and Randy soon got better.

Still, it would be years before James Earl broke out of his silence for good.

In 1936, the family took a train up North. They were moving to a new farm in Michigan. For young James Earl, the trip was full of fear and worry.

Where was Michigan? he wondered. Would he ever see his mom again? Soon after the family got to their new home, he began to stutter.

Scientists don’t fully know why stuttering happens. Most think that it has to do with small differences in the brain. The disorder often runs in families. Sometimes, it can be brought on by a very sad or scary experience. James Earl says this is what happened to him.

“I began to find it painfully difficult to talk,” he remembers. Like many other people who stutter, James Earl would stretch out or repeat sounds. In his new town, other kids laughed at him. And so little by little, James Earl stopped talking.

But then came that night in 1941, when he ran through the storm to save Randy. He knew he had to try to speak. James Earl forced his heart to slow down. At last, he was able to get the words out. The doctor was called. Randy soon got better.

Still, it would be years before James Earl broke out of his silence for good.

Finding the Key

In Michigan, James Earl and his aunts and uncles got what John Henry and Maggie had wanted for them: a good education. In high school, James Earl was introduced to poetry and important books he loved. He was inspired to write poetry himself.

It turned out that he was a good writer—a little too good. Reading one of his poems, his English teacher accused him of copying it.

 “To prove you wrote it, get up in front of the class and say it by heart, out loud,” the teacher said.

Shaking with fear, James Earl stood up. “I strained to get the words out, pushing from the bottom of my soul,” he remembers. “And to my astonishment, the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them.” His classmates and teacher stared at him in amazement.

After eight years of silence, James Earl had made an incredible discovery: His stutter mostly disappeared when he said written words aloud. This turned out to be the key that unlocked his ability to talk. It also led him to become an actor.

John Henry and Maggie’s hopes came true: James Earl and his aunts and uncles went to good schools in Michigan. In high school, James Earl read poems he loved. He was inspired to write his own poetry.

It turned out that he was a good writer—a little too good. Reading one of his poems, his English teacher accused him of copying it.

“To prove you wrote it, get up in front of the class and say it by heart, out loud,” the teacher said.

Shaking with fear, James Earl stood up. “And to my astonishment, the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them,” he remembers. His classmates and teacher were amazed.

James Earl had spent eight years in silence. Now he realized something: His stutter mostly went away when he said written words out loud. This helped him begin to talk again. It also led him to become an actor.

Edmund Eckstein/Getty Images

James Earl Jones records lines in a studio. His work as the voice of Darth Vader led to other voice acting roles in movies like The Lion King.

A Source of Strength

For the rest of high school, James Earl strengthened his voice. He joined speech competitions at his school and became a champion. He won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he studied drama. Soon, he was acting in plays in New York City.

James Earl’s work onstage led to roles in movies and TV shows. Then, in the 1970s, he got a part in the movie that changed his life: Star Wars. As the voice behind the masked villain Darth Vader, he didn’t even appear onscreen. But his deep, rich voice made him a star across America. For more than 40 years since then, he has voiced Darth Vader in Star Wars movies, shows, and video games. And his beloved voice has brought many other famous characters to life.

Now 91 years old, James Earl Jones still has a stutter. But years of training with acting coaches has helped him manage it. Because of his challenges with speaking, he has had to work harder than most actors. But he believes that’s what has helped make his voice so powerful.

So the next time you hear Darth Vader’s voice, you’ll know his secret: Behind that mighty growl is a brave boy fighting to be heard.

For the rest of high school, James Earl worked to make his voice stronger. He joined speech contests at his school—and often won first prize. He got a scholarship to the University of Michigan. There, he studied drama. He was soon acting in plays in New York City.

After years onstage, James Earl began to star in movies and TV shows. In the 1970s, he got a part in Star Wars. He was the voice of Darth Vader, the villain who wears a mask. James Earl didn’t even appear onscreen. But his deep voice made him a star across America.

For more than 40 years since then, he has been the voice of Darth Vader. You can hear him in Star Wars movies, shows, and video games. And his voice has brought many other famous characters to life.

Today, James Earl is 91 years old. He still has a stutter. But acting coaches have helped him manage it. He has had to work harder than most actors. But he believes that’s what has helped make his voice so strong.

So the next time you hear Darth Vader’s voice, you’ll know his secret: Behind that big growl is a brave boy fighting to be heard.

Finding Her Voice 

How one girl learned to accept her stutter—and speak out for herself

Mikiodo, courtesy of SAY

Olivia performing onstage in 2019

Olivia Simmons stood in the middle of a stage, a bright spotlight shining on her. The whole theater was silent, except for the thump thump thump of Olivia’s heart.

The 11-year-old took a deep breath and began reciting a story she wrote. Every few words, she repeated the sound of a letter or paused for a few seconds. Yet Olivia kept going.

When the story was over, the audience of 60 people started cheering. Olivia couldn’t believe her ears.

It was June 2019. Just a few months before, Olivia would have been too nervous to talk to a stranger, let alone perform in front of 60 of them. That’s because she has a stutter. The speech disorder has been a big challenge for her.

But now, it seemed like everything would be different.

Olivia Simmons stood in the middle of a stage. A bright spotlight was shining on her. The whole theater was silent, except for the thump thump thump of Olivia’s heart.

The 11-year-old took a deep breath. She began telling a story she wrote out loud. Every few words, she repeated the sound of a letter or paused for a few seconds. Yet Olivia kept going.

When the story was over, the audience of 60 people started cheering. Olivia couldn’t believe her ears.

It was June 2019. Just a few months before, Olivia would have been too nervous to talk to a stranger. She would never have performed in front of 60 of them! That’s because she has a stutter. The speech disorder has been hard for her.

But now, it seemed like everything would be different.

A Big Change

When she was a little girl, Olivia could speak just fine. Her stutter began when she was 6. She and her family have no idea why.

As Olivia grew up, her stuttering continued. She tried to hide it by keeping to herself. Doing simple things like ordering at a restaurant often made her feel humiliated.

“In class, I would be so anxious to say anything that I wouldn’t talk,” says Olivia, who’s now 13. “I felt like somebody would judge me from just hearing my voice.”

But Olivia’s life began to change three years ago, when she joined SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. The group teaches kids who stutter how to sing, dance, and act. The goal is to build the kids’ confidence.

A few times a year, the kids perform onstage. That time in 2019 was Olivia’s first time performing. Since then, she’s done it at least 10 other times. The experience has changed her. “It was empowering,” Olivia says. “I felt like I finally had a voice.”

When she was a little girl, Olivia could speak just fine. Her stutter began when she was 6. She and her family don’t know why.

Olivia continued to stutter as she grew up. She tried to hide it by talking less. Doing simple things like ordering at a restaurant often made her feel humiliated.

“In class, I would be so anxious to say anything that I wouldn’t talk,” says Olivia. She’s now 13. “I felt like somebody would judge me from just hearing my voice.”

But Olivia’s life began to change three years ago. That’s when she joined SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. The group teaches kids who stutter how to sing, dance, and act. It helps kids build confidence.

A few times a year, the kids perform onstage. That time in 2019 was Olivia’s first time performing. Since then, she’s done it at least 10 other times. The experience has changed her. “It was empowering,” Olivia says. “I felt like I finally had a voice.”

Being Herself

Courtesy of family

Olivia today

Going to SAY has helped Olivia embrace her stutter. She’s no longer afraid to tell people that she has the speech disorder.

Plus, she’s met good friends. When she’s with them, Olivia feels like she can be herself, without fear of being judged.

For all her other friends who don’t stutter, Olivia has some advice. “You just have to be patient and kind because you really don’t know what people who stutter are thinking about themselves.

Going to SAY has helped Olivia feel fine about her stutter. She’s no longer afraid to tell people that she has one.

Plus, she’s met good friends. When she’s with them, Olivia feels like she can be herself. She has no fear of being judged.

For all her other friends who don’t stutter, Olivia has some advice. “You just have to be patient and kind because
you really don’t know what people who stutter are thinking about themselves.”

What's the Connection?

Write an imaginary conversation between James Earl Jones and Olivia Simmons in which they compare their experiences with stuttering, what has helped them manage it, and how they have changed as a result of facing this big challenge.

What's the Connection?

Write an imaginary conversation between James Earl Jones and Olivia Simmons in which they compare their experiences with stuttering, what has helped them manage it, and how they have changed as a result of facing this big challenge.

This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.

This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.

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Table of Contents

1. Preparing to Read

2. Reading and Discussing

SEL Focus, Close Reading, Critical Thinking

3. Skill Building and Writing

4. Digital Spotlight

5. Differentiate and Customize

Striving Readers, Advanced Readers, Multilingual Learners

6. Can’t-Miss Teaching Extras