The headmaster required it of every student. They were to stand in front of hundreds of their classmates and speak on a topic for several minutes — a lifetime for many.
These assemblies were held every week at Archmere Academy, a school with rigorous academics and strict priests. Decades later, some alumni say they still have nightmares about those speeches.
During the 1957-58 school year, the headmaster allowed only one boy to not make the speech.
His name was Joe Biden, and he had a terrible stutter.
On the issues: Joe Biden calls for $15 minimum wage, Medicare public option
That moment made him feel like the dunce in the corner, Biden wrote years later. It made him feel ashamed.
Biden was teased throughout his childhood about his stutter, an impediment he watched cripple the ambitions of a beloved uncle.
Biden was called Joe Impedimenta, Dash and Stutterhead by classmates. A teacher once called him “Mr. Bu-bu-bu-bu-Biden” in front of other students. More than 60 years later, Biden has described these painful memories, often in vivid detail.
Biden didn't want to end up like his uncle. So he began reciting poems and essays in the mirror each night. He once tried to speak with pebbles in his mouth, desperate to be rid of the stutter.
This period would serve as a transformative time for Biden, a man who would be known for his speaking style as a 29-year-old U.S. senator and decades later as vice president. And now, as presidential candidate, he has talked about his stutter on the campaign trail, remarking how it taught him empathy – a characteristic voters have said they like about him.
This week, Biden will take the stage in Miami in the first round of Democratic primary debates. He’ll do it as the frontrunner, joined by nine other candidates on the second night, including South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.
Former classmates say Joe Biden the presidential candidate is still the same Joe Biden who blossomed at Archmere Academy — likable, confident, ambitious.
“I mean this, my word as a Biden," the former vice president said in 2016, "the best thing that ever happened to me is that I stuttered badly. That I used to get made fun of. That I know what it feels like to be humiliated ..."
“You will find," Biden said, his eyes welling with tears, "it will not be the impediment that keeps you from realizing your dreams.”
'I never wanted to end up like him'
It was the cusp of the new decade, the late 1950s, and a young Irish-Catholic man would soon be elected president. Parts of Delaware were still legally segregated. Elvis Presley was dominating the music charts.
The Biden family lived in Mayfield, a new development where many fathers were accountants, lawyers and chemists. Biden's father was a car salesman.
Their home was across the street from Archmere Academy, then an all-boys Catholic school. For these students, college after high school was assumed.
Some students might have been forced by their parents to put on their uniform every morning – but not Biden. Starting at age 10, Biden would stare out of his window before bed each night and dream of attending Archmere Academy, he wrote in his memoir, "Promises to Keep."
When he was accepted, he worked on the school’s grounds crew to help offset the cost of tuition for his family.
But Biden did not have an easy time in the beginning. His small frame and stutter made him a target. Bill Bowden, who had a locker right next to Biden, remembers his classmate often being the punchline to a joke.
“(His stutter) was pronounced and he was teased," the Media, Pennsylvania, resident said, "there was no doubt about that. Maybe that’s what made him stronger.”
Interactive guide: Who is running for president in 2020?
During all this, Biden watched his uncle’s severe stutter deter him from going to medical school. Edward Finnegan, his mother’s brother, lived with the Bidens and shared a room with Joe and his brothers Jimmy and Frankie.
Uncle Boo Boo, as he was called, was the only college-educated person in the house, yet he used his stuttering as a crutch for why he never became successful, Biden wrote in his memoir.
Boo Boo drank a lot and, as time went on, he became bitter.
"I loved Uncle Boo-Boo, but I knew I never wanted to end up like him," Biden wrote.
Biden's mother, Jean Finnegan, would not take any excuses from her brother or her son. Robert Markel, an Archmere classmate who would serve as an usher in Biden's first wedding, remembers Jean as the "Mother Confessor."
Every time Biden left the house, he recalled in that speech in 2016, his mother made him look her in the eyes.
“Joey, look at me,” Jean would say to her son. “Remember, you’re the smartest boy in that class. Remember, Joey.”
“Nobody is better than you.”
Relying on Yeats, Emerson and the Phillies
In his room every night, equipped with a flashlight, Biden recited passages written by W.B. Yeats and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He would say them over and over to gain a rhythm.
As he read the passages – which he continues to quote 60 years later – he studied the muscles in his face that contorted when he stuttered. At one point of desperation, he put pebbles in his mouth to practice elocution – a trick he read worked for the great Greek orator Demosthenes.
During his paper route, Biden practiced what he was going to say to his neighbors as he walked to their front door. “How about those Phillies” became a go-to line.
Dr. Heather Grossman, director of the American Institute of Stuttering, said about 10 percent of Americans struggle with a stutter at some point as children. Three-quarters of them recover as adults.
She has found that many people, whether their stutter remains in adulthood or not, experience some type of childhood trauma because of their impediment.
To Grossman, Jean Biden reinforcing to her son that his stuttering was not a manifestation of his intelligence, and telling him that he was smart, helped him develop perseverance and empowerment.
“If his parents did the opposite,” she said, “his life would have been very different.”
By sophomore year, after long nights reciting these passages, Biden was able to stand in front of his classmates and fulfill the public speaking requirement. It was one of his proudest accomplishments at Archmere, Biden wrote in his memoir.
In many ways, aspects of Biden's teenage years began to resemble the television show "Happy Days."
He and his friends drank milkshakes in booths at the Charcoal Pit. He played varsity football and went steady with his sister's best friend Maureen. His friends never saw him drink or smoke at parties.
He had ambitions that went beyond Delaware.
When students were asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, Biden always had the same answer, said Archmere classmate Jim DiSabatino.
"He said he wanted to be president," DiSabatino said.
Biden aspired to be the leader of every group he was a part of, becoming class president his junior and senior years. The only election Biden lost, said classmate Michael Fay, was for captain of the football team.
Joe was friends with everybody, his classmates said. Many of them described him as a "gentleman" and “good guy.”
His sister Valerie, who would later be instrumental in Biden clinching his surprise U.S. Senate victory, helped with those first campaigns, too, according to a 1987 News Journal article.
For the school elections, Biden's former classmates admit they were more of a popularity contest than contests based on actual issues.
'Joe has not changed'
In 2015, Biden hosted a reunion for his high school class – at the U.S. Naval Observatory, where the vice president lives.
It fell on the first Democratic presidential debate. Instead of watching Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battle it out, Biden ate pork sandwiches and potato salad with his high school buddies.
Biden has said his stutter taught him how to fight bullies and empathize with other people’s suffering – two qualities that may have helped make him the Democratic frontrunner.
It has even shaped his famous speaking style, which tends to be off the cuff and sometimes long-winded. Those who have a stutter hate to read prepared remarks, he explained during a speech at the American Institute for Stuttering in 2016.
So will his Archmere classmates vote for Biden for president?
"Absolutely," said Markel, former mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts. "I’ll max out the (donation) contribution." Before Biden announced his presidency a few months back, Markel wrote him a letter that said, "Do it."
“Oh boy, that’s a toughie," DiSabatino said. "As glowing as I am about Joe, and I really feel that way, I am of the other party.”
"He’s such a good person," he quickly added. "It would depend."
“I think everyone is hoping he’ll win the presidency so we can go to the White House together," Fay said. “I can say that Joe has not changed since those days."
Every few months, a handful of 1961 Archmere graduates get together for lunch in the Wilmington area. Out-of-towners will sometimes fly in. Some of them are the same boys who watched TV in the Biden family living room.
Joe is always invited. But these days, he has been too busy running for president.
Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MereNewman.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: How Joe Biden went from 'Stutterhead' to the presidential debate stage