12 September 2020
Language and literacy narrative.
If you could choose, who would you be? Would you change anything about yourself? I have toyed with this line of questioning in much of my (teen) life. In a purely fantasy setting, humanity would be out of the question. In a realistic one, that becomes much more difficult.
One of my biggest defining moments in my childhood was my first communion. For our community, it was a way for the adults to flaunt their status and for the children to move into the “big kid” categories in social settings. When mine rolled around at the age of nine I was confident; I was finally moving up in the world! My parents are in a phrase, a unique set of people. They believed that the best way to show that a child was ready was for he/she to properly display virtues. My mother and I spent weeks practicing so that I could do the second reading in our Haitian community. I had to sit there for months practicing this reading in French until I got it down perfectly. My mother spent years honing my abilities to the point where I was able to look at one of the passages in French or Creole, understand it, and be able to convey the emotion that was reflected in the passage. Most of this not really by choice, but over time I learned to love what I did.
After weeks of preparation, it was finally time for my communion. Of course, with my luck, I woke up on the most important day in all of my nine years, with a cold! The day was perfect. The sun was shining, and everything had been well prepared. Unfortunately, my immune system was not on board for the event. Despite this, I decided that I would go through with the reading no matter what. So after getting ready, I sat with my family in the first pew of our church fiddling with the skirts of my traditionally made dress. I was so nervous my hands were trembling. When the time came, I took a deep breath and made my way up the altar as we had practiced. I remember hesitating as the commentator introduced the reading. I kept my eyes focused on the words in front of me, instinctively knowing that if I looked up, I would freeze. I took another deep breath and began. In the first “Frères,” a hush went over the crowd as the community listened. I took that as a good sign. I kept going without looking up, finding each word easier to proclaim than the last. After what felt like an eternity I looked up at the mildly astonished faces of the members of my community and said, “Parole du Seigneur”. Some of them smiled. Others had their eyes closed and simply nodded as they replied “Nous rendons grâce à Dieu”. Elated, I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly made my way back to my parents.
In my community, this act had never been done before. So, suddenly nine-year-old me was thrown into a spotlight in front of individuals who were (at the time) complete strangers to me. As a newly dubbed “big kid” I was expected to greet everyone with a warm smile and some kind words. It was a level of responsibility that I was not expecting to have. As I moved to greet these strangers, I was astonished by their eagerness to speak to me. I mean what’s there to be interested in a quiet (and frankly strange) nine-year-old? It was not a question that I could ask them directly. However, in listening to their stories, I learned that these adults were curious on how I learned to speak their language so well. Many of these adults had children my age that had refused to and therefore could not speak their language. This was the norm for many of my peers. The adults themselves had a difficult time communicating to them in English and so their interactions went in an awkward and sometimes inefficient fashion. The adults, finding themselves unable to learn English without having to pay for an English 101 course, had often hoped that their children would learn English and translate for them. Unfortunately, this was often not the case as the children of these adults refused to learn French or Creole. This was an issue even in my family where a few of my cousins have refused to learn Creole and therefore found it very difficult to communicate their interests and hobbies with their parents. In speaking to these strangers, I learned their stories of who they were, who they wanted to be in coming to America, and where, often life let them down. But it was not a story I would have known otherwise.
By the time I started doing the readings in English I realized that I had acquired quite a few skills despite my utter resistance to doing so. I learned how to project my voice to be able to speak in front of massive crowds without completely falling apart. Doing readings taught me how to quickly memorize what I was saying, to put emotion into my actions and my words, and in many ways, it has taught me how to be a confident individual. In this way I agree with Amy Tan’s analysis on the development of children where she states “I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular , plays a large role in shaping the language of the child”(Tan, Mother Tongue). That is most certainly the case in my story. My parent’s desire to raise children that had the best of both worlds greatly enabled me to grasp and fully embrace the language of both our country and our culture.
So today when I ask, “If you could choose, who would you be?” and, “Would you change anything about yourself?”, my answer is a solid “no”. If you went back in time and spoke to nine-year-old me and asked me if I enjoyed doing readings, I would have given you a firm “no”. It was a tedious process especially when I would much rather be playing with toys or watching TV. Even today, if I do not have to be in the spotlight I would much rather not. But looking back, not only have I become an incredibly well trained ambivert, I noted that my mother was preparing me to be able to be a public speaker at the tender age of 9. I learned to be expressive and open in ways I would not have been otherwise. She gave me a tool that allowed me to speak to individuals that I can now call my family. These skills later helped me in many of my high school endeavors from operating Club activities to giving advice to some of my younger peers. I have made close connections with friends and family all thanks to my mother’s guidance. And that is a gift that I will forever be grateful for.
Tan, Amy , Mother Tongue 1990. Threepenny Review
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