this was a short piece I wrote last summer for the “Jumpstart Odyssey” assignment for the Calderwood writing fellowship:
The Strength of Weakness
“For Amily to be able to enter into third grade, she must be able to write cursive. Our second graders at the Learning Project have already learned this skill. Amily will fall behind. It will be better for her academic and social development to simply repeat the 2nd grade here at our school.” – Principal Michael. I looked up at my mother. Others may have interpreted her face as an immigrant searching for the right words. My six year old self knew that her pause was actually filled with a silent barrage of French curse words Il e vraiment un con! con, con. “By when will Amélie need to be able to write cursive?”
“I believe in December the third grade teacher will begin to require it of all the students.” “That is not a problem”, and she certainly would never let such a trivial thing interrupt the flow of my schooling, “I can teach her by then.”
In the democratic, open dialogues that guided our family unit of three, I had advocated for myself to skip K-1. For my young reasoning, it was simple enough. I hated boys, and this did not want to be taught by a male teacher. My mother and school did not hesitate, even though I was born on the last day of December and thus was almost 6 months younger than my classmates. And I had only become fluent in English a year prior. It was only when I had to transfer to a new school, though one that was still elite and of a liberal educational philosophy, that my age became an issue – an issue that my mother could bulldoze right through. She could bulldoze over other people. She could bulldoze new information straight through my developing brain, leaving wide open paths for me to fill-in with studying.
My early life included many sittings next to my mother studying language. Starting at two years old practicing my letters until A-Zs in rough block form came easily to me. We read aloud the French grammar book to learn the names of accents along with how each changed the sound of vowels and then the whole word. Moving my young tongue around me jaw, pressing it against the back of my throat, then shoving it against the space between my teeth, and pushing air out of a variety of lip formations. We made a clock out of cardboard, with moving parts, and I had to correctly place the little hand and the big hand at 8:37. But the clock did not include the twenty o’clock when my father would be getting home. The assigned task of learning cursive in sixth months was just one more lesson during these sittings.
NY Times articles that I now sat and read review studies on the bilingual mind. Scientists are finding that learning parallel languages allows for neural pathways to be expanded. My own pathways jumped like a skipping stone in a pond, missing the correct pronunciations of ch, sh, z sounds. My tongue and teeth got tripped up, racing through the sounds and muddling it all up. My mother was not trained in the physical therapy that could reform my tongue. So from writing cursive in third grade to speaking properly in fourth grade, my sittings went into a formalized room.
A small room without a window, a rough industrial carpet, a table splits it in half, I sit on one side, my therapist on the other. And once a week, we direct my tongue to new spaces and specific pressures. I had to say chair, seizure, shifty, etc. rewarded at the end with the choice of a colorful erasure. This kind of sitting was very rewarding to me. I mastered this speech therapy, and still remember the correct placement for the correct sounds, and trip over my own tongue at unforeseen moments. This deficiency has been a point of great humor, where I get stuck on a word during a lecture, and I reveal my lisp to my students. I always catch the relieved eye of a shy student or a reticent participant, who maybe now does not have to hide.
Letting my weakness’ show is a muscle I flex often in my classroom.