Sunday, August 08, 2010

Blending In

One of the more embarrassing moments of my life occurred on my first day of school in England. My family lived in Greenwich from late August 1976 through early September 1977 while my parents were doing research at the Public Records Office in London during my father's first sabbatical year. My school-age siblings and I were enrolled at Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Lewisham. In the early part of my first day there, I had the misfortune of having a poorly-timed urge to empty my bladder. The teacher had just asked the class a question, but answering it was not my focus when I raised my hand to get her attention. When she called on me I blurted out, "Can I go to the bathroom?"

The phrasing of my question, my bad timing and American accent were too much for my classmates to handle; the room erupted in laughter. I've never felt comfortable as the center of attention; in that context, it was like facing my worst nightmare. I ran out of the classroom and found the lavatory. When I got back to class the reaction was subdued, but there still was some tittering, and every eye in the room was focused on me as I returned to my desk.

[I have since had that same feeling twice: 1) When I was fifteen, I once rode my bike from Montgomery County, MD into DC via the Rock Creek Park bike path. I made it to the Mall, then headed east. I turned onto a street that had a block-long, abandoned red brick building with many broken windows on one side, and small, run-down single-family homes on the other. In the ten-by-twenty foot front yard of one of those houses, a group of twenty or more of my African-American brethren had gathered for a cookout. A child of maybe four years spotted me and announced to the others, "Look, y'all! There's a honko coming down the road!" Every eye in that yard followed me as I rode past. The road turned out to be a dead end (there was no sign warning of it...); I got to the end, turned around and gave the crowd a repeat performance. "Look! Here he come again!" 2) I remember several years later walking past the piranha tank at the Wheaton Triangle Tropical Fish store. The sensation I got was eerily similar to the other two, minus the embarrassment. Also, I think the other two groups were not at all interested in eating me alive (or dead).]

The incident must have made quite an impression on the teacher, because the next day I had been transferred to a class in a lower grade (with kids my age, not a year older like the other). I resolved never to have a repeat of the previous day's events; I remained silent for at least a week. I knew that I would have to speak at some point; I figured I had to do something about standing out as "the American." In a bold move that would have made Captain Corky really proud, I turned to my most reliable friend, television.

Television in England in 1976 consisted of three channels: BBC1; BBC2; and ITV, which I think stood for international television; it may not have, but I'm too lazy to Google it for this post. I decided that the single best way for me to blend in was to learn to speak like a little British boy; the best way to do that was to watch as much TV as possible and parrot every word until I had mastered it. It took me several weeks to perfect my accent (I had to adapt what I learned on TV to fit the region I was living in). Within the first week or so I could get away with it during brief chats; after a month no one would guess I was American. [My elder sister capitalized on her American accent, after one of her classmates offered her five pence to "talk American;" she made a small fortune.]

I had a bizarre, mind-altering experience during one of my training sessions. The British weren't (aren't) much for censorship on the telly; I remember seeing a good bit of nudity and hearing some awfully vulgar words. One Saturday morning, I got one of the most invaluable insights into a mother's love that television could possibly provide, especially when it includes both nudity and harsh language. One of the channels ran a program that showed natural childbirth--with a full view from the front--the whole bloody mess! The woman was screaming and cursing and moaning and shrieking, then the baby came out, along with the attendant gush of fluids and other afterbirth matter.

It was quite a shock to my naive nine-year-old mind; I had thought that Mommy had merely gotten a bulge in her belly, had gone away for a few days, and had returned with a baby and less bulge, none the worse for wear. This changed everything. I could see someone going through that once, not really knowing it was that bad. But seven times ??? My mother went through that for me, having already done it twice; I was in awe. I never looked at her the same way after that. I believe we should fully expose our children to the reality of their origin; most of them would hold their mothers in the highest regard afterward.

My adopting a British accent became the cause of one of the more embarrassing moments of my mother's life. My brother and one of my younger sisters were having their First Communion. The headmistress of their part of the school, Sister Something Something, requested that I do one of the readings from the Bible for the Mass. [I don't recall just why there were different parts of OLL, but I do remember that my headmaster was Brother William.] My parents assured her that I would be honored to be included. I got the excerpt a week in advance, and I practiced it until I knew it by heart.

When the big day arrived, I was a bit nervous, but I sucked it up and rose to the occasion for my siblings. As I approached the podium, I noticed that several of my classmates were in the pews. I had rehearsed the speech with my American accent, which was all I used at home. My then current classmates had never heard me speak with an American accent; the jig was up! I thought about how embarrassed I had been that first day of class (the last time I had spoken to anyone at school with an American accent); I could not endure that ridicule again. When I reached the podium, I turned to the bookmarked page, cleared my throat, and in flawless Queen's English proceeded to do the reading.

I was under the impression that Sister What-was-her-name had wanted me to do the reading because of my siblings and my exceptional ability; it turns out that she had wanted me exclusively for the novelty of hearing an American read. I didn't notice all the jaws dropping as I was reading; my eyes were firmly fixed on the page before me.

My mother didn't even mention the incident until years later, when she would relate the story to everyone she could whenever it occurred to her. I believe she looked back on the whole matter fondly, but she never did let me live it down.

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