Library Books

Tonight, as I was tucking in my kiddos, my 8-year-old proudly showed me her “libary” books.  I said your “what” books?  She giggled and said “library books,” smiling broadly.  I joked with her that if she left the “r” out often enough, the “r” might get its feeling hurt, go away and never come back.  Then “rivers” would be “ivers” and “roses” would be “oses,” and it would be all her fault!  She added “rainbows” would be “ainbows” and then randomly, but thoughtfully, moved on to all the words that would be different if “p” got its feelings hurt and ran off.

It was a fun game, but fun wasn’t the point.  The point was to use humor and creative fun to get us past the sticky situation we face every day, which is that my kids struggle to speak “properly.”

When my oldest adoptive daughter came to me as a then 9-year-old African-American foster child, I remember correcting her pronunciation of “library” the first time. Being a white, educated, 40-year-old woman, correcting her pronunciation was an obvious thing to do, and I didn’t give it a second thought.

For her, it was an affront.  She snapped her head around and said, “it’s libary, not library.”  I explained that it was indeed “library” with an “r” and breezily assured her that it was okay that she was learning the correct pronunciation because everyone had to at one point or another.   She glared at me with a look that only she has and said “that’s how my mom says it.  And, that’s how my auntie says it. It’s libary.

Consequently what was a simple correction of pronunciation for me became an insult to her family and to her culture, and that’s not easy to come back from, especially when you’ve not yet built trust with a child.  I let it go, having no clue how to proceed, and we continued to run our errands

Within about ten minutes a fellow shopper caught my eye.  She was 10 years older than me and African-American.  As she was walking past us, I said “Excuse me, ma’am.  Could you explain to my daughter how you pronounce the place where one checks out books?”  She stared at me for a split second before she understood what I was asking and then calmly looked at my then foster daughter and said. “Yes.  It’s the library.”  My daughter proceeded to argue with her that it was in fact the “libary” sans the “r.”  And this total stranger calmly explained to her, “No, honey.  It’s “library” with an “r.”  That’s how you say it.  “Library.”  I thanked her as she walked away.  Thank God for total strangers.

That was the beginning of what has been a nearly three year struggle for my kiddos, and one that will likely last their lifetimes.   It may seem small, but for them it’s about far more than a few dropped letters or slang words.  At times they’ve yelled “I don’t want to talk white!” or “I want to talk like my mama!” Eventually, with help from their biological great-aunt, they began to relent and relax a bit.  She graciously explained that people judged her for the way she spoke, and she wanted something better for them.  She helped them understand they weren’t abandoning their biological family by changing their speech, and her words reassured them and gave them permission to grow, learn and change. And, now their speech is greatly improved, although they still struggle with some problem words like “library.”

However, every time I correct their speech, I’m reminded of the dual worlds my children will always balance between, and a small part of me thinks I’m chipping away at them a bit, oppressing some part of their soul that’s tied to a world I can never give them and that may never again be fully within their grasp.  And, my world becomes grayer and grayer.  It’s a world where “proper” doesn’t ring quite as true as it once did.


9 responses to “Library Books”

  1. Beautiful, Shelley. I love you and your family so much, and this post tugs at my heart. You have fearlessly thrown yourself into a life where there are no right or easy answers to so many things. Yet the very fact that you bring them into the light and work through them with the kids seems to make everyone involved grow a little bit each day. Can’t wait until your next post!

  2. Shelley – I think you can let your kiddos know that EVERYONE (black/white/purple/and chartreuse) struggle with pronunciation at times. I remember when we moved to Ada and I started a new school in 6th grade. My best friend had a VERY southern Oklahoma twang. I can still hear her saying “hiiiiiiiiii” in my head.

    Both my parents grew up in Tulsa and until 6th grade I’d lived in NW Arkansas and NE Oklahoma and didn’t have the drawl or twang that we encountered in Ada. The first time I said “hi” like my friend my mother reamed me out. And stayed on me about that (as well as my posture) until fitting in at school and sounding like my friend was not worth the nagging I got from my mom.

    We all struggle with it from time to time…heck even our last president couldn’t say “nuclear” right. I think your tactic was right on. Make it fun and not scolding and they are more likely to remember it.

    You’re doing a great job!

  3. Shelley,
    That was beautifully done. Can’t wait to read more.

  4. Really love the story. Keep them coming. Loving and learning is what my journey is all about and I am inspired by the stories of others. Every life has a story; Every Story should be told. Thanks for telling your story!

  5. Loved the raw honesty. So beautiful and from the heart! You are inspiring and I look forward to reading more:-)

  6. Twanica Porterfield Avatar
    Twanica Porterfield

    I loved how you dealt with that. As a black woman, I correct my children and tell them it’s for their best interest. You are doing a wonderful job! And, if you ever need a black woman who knows ebonics and proper grammar, don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be more than happy to help! 🙂

  7. Bless you for this great post! It makes me wonder how many times we say things that, without even realizing, that make us seem judgmental. I am in a Covenant Disciple Group that meets weekly to review our covenant and account for how well we did that week. One part reads “Serve as a disciple of the Christ through forgiving in word and action.” We often ponder whether there are folks we need to ask to forgive us for things we said that were unintentionally hurtful. Your story is a perfect reminder of that!

  8. Shelley, thank you for sharing. We have the same struggle. Thankfully, M came to me at 4, so my battle isn’t has tough as yours. It’s a consistent conversation. It’s not ain’t, poolice, funiture, or sometimes just plain tone. It drives me crazy. Again, thanks for sharing, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one struggling with even the small battles!

  9. Great story Shelley, and a reminder of how powerful words are. I automatically correct my great niece, because her casual speech, while funny to her, remind me of all those people I did not hire, opportunities lost. Words create and loss opportunities simply through pronunciation and we all deserve opportunities to the moon and back.

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