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.