I attended kindergarten in Mexico City, where I lived with my mother. She had originally moved to Mexico, she claimed later, because it was easier to live off my father’s army check there. When the checks stopped coming a year later, she had to go to work. She managed to get a job teaching first grade at “Escuela Moderna Americana”, a private, allegedly bilingual grade school. As a teacher’s kid I attended for free.
I loved school. I loved Dick and Jane, and especially Puff, sneaking onto the milk wagon. I loved the pristine large coloring books in which we did our first writing exercises. I loved the smell and feel of crayons; the fat ones.
As part of our “bilingual” education, we had a short lunch-time ritual. The teacher would hand out little triangular, crustless white bread sandwiches, and ask, in heavily accented English: “What are we having for lunch today?” In the same heavy accent, the students would dutifully reply: “We are having sandwiches.”
I was, of course, completely bilingual by this time, having spent my first four years in the U.S. and now a year in Mexico. But I wanted to blend in with the other kids, so I sing-songed the answer along with everyone else in my fake-Mexican accent.
One day I suddenly got inspired. I would still fit in, but I would also show off my extra knowledge and be special. “We are having sandwiches”, I piped along, then added to a silent room: “of cheese”.
The problem, I realized when the class broke out in giggles, is that “cheese” pronounced in Spanish is “chis”, (rhymes with “lease”), and this happens to be a slang word for urine, along the lines of “pee”.
I smile now as I think of it, but, obviously, I haven’t forgotten it. My mortification was complete.
This experience turned out to be a harbinger of many to come. My entire life I have tried, sometimes successfully, to fit in to society, and my entire life I have tried to shine via my intelligence, with mixed results.
If I had known this then, would I have kept myself from blurting out “of cheese!” or proudly showed off my perfect American accent in the first place?
I doubt it. It’s a lifetime’s journey to be who you are, and not try to be “more than” in the process.
Still on the path.