Dr. Carrie Hall
April 30, 2019
Not as Seen on TV
Coming from a small island into this big country with so many moving parts it was very intimidating; not to mention attending school in America for the first time. School, where I come from, is very religious and really strict. We had our own stuff that made it fun. However, when I watched TV as a kid, school is America just seemed like so much fun. So, it’s my first day of school in America, and I was super excited but nervous as well. I walked in not knowing that uniform was required because on TV they never wore uniforms. I met my teacher and he was kind and welcoming. To my surprise he was also from the Caribbean, but he spoke “proper”. I walked into the classroom, and the first thing I said to myself, in my head was, “this doesn’t look like what was on tv.”
The kids on TV had lockers, cool book bags, didn’t wear a uniform, they seemed very free-spirited, the food in the cafeteria looked good, they had classes like music and dance, and it just didn’t look like school was a lot of work in America. However, in reality, the students looked bored, everyone was wearing uniforms, and the teacher was actually teaching. The food was terrible, there were no lockers, we were locked in a building like we were in a prison. Even the windows had bars. One thing I liked about my school in the islands was the fact it was near to a beach, so I would sit in my classroom with the windows open and feeling the gentle breeze passing seamlessly through my hair. I didn’t expect a school in America to be such a rip off from what I saw on tv, or maybe that’s just schools in Brooklyn.
I took my seat next to the radiator with my back facing the window and sitting next to me was a young lady by the name of Khadijah. Khadijah was very welcoming. She instantly said hi to me and told me what topic we were on. What stood out to me the most was when ask me what my name was. I was surprised because I had a preconceived notion that everyone was going to be mean, you know, because I’m the “New Kid”. Oh, and did I mention she was black. I’ve always thought that I would be in a classroom with a bunch of white kids but, to my surprise, my class was predominately black. For some reason my nerves calmed because everyone looked like me. Darker skin tone, kinky hair, and almost everyone was in uniform.
The teacher got in front of the class and began to teach math, my favorite subject by the way, and then he asked a question. Me, being me and knowing the answer to the question, I raised my hand with no hesitation. He called on me, and I answered. Instantly I felt different. It wasn’t because my answer was wrong. It was because it didn’t dawn on me that I was different from everyone else until I spoke and didn’t sound like my fellow classmates. I didn’t have an American accent. Then I felt the eyes. Almost all the students in the classroom were looking at me. I felt out of place like I didn’t belong. I looked like everyone else, we were all black…. but yet a bit different.
My brother also started school that same day as me but was put in a higher grade. His experience was very different from mine. That afternoon when we were talking about how our first day went, I noticed that the way he spoke changed. His dialect was different. He started to sound and speak like my fellow students and my teacher. Me being me I said to him “wha you talking in style for.” I said this because to me home was our safe haven, where we all spoke the same way, and I didn’t have to be the orange chip is a bag full of yellow chips, because at home we were all orange chips. However, it seemed like I was the only one having a hard time adjusting. To my entire family, I just needed to start speaking “proper.”
My family, who mostly speaks the same exact way as I do, is telling me that I need to talk “proper.” I knew what they meant by proper, they wanted me to speak like my American peers. I didn’t need to look like the kids on TV, but more so sound and speak like them. “Proper” to my family is speaking English with correct grammar and change of accent. Granted my grammar was horrible and to this day still needs improvement, hearing them use the word proper didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t because to me, they were implying that the way I spoke wasn’t right and that wasn’t ok. It made me feel like they forgot that in our home country mostly everyone spoke this way. At this point in was wondering to myself “should I stop being who I am?”
I am a person who takes the time to think about what people say and take it into consideration. The issue was that, I wasn’t purposely speaking with my accent, I just couldn’t turn it off and switch to talking like an American, like I guess my brother could do. I literally couldn’t because I genuinely tried to. I tried because I didn’t want to feel out of place in a place where I would be spending a lot of my time. Then I meet the librarian at my school. When I met her and started speaking the first thing she told me was that she loved my accent. That was something I have never heard before, and I didn’t know if I should say thank you or not. She went on to say, “you should never lose your accent, it makes you very unique.” After she said that to me, I went home and thought to myself, “she’s right, I should be proud of my accent. No one else in this place speaks like me.”
Over the years I have come to embrace my accent, and I love the way it comes out when I’m happy, sad, or mad. My education was never flawed because of the way I speak so, I will continue speaking with my accent, but in a professional setting I will speak “proper.” As a kid, watching TV and admiring how awesome school in American would be, I was naive to the differences that set me apart for those kids on TV. It did not help that TV shows didn’t do a good job of promoting diversity. It should have showed that students who don’t look alike and don’t speak the same way coexist. Especially in a school setting.