In old home movies, I see a shy little girl, following her self-assured brother, and I don’t recognize her voice at all. She hadn’t learned yet that the language she spoke would make everyone judge her—her intelligence, her friendliness, her professionalism, her “place” in life. She had a wildly bizarre accent (the result of living in two different countries while learning to speak) and it didn’t silence her. That accent would transform into a metropolitan North Texan dialect, complete with mild drawling and a whole lotta ain’ts, y’alls, and fixin’ tos.
Somewhere around high school, I realized that the way I spoke was wrong, or at the very least, not the best way to speak. It didn’t occur to me to question this state of affairs, in part because the place I love best, the classroom, was the primary place that I learned this fact. So I slowly, laboriously, and, most tragic of all, successfully changed my language, my speech, my way of knowing. My language didn’t match my life experience or my identity anymore, but I didn’t grieve this for years.
I grew up poor. Not homeless, food pantry poor, but WIC, free lunch at school programs, fairly used to having our water or electricity turned off poor. I went to a good high school, with a lot of upper-middle and middle class students, and so I got a cultural education that allowed me to pass. I could navigate the culturally oppressive education system with ease, and I was smart. But this didn’t change the fact that all my smart friends from high school would be going to private schools or University of Texas, while I applied to a second-rate state school, Stephen F. Austin, because I knew I couldn’t pay for anything better. When a rich relative stepped in and offered to pay for all of my college halfway through, I jumped at the chance and promptly transferred to Southwestern, a prestigious private school in Texas.
At Southwestern, there are very few students with my economic background. Most of those poor students were also transfer students. Southwestern students are primarily white, primarily upper and upper-middle class. One of my best friends there had a multi-million dollar trust fund. These people all had nice cars, their parents had nice homes, and few of them were cowed by the $35,000 sticker price of this school. I remember the transfer students of my class became friends by default, a kind of survival strategy in a completely alien environment. I remember balking as semester after semester, my teachers required $600-700 in books, for all English and philosophy classes! (I shudder to think of the textbook costs for science and math majors there.) I remember having these surreal conversations with friends and fellow students, where they simply didn’t seem to understand life on the other side. Where they would express shock that I didn’t have health insurance, that I hadn’t for much of my life. I remember a fellow student just in awe that I had never had braces despite crooked teeth; that boy just couldn’t comprehend that poor families don’t do shit like that unless the teeth are going to plain fall out of my head unless I got them. I remember visiting friends’ houses and exclaiming at how nice or big they were. And I remember feeling embarrassed for noting it, because it clearly made my friends uncomfortable when I reminded them of their privilege and advantages.
By this time, my Texas dialect was wholly gone. If I didn’t bring it up, no one at Southwestern would know that my identity and my experience was completely different than theirs. And while I was proud that I could pass, because this meant greater opportunities for me, it also ate at me. Like, deep in my soul gnawed at me. I felt a kind of language dysphoria; the language I spoke, even in casual settings, was like this school—it didn’t acknowledge, represent, reflect my experience. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but I did cling furiously to the one sign of linguistic difference I had: swearing, which was way more normal (as far as I can tell) in my home and the homes of my poor friends than it was in the homes of more privileged Southwestern students.
Classroom spaces at Southwestern were so different than those at Stephen F. Austin; they were liberating, open, discussion-based. They expected students to participate in the learning environment, and contrasted sharply with the authoritarian, teacher-as-authority, behind-the-podium classrooms of my previous institution. So I swore. A lot. I got emotional. For the most part, my teachers encouraged this, because I always brought that emotional, experience-based language and speech to bear on the academic material. But many of my fellow students thought I was being unsophisticated and unintellectual.
A children’s literature class was the most hostile to my language; my teacher encouraged me, but many students were openly dismissive of me because of the way I spoke. I didn’t show proper respect, not only by swearing, but by becoming emotional, by relating the material to my life experiences, by refusing canon its due deference. By swearing, though, I revealed myself to them as trash, and that was the real issue. If I had spoken the way they did, we could have a discussion about our different positions on the literature we were reading without the open hostility. I was letting my background show, and many of these students failed to see that my background wasn’t just something I wanted to overcome. My experiences made me who I am. Even if I don’t want them to prescribe my future, it was futile and harmful to disown them.
In graduate school, I realized that my dialect was gone. I have made efforts to retrieve it, but it feels uncomfortable in my mouth. I can only partially reclaim it, and I grieve that loss. With it, I’ve lost a part of who I am and who I used to be. And with that loss, I am left only with the language of oppression, so-called standard English. And I don’t think I’ll ever feel at home with it.
Conference on College Composition and Communication, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” 1974.
bell hooks, “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words,” Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 167-175.