Z was waiting for me at pickup the other day with a big, saucy grin on her face. She held up the latest Scholastic book order and announced: “Justin Beaver is in here?…He’s HOT!”
In a sudden transformation as surprising to myself as to Z, Full Spectrum Mama turned into a fascist, super-conservative, sexist anachronism. I heard the following phrase burst from my formerly liberal lips: “You are! Five! Years! Old! Okay, Six! You will NEVER say that word again!”
My rule of fear and oppression complete, Z felt able to respond: “Um, okay Mom.” Eye roll.
Then, resisting the urge to prove that ***I*** am the one who knows not only how to Read but to correctly pronounce Justin Bieber’s name as well, I took a step back to dispassionately analyze my reaction.
The first language Z heard was the local dialect in Fuzhou (a.k.a. Linchuan), in Jiangxi province in China. I am sure she also heard some Mandarin (which I have continued to integrate into her life, though not as much as I’d like). Until she was almost ten months old, she’d never heard a word of English. Nonetheless, Z has been speaking it in complete sentences with perfect diction since she was 18-months old.
What is truly remarkable about her speech to me, though, is the apparent savviness of her tone. She comes across as authoritative yet casually chatty -- much like a clever, popular, connected teen. Perhaps the most obvious element of this mature tone is how she uses the ultimate tool of with it girls everywhere: vocal fry (http://gawker.com/5867222/vocal-fry-is-the-hot-new-linguistic-fad-among-women), see also (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/science/young-women-often-trendsetters-in-vocal-patterns.html). Vocal fry sounds rather like a crumpling up of the inquisitive at the ends of her sentences. It’s a mini-hipster-rumble that signifies at once being totally in-the-know and a lack of caring too much.
G rumbles when he talks, too. Because he has some low muscle tone, phlegm often catches in his throat when he speaks and he makes a slight gurgling sound behind his words. I call this “gortles,” as in, “Honey, clear your throat – ya got gortles.”
Low muscle tone also results in lax enunciation of many sounds. This, coupled with his unique cadence -- Pardner often notes how G “sounds like John Wayne” – makes G sometimes hard to understand, particularly for other children.
G has been receiving speech therapy through his school since he his IEP (Individualized Education Program) was initiated years ago. His speech therapist initially maintained that G would “never” make much progress in his speech. I have been able, however, using a rewards system that actually matters to him (pokemon cards), to ease him into the habit of pronouncing many sounds correctly and he has become much easier to understand.
Recently, our dear friends Shu Shu Chuck and Fern Ayi (Auntie [in Mandarin] Fern) came to visit us. They brought lovely educational gifts for the kids and spent lots of doting time with them. Fern Ayi, was even kind enough to get up before dawn with them (“Would it be okay with your mom if you got up?” “Yes!!!” [“No.”]) and feed them bottomless bowls of cereal.
At brunch on Sunday, Chuck noted that same John Wayne cadence to G’s speech. I immediately began to explain that we are working on his speech, that he has help at school and so on.
Chuck looked a little sad. “Why?” he asked. “Why try to change what is unique about him?” He said he thinks G is a “wonderful” kid just as he is and decried our culture’s tendency to try to make everyone the same, and to treat difference as if it is a sickness.
I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Without really considering my audience, I had been making my standard excuses, not really lies per se, but statements intended to placate others who may be critical -- when in fact I think G is PERFECT EXACTLY AS HE IS.
Now to give some legitimacy to Chuck’s words: he is none other than Chuck Hoberman (http://www.hoberman.com/home.html), an amazing inventor and brilliant thinker. Among other things, Chuck designs marvelous toys for curious people of all ages. I think his life and oeuvre give great weight to his contention that we should NOT necessarily try to “normalize” our children’s every atypical quality.
Speaking of normalization, if truth be told, I’d like to ease Z’s speech away from the conformi-cool area of the speech spectrum:
The other night, we went to the local café for pizza night with another family. The sweet, smart mother of Z’s good friend brought her two girls - Z’s good friend and friend’s little sister. I brought along G’s best friend too, to be fair. (The injustice of unequal playdates is one felt and expressed powerfully across the FSM household spectrum.) The boys had their own table and the five of us girls sat at another.
I am always a tiny bit wary of consorting with intact (i.e. not gobsmacked by divorce) families who seem like “normal” people with seemingly neurotypical, psychotypical kids. I am well aware that “seem” may well be the operative word in most cases; also, the above describes most of my friends…I am just setting this story up here. Our family is blended in several more ways than average and I hope I may be forgiven a smidge of healthy, wholesome paranoia.
At the boys’ table, G was talking about one of his favorite subjects, marine biology. He kept referring to “aminals” and his friend would get frustrated and correct him. After resisting the urge for some time I finally butted in, letting G’s friend know that I thought saying “aminal” was “pretty darn cute.” He remained unconvinced. “I think it’s annoying,” he informed us. G’s face fell.
Over at the girls’ table, Z was holding up her knife and fork and looking through them to frame my face. Then, still looking at me, she began to move them around in a kind of criss-cross pattern. In her perfect, angelic, singsong voice, she began to sing a perfectly enunciated little tune: “Cut, cut, cut…Cut my mommy’s face.”
The mother, who was seated next to me, leaned in and asked, very quietly, “Does she have violent tendencies?”
At that moment, I wished for Z to be much, much less comprehensible.
Not for the first time, I found myself simultaneously
1. wishing two opposite things for my two dissimilar children: that G’s speech would be more clear and compelling, and that Z’s speech would be less clear and less compelling; and
2. wishing that in each case I wasn’t wishing what I was wishing.
Despite knowing it was a kind of funny situation, and even with all those nice people around me I felt very lonely just then.
Full Spectrum Mama