On the first day of school, my heart pounded as a boom box would during a block party. I had skipped both pre-k or kindergarten and gone straight to Sion Hill Government School in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (a small island in the Caribbean). I smiled as I entered the class because I knew first impressions were everything. My teachers knew about me because my mother was a head teacher, so they were aware of my ability. As my classmates and I began to get settled, our first grade teacher asked, “Who would like to volunteer to read the first couple of sentences from this paragraph?” My hand flew up in the air. I was a star at reading, pausing when there were commas and stopping when there were periods. I pronounced every syllable as I was supposed to, and after I read, my teacher said, “Thank you very much, Kylie.” As a young child, I enjoyed reading out loud. However, after my journey to New York City, I would grow to dislike even speaking to others much less reading to my classmates and teacher.
In third grade, my mother wanted me to become better acquainted with American culture and believed that I would blossom in the N.Y.C public school system since I was doing so well. She was wrong. At PS 181 in Brooklyn, my new peers spoke with a sort of twang that I had only heard on television, and they acted differently. When they greeted each other, they did a little handshake or gave a kiss on the cheek, which was new to me. They greeted one another with just “Hi” or “Hey” while in Saint Vincent one would say: “Wata gwan.”
On that first day, my teacher, Mr. Alba, began class by taking attendance. This was strange for me because on the first day at my old school, the teacher already knew who the students were because s/he had already met with their parents. My heart pounded harder by the second. Mr. Alba had finished the list of students. I raised my hand and said, “You did not say my name.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
In a thick accent, I replied, “My name is Kylie Francis.”
I heard a few chuckles behind me. Unfortunately, Mr. Alba had not heard me, and I had to repeat myself. “My name is Kylie Francis.” Not only did he not understand me the second time, but he also mispronounced my name as “Kyle Francis.” This error happened more than once that first day.
When it was time for math, we had to say our multiplication tables out loud. In St. Vincent I remember my mother teaching me a song to go with my tables. As soon as Mr. Alba said, “Recite tables” my eyes lit up and my hand was the first in the air. I stood up, head held high, and started saying them. More of my peers began to laugh, and this time they pointed.
Then I realized that they were making fun of me because I spoke differently. I could not wait to get out of that class, so I asked to go to the bathroom, taking my backpack with me. I ran out and headed straight to the bathroom with tears dripping down my face as if I had just lost a dog that I had owned for years. With the bathroom door closed behind me, I sat on the floor crying and wondering, “How can children my age be so cruel? Don’t they know that they are hurting my feelings?” I had no idea how much time had passed, but the next thing I knew the bell rang and it was time to go home. I had missed both my social studies, and my science classes. Going home that day, I worried about what my mother would say. Would she go to the school and talk to the teacher or what? I decided not to tell her what had happened.
As the days and weeks passed, I felt as if I were living a double life. I went from being a happy, loving, outspoken child while I was home to being a quiet and shy child at school. My teachers knew that I had potential because I would earn high grades on the tests and quizzes that I received. However, I soon stopped receiving good grades. The work that I was learning in third grade I had reviewed when I was back in St. Vincent, and I no longer had the motivation to succeed; so I just became mute. When teachers asked me a question, I would not answer unless it was to shake my head “yes” or “no.”
Going home every day from school, I would practice saying words aloud so they would sound more “American.” With a lot of practice, this method eventually worked. For example, I would repeat a phrase I often heard Americans say such as, “What are you doing this afternoon?” aiming for proper pronunciation. Eventually, I was able to say many sentences without sounding like I had come from another country, but I needed more work. When I spoke to my mother, I spoke with an accent, and I knew our conversations at home would act as a counter balance to my learning how to speak differently. If I were to ask my mother the same question, it would come out, “Ah wey you ado latah?” When I was at home, I began to spend hours watching TV after coming home instead of doing my homework. In a way, learning how to speak differently was a homework assignment that was long overdue. If I heard my mother’s footsteps, I would run and grab my book and pretend to do assignments.
Within a few months, I learned how to speak like the children at my school. I started to act differently and speak differently just to fit in with the social norms. Sadly, the emotional scars that I received during those first months did not go away as fast as my accent did. Furthermore, my tendency to speak in a low, soft voice is likely the result of those times in elementary school when I was ridiculed because of the way I spoke. Over time, however, I began to understand that I did not need to change the way I was brought up just to fit in. When I look back now at the struggles I faced and the lessons I learned in those first months in New York, I see that they have made me the person that I am today.