Iwas mute for the first three years of high school.
Before then, I was always picked to recite poems, read speeches, address officials visiting our school. I was the prize public-speaking kid. I wrote, too, poems and short stories. I loved language. I was obsessed with words, sounds, nuances. In Polish.
Then we moved - from Warsaw to Woodstock, Ont. I took ESL the summer before starting high school. In my first class, we followed our elderly teacher to the grocery store and watched him pick up vegetables. We repeated after his earnest, determined enunciation: "Carrot. Potato. Cucumber." I started high school with a solid knowledge of local produce.
My first class was science with Mrs. M. I sat in the back row with the Goth kids. Like me, they were silent. Then Mrs. M spotted me. She said something. I smiled. She said something again, her forehead wrinkling slightly this time. I smiled again. I had no idea what she was saying. Then she tapped her finger loud and clear. I was to move my seat.
The next week, I sat in the back with the Goth kids again. Mrs. M said something. Her forehead was unforgiving. I understood this time. But she already hated me, and I hated her.
I hated having to practise in the bathroom: "May I borrow your eraser?" I hated smiling instead of speaking. I hated that I was already forgetting my old language.
I also worried about finding words in this new language that could convey the essence of themselves through how they sounded, words like szelest, owoce, deszcz, kochanie.
It seemed impossible to be funny in English. I worried about not understanding if a boy picked on me or said he liked me. How was I to express friendship? The more I worried, the less I tried to talk. The less I talked, the less I tried.
In Grade 12, I changed schools and made my first Canadian friend. Jen was also new to the school. She was beautiful and quiet. She listened to my broken English with no idea that I was testing - on her - what I had learned over the past three years of silence. She laughed with me. I had a friend.
I went to university. I never felt confident in my new language, so I took psychology - I wanted to listen because I thought I could learn more that way. I found that alcohol helped my language skills tremendously. I made lots of bar friends, the kind of people who were used to lies, mispronunciations and slurring.
I read a lot. I got some articles published in the university paper. Eventually, my English became tolerable. Some people even said I should try journalism school. So I went. I had a professor like Mrs. M who didn't like dealing with students and said I was wasting my time. But I also had another professor who just vibrated when he showed us how to show, not tell, in our stories.
My first job was as a writer, my next as a copy editor. I even got a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) certificate. I learned to love language again. I found that words like rustle, fruit, rain and beloved are as melodic in English as they are in Polish. I wrote again and it was freedom. But it wasn't - and still isn't - total freedom.
When I speak, I sometimes have moments when I look for a word in my brain and the searchlight stops on the wrong one: isolated instead of insulated.
At the same time, I have no problem saying things I don't necessarily mean in English - I love you, I do. The second language is an exoskeleton. I often don't feel much in it. Polish is my tender skin.
In Polish, I was fluent and playful the way that I will perhaps never become in English. But as my second language grows, my first language gets weaker. The rarely used Polish words now seem so fragile, strangely embarrassing and intimate, like old toys from childhood. Even my name, when pronounced properly - with a "y" instead of "j," a "v" instead of "w" and with a soft "t" - seems too exposed.
Lots of immigrants change their names to adapt. I don't get offended any more if people chomp on mine. I've spelled it phonetically and I've mispronounced it to please others. Like my old language, it's become too naked, a questionable baggage.
Although maybe its nakedness makes me truly feel. My mother called the other night and left a message. In her soft, rustling Polish she called me a name that is a diminutive of mine - Jowiniu - and she called me kochanie, beloved.
Later on, my partner listened to her message. He said the words out loud a few times. It was making me nervous to hear him. It sounded so invasive. But then he walked up to me and put his arms around me and repeated the same words in my ear. It was as if it was the first time he said he loved me.
Jowita Bydlowska lives
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