Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College. His new novel, Original Prin, will be published later this month.
Labour Day, at dusk, hours before the first day of school, my family will go jump in the lake. Inspired by my wife’s people – in Milwaukee, the New Year’s Day polar-bear plunge into Lake Michigan is a long-standing rite of passage – we’ve done this for as long as we’ve had children in school. It’s both a kid-friendly, daring farewell to summer and a bracing, collective statement of readiness for the fall. One of the women in my life inevitably complains about the cold (or the strange warmth) and murk and gross, slimy crawly things of Lake Ontario waters in early September, but eventually, we all jump. Some of us even jump more than once.
This is likely the last year I will melodramatically ask my youngest child, just before leaping off the dock, hand in hand, what we should do if someone gets hurt. Her answer will be “Call the ambalance!” Every Labour Day, I ask the dockside question to get that same answer, exactly worded. I love this answer for its small-packed fullness of shared family understanding. Do my older daughters have some similar sense, and is that why they’ve never corrected the pronunciation? Or have they grown accustomed to two ways of saying the same thing – our way, and everyone else’s? I don’t mind not knowing, because I know that soon I won’t hear our version again. Farewell, ambalance.
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This is obviously for the better for our youngest daughter as she enters the wider world. After all, I still remember having a childhood mispronunciation corrected on my first day of school – at university. People beyond the Boyagoda household of my youth apparently drank orange juice, not orengoose.
In The Design of Childhood, a timely new book that considers the effects of the built environment on the development of children, Alexandra Lange observes, “School is both an actual structure and a civilizing one, teaching [children] reading, writing, and ciphering.” Ms. Lange is here discussing school-house life and learning by way of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books; “ciphering” refers, in that original context, to arithmetic. The now more-primary definition – to conceal the meaning of words and invite de-ciphering and, with it, membership in a distinctive, shared community of knowing – speaks to the transition we all go through, near-universally by way of school, from having our sense of things governed by family knowledge, meaning and practice, to having it governed by public versions of the same. The challenge is figuring out and dealing with the differences while the expectation of this transition, as Ms. Lange’s wording strongly suggests, is in no small part to civilize us out of our (more primitive) family nous.
Indeed, the phenomenal success of Tara Westover’s Educated, her searing memoir of a Mormon-survivalist upbringing in Idaho that resulted in her only going to school at the age of 17, owes to the book’s making it possible for us to identify with certain experiences she describes, while feeling stunned by the extremity of hers. We can all tell stories of eccentric parenting and confusing, even embarrassing episodes that owe to the limits of a too-familial education (“Wait, so in your family, orange juice is two words?”). Ms. Westover’s early education, however, was governed by a father aggressively opposed to public school and its extra-scriptural teachings and a mother who mixed up herbal salves for everything. So formed, Ms. Westover raises her hand in a history class at Brigham Young University on her first day, to ask a professor to explain a word she doesn’t understand. The result: “There was silence. Not a hush, not a muting of the noise, but utter, almost violent silence. No papers shuffled, no pencils scratched.”
The word she’s never encountered before entering university is Holocaust. After class, Ms. Westover has to look it up herself, and after learning and seeing its meaning, she writes, “I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something horrific or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure.” Her only certainty, it turns out, concerns her family: “A wave of emotion took me, a feeling so intense, so unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to shout at … my own mother, and that frightened me.”
This story ends well, notwithstanding some serious family drama and trauma. Ms. Westover comes to wise and honest terms with her upbringing and goes on to earn graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, and her memoir is a critical darling and bestseller. Her story is a severe version of the confusions, challenges and miscomprehensions schoolchildren confront and must resolve in trying to balance the knowledge spheres and linguistic codes of home and away. And we do try, and always have. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, his vast new book on heredity, science writer Carl Zimmer points to the evolution of shared language as a decisive factor in the success of Homo sapiens over other early humans: “Our own ancestors may have gained the power of full-blown speech, making it much easier to co-operate on a hunt for game or a search for tubers. It would have made teaching more effective, too, bringing a depth and precision to lessons. The benefits of language could account for why our ancestors reached a higher population density than Neanderthals and Denisovans.”
That’s a lot of both immediate and long-game good coming from sharing a language, and it’s something that has happened for thousands of years simultaneously on the level of species and on the level of individuals, families, communities and cultures. It’s even been imagined between species, as with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, his film about intergalactic language lessons in support of mutual salvation. To be sure, there have always been ambitious and ultimately mistaken attempts to achieve too much through language, whether it’s the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel, or the 19th-century creation of Esperanto, or James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a literary Babel featuring 65 different languages fused together to render the universal human need to say something and be understood. His effort points more to the limits of all of us doing so at the same time: “But in the pragma what formal cause made a smile of that to-think? Who was he to whom? … Whose are the placewheres? Kiwasti, kisker, kither, kitnabudja? Tal the tem of the tumulum. Giv the gav of the grube.” So runs a typical passage.
James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the biblical story of Pentecost, together offer more resonant and decipherable accounts of shared learning, private and public, in service of what Mr. Zimmer calls the creation of a “cumulative culture.” Pentecost concerns, more or less, the start of Christianity as a global religion: The disciples of Jesus, gathered in a private home, experience the coming of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire appearing above their heads and are in turn endowed with the capacity to be understood in other languages. Leaving private for public space, the disciples tell of “the mighty works of God” to people of various origins living in Jerusalem, who are amazed that they can understand, each in their own languages. Pentecost is Babel’s counterpoint; in the end, or really in a greater beginning, language provides clarity and unity beyond language itself, in faith.
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Meanwhile, in the opening pages of Joyce’s Portrait, preschooler Stephen Dedalus hears stories from his father about “this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” He is soon sent to a boarding school with older boys who had “different clothes and voices.” Stephen struggles to make a place for himself there, and to find his own voice while immersed in new codes and terminologies – formal and slangy alike – that throw the private imports and imperfections of his own family life into sharp relief, challenging him to balance the meanings of these different worlds, an effort that carries through the rest of the novel and the rest of his life.
Years from now, will my youngest daughter point to her childhood belief in the power of the “ambalance” as the inspiration for going into medicine, or perhaps linguistics? Will she complain in a memoir about her father shortchanging her communication skills out of paternal nostalgia? In fact, she may never even remember she said it one way before school, and one way after school. Maybe I’ll remind her over a tall glass of orengoose, someday.