In high school I studied Latin and then switched to Spanish when we moved to California. It was an easy change, probably due to the similarities in phonics.
When I enrolled at a community college, I again took Spanish. I started in one level, but the professor had me change to the highest level the college offered. It was still easy.
Next I transferred to the University of Southern California as a math major. For some reason, I had it in my brain that I would need to know Russian in order to read the latest in mathematical thinking.
During my sophomore year, thinking I had a good grasp of Russian after one semester, wanted to go to San Francisco to visit a Russian bookstore. Unfortunately my dad wouldn’t let me go on my own.
In the back of my mind I hoped that he would stay in the car. Nope. He insisted on going in with me. I roamed the aisles looking for something that I could read with little or no help from a dictionary.
While I was doing this, my dad stood by the register keeping an eye on the owners. He didn’t talk to them. Not one word. Instead he gave them the evil eye if they so much as took one step toward me.
Once I realized what was happening, I grabbed a newspaper and bought it. The owners tried to engage me in conversation. I understood what they were saying, I knew the proper response, but I couldn’t get my mouth to form the words. Instead I looked at them with tears forming in my eyes, paid the bill and scurried out.
My dad smirked as we walked to the car. He told me that the trip was a waste of his time and his gas. He said that I couldn’t speak or read Russian. That I had demonstrated that in the store.
I couldn’t blame him because I had behaved like an idiot. It made me mad, however, to hear the tone in his voice and to understand the underlying message beneath his words. It wasn’t just that I had behaved like an idiot, it was that I was an idiot.
When I got home I went to the room I shared with my sister and opened the paper, expecting to be dumbfounded by the words. I wasn’t. Sure, there were some I didn’t know, but for the most part, I could read every article and get the jist of what was being reported.
I flew home with the paper in my lap. Normally my row mates would try to engage me in conversation. Unwanted attention that both humiliated me and threatened me. I didn’t know the purpose of the conversation. Was it to lure me into an unsavory relationship?
The man next to me leaned over, brushing his shoulder against mine, and made some comment that didn’t deserve a response.
I opened my Russian paper, making sure he could see the print, and read. He left me alone.
The next time I flew home, I brought that paper with me and repeated my performance. It worked. In fact, as long as that paper lasted, it freed me from unwanted advances.
Even though I was proud of that paper and the power it held, I never forgot standing in the store, my dad’s smirk and the hurtful words he said on the way home.
While I had many embarrassing moments, this one ranked up there among the highest.