13 December 2008

Guiding Through My Language

Today Dominick had to take an examination for his teaching certification. He's been working as a paraprofessional while he completes the necessary coursework for his license. If he passes, it's not the end: There are others, for teaching generally and for his specialty, which is Special Education, that he will have to pass. And, if I'm not mistaken, he'll have yet another exam to take for his specialty within Special Ed: working with physically handicapped children. (SE also includes kids with learning disabilities, which some of his pupils also have, and emotional development defecits.) He has my respect and admiration for working with such needy kids.

Anyway, he had to go to Brooklyn to take the test. He was on his way there when I called him on his cell phone. When he told me Bishop Kearney High School, I knew exactly where he had to go. And when he told me he was at Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues, I could tell him exactly how to get there. After all, Bishop Kearney is only a few blocks from where I grew up, and Flatbush and Nostrand is where I studied with Allen Ginsburg while working on my MFA.

He said I gave even better directions than his GPS system. Of course, I said: I know that area as well as I know any place. A few blocks from Kearney are the apartment where my family and I lived until we moved to a house a few more blocks away when I was eight years old. Very often, in my dreams, I end up in places that look like that apartment, that house and those streets, at least as I remember them.

I am shedding tears now, as I did when Dominick asked how I knew that neighborhood so well. "The houses are nice, just like you said they were!," he exclaimed. "Like I remember them," I said.


"It used to be an Italian neighborhood. Around there, a lot of Hasidic Jews live now."

"Yeah, I saw some."

I have to admit, that made me a little sadder. Not because they're Jews, or Hasidim specifically. Rather, I think, it's for the same reasons people lament changes in the places to which they return in their dreams, in their memories: Whoever comes in cannot see the place in the same way as those who left, for whatever reasons, and those who followed them, whether or not by choice. Even if they share your tongue, they cannot feel the same way about the stories, jokes, confidences, impressions or any other communication you shared with the people who shared that time and place with you. It's not that they're obtuse or stupid; they simply don't share your references, as the academics would say.

I'm reminded of this from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young:

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless

Baby can you hear me now?
The chains are locked
and tied across the door,
Baby, sing with me somehow.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless.

Just about anybody who's ever lost a loved one--or more precisely, remembers how it felt--can understand, at least a little, what I'm saying, what that song is saying. It doesn't matter whether your spouse died or left you--or that you left--there are things you said to each other that you can't say ever again because they would not make sense to anyone else. One could say the same about other family members, friends or even classmates or former coworkers.

I recall now the time I visited Jay, my now-former friend who's been living in France for close to two decades. At the time of the visit, he'd been married to his French wife for a year, if I recall correctly, and he'd been living in France for four or five years. And he was feeling--not homesick, he said, for he'd come to feel that America was "insane"--but a longing for someone who understood his language, if you will. Speaking French wasn't a problem: I wished, and still wish, I could speak it as well as he did. The problem was meeting someone who knew what he meant when he said. "Woody Allen is a dick." (This was not long after the scandal with his daughter.) Even if he could render it into French, it still wouldn't resonate for them in the way the English original struck his fellow American.

Now that's got me to thinking about what language I might lose in my transition to womanhood. Of course, I could never tell some of the jokes I told and heard when I was Nick, or even say the same words of encouragement (when I could muster them) I might've said to a male co-worker, bike buddy or other companion in some activity or another. If I were to say them now, no man would take them in the same way as they might've back when I was in boy-drag. And, of course, they wouldn't make any sense--or they'd simply be offensive--to another woman.

The other day, one of my students told me her boyfriend, the father of her child, had been cheating on her. She broke down in tears; at that moment, any advice I could've given would have been pointless; all she really wanted and needed was my shoulder. I gave it to her, and she thanked me, but somehow I felt deficient: I just knew there was something one of her female friends could have said or could have done for her, and I had no clue to what it was. Even the hug I gave her, I later thought, couldn't have communicated something she could have gotten from one of "the girls," as we say.

In other words, I felt that somehow my knowledge of her language, and that of my newly-adopted nation, if you will, wasn't as strong as I thought it was.

Well, at least I knew then why she missed a few classes and when I saw her last week, she looked as if she were about to have a nervous breakdown.

She asked me if I'd ever been cheated on. Yes, I said. And what did I do, she wondered. I dumped that person. She didn't want to hear that. But, I continued, that wasn't necessarily what she should do, especially if she wants to keep, or even see, her child. So, she replied, yes, she wants to talk to her boyfriend. I advised her not to do it alone: Bring a friend, mediator or someone with you, I advised.

Now there's an example of trying to speak a new language and guiding someone through territory that I once knew, albeit in a very different way from the way she now knows it. And I was calling on a language I used to speak every day, if you will, in guiding Dominick through a place he didn't know. I'm still learning the language of doing that.