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When I teach drama at school, I make a big deal about how communication is much more than just speaking words. I draw attention to body language, to facial expression, tone of voice. We do exercises to help the children express themselves without talking – we play games where they convey a word on a card, like “puzzled” or “apprehensive”, simply by walking across the room in a certain manner.
Of course, this is all true, and makes for a great lesson…but some people need words more than others.
I need words.
I remember a time before I had words, and I also remember a time when I lost them.
I wasn’t born in Japan. I’ve never lived there. I came to the UK at the age of three but I was born in Denmark.
Danish was my first language. A language spoken by very few of the world’s population.
I adore watching the dark, twisty Scandi crime dramas like The Killing and The Bridge – not just because I love crime dramas, but because listening to people speaking Danish is very soothing. The dramas are gory and bleak…but soothing for me…
When I hear Danish spoken, it’s like coming home. I remember a much simpler time - when life was all about the smell of good coffee and cigarette smoke; the sound of voices laughing; the cosy glow of candles; the silhouettes of family members relaxing on the couch. ‘Hygge’ is a word bandied about these days with gay abandon, but it’s real. And ‘hygge’ is what I feel when I hear Danish being spoken.
Sadly, I don’t understand the words anymore.
When we moved to the UK, my grandmother came over from Japan and stayed with us for a while. During that time, Danish slipped from me like a child’s forgotten blankie, and Japanese became my new language. But only a few months after my grandmother returned to Japan, my parents realised I would soon be starting at the local primary school, and I barely knew any English.
They encouraged me to play with other children in the neighbourhood, and tried to speak English at home. And within weeks, my Japanese was also lost.
I remember my first day at school. It was a positive experience. I started on the same day as another girl who lived a few doors down from me, and who had become a good friend. We played at the sand table. We played at the water table. We ate lunch together, and held hands in the playground. No communication issues that I recall.
I obviously picked up the language quickly, and the teachers seemed to have no concerns about me. In fact, I have a clear memory of being given a vocabulary test when I was still in the Infants and being asked the meaning of ‘opportunity’, and I answered, ‘I’m not sure. I think it means chance.’
However, I’ve thought very hard about that time, and I’m pretty sure now that there was a lot I didn’t understand. Understanding is not just about words. There is something which I call cultural understanding, and when your parents aren’t British and you’ve only just moved to the UK, you definitely DON’T have cultural understanding. These are the things that other children JUST KNOW. Their parents know it, their cousins and grandparents know it, and these children also know it, simply through osmosis.
Example. Not long after I started school, a little boy had a grand fancy dress birthday party.
I can’t remember what I went as, but I saw a girl from my class there wearing the most fabulous pink fairy outfit, complete with gauzy wings and a shimmering wand. Nothing in my life up until that point had ever seemed so glamorous. I remember being open-mouthed with wonder…and slightly jealous.
A couple of weeks after that, it was Halloween.
I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. We didn’t know what Halloween was, but I did latch on to the fact that the school Halloween party was going to be fancy dress. Yes! Fancy dress!
My mother looked rather dubious when I insisted I wanted to go to the party dressed as a pink fairy, but she was persuaded by my utter conviction, and she concocted a wonderful outfit – including wings and a wand.
You know the ‘naked at work’ dream? Well, that’s how I felt when I walked into the school hall, which was heaving with black cats, black bats, witches in black, wizards in black and the odd monster – in black. I was the only pink fairy in the hall. Obviously.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember anyone commenting on my attire. I saw a few teachers (dressed in black) looking at me askance, and now I think they assumed my parents had a really twisted sense of humour.
Have I been scarred by the event? Well, no. But there were lots of little events. Maybe not all as eye-popping as PinkFairyGate, but they were frequent, aggravating and embarrassing.
I remember being handed a blank exercise book in class once, when I was 5 or 6 years old. As I waited for the other children to receive one too, I opened the front cover and saw the pages had tiny squares on them. Cool!
I took my pencils and started drawing an intricate pattern of flowers on the page, until suddenly, the face of the girl sitting next to me loomed large and she hissed at me.
“SSSSSStop doing that! Oh! Um! I’m going to tell the teacher!! You’ve ruined your new maths book!” she crowed triumphantly, her piggy eyes gleaming with Schadenfreude.
I looked around, and everyone else was sitting with their legs crossed, their books untouched.
Although I was a quiet and polite child and hated any kind of confrontation, I remember feeling a huge wave of rage and frustration sweeping over me. Why didn’t I know what to do?? Why did everyone else know what to do? What the hell even was “Maths”? Why couldn’t this stupid, ugly girl mind her own business? And then came misery. I didn’t want to be told off. Being told off was the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone, but especially to me.
But I didn’t have any words to explain the misunderstanding. If my teacher got angry, I’d have to stand there, mute and sorrowful, because I had no words.
I realise as I write this that I’m just scratching the surface of…what exactly? A Pandora’s box of bad memories, possibly. I will need to investigate more thoroughly – after all, if I didn’t have words, how exactly was I forming thoughts? Interesting…
At least now, I have words – and for me, that’s like having armour, a sword and a strategy. It’s like having a delicate tool untangling a whole lot of messed up threads. One day, I will put all those threads in order and make sense of them…
One day, I’ll be proud of being the Pink Fairy in a room full of witches.