Words We Carry and White Privilege

I happened upon a book of essays by D.G. Kaye. I wasn’t familiar with her body of work, but I found her honesty and writing style to be appealing.

Words We Carry
Words We Carry: Essays of Obsession and Self-Esteem, by D.G. Kaye

The full title of the book is Words We Carry: Essays of Obsession and Self-Esteem. The subtitle alone wouldn’t have prompted me to give the book a chance, but the main title intrigued me.

I was reminded of the Tim O’Brien book, The Things They Carried about the things the US soldiers carried with them in the Vietnam War. Although vastly different in setting, Mr. O’Brien’s collection of short stories and Ms. Kaye’s collection of essays lead you into an examination of the experiences you carry throughout your life.

Reading this book triggered some long-buried memories and brought me to some unexpected realizations.

In the “Vanity:  Where Does it Begin?” section of Words We Carry, Ms. Kaye’s following words resonated with me and made me stop and contemplate how some events and physical conditions in my formative years affected my very personality.

“Name calling, teasing, feelings of inadequacy compared to others, or growing up in an environment filled with discord can all mark the beginnings of our insecurities. Whatever our reasons, they tend to follow us through life, sometimes unknowingly, and these feelings grow into negative character traits.” ~ D.G. Kaye in Words We Carry: Essays of Obsession and Self-Esteem

Let that sink in for a minute.

I did not grow up in “an environment of discord,” and for that I am grateful. I grew up in a happy, loving home. I was completely secure within my family.

Another quote

“Our minds are delicate gateways to our egos. Just as a certain song or a waft of a familiar scent may trigger a happy memory, our minds also retain painful memories of ridicule or embarrassment. Those unhappy remembered memories are sometimes difficult to let go.” ~ D.G. Kaye in Words We Carry: Essays of Obsession and Self-Esteem

A speech impediment & crooked teeth

When I was a toddler, my temporary teeth emerged in all the wrong places in my mouth. Hence, I could not speak to be understood by anyone other than my parents and siblings.

I recall the frustration of not being understood. I knew what I was saying and to my ears my pronunciation and enunciation sounded perfect. Being asked to repeat myself over and over again was confusing and maddening when I was too young to know that I had a speech impediment, and it was embarrassing after I started to school and came to know that I was different from the other children.

I was rescued, though, by two advantages that the time, place, social class, loving parents, and white privilege afforded me.

Something that surprises me now is that even in 1959 the local school system employed a speech therapist. Mrs. Mitchell was wonderful! She visited the various schools in the system on what I suppose was a weekly basis.

There were several of us who were allowed to leave our regular classrooms for 30 minutes or so to work with Mrs. Mitchell. She sent instructions home with us so our parents could help us practice changing the way we used our tongues to form certain sounds.

Speech therapy & white privilege

As I wrote the previous paragraphs, I was struck by the realization that I probably had access to free in-school speech therapy because of my race. Today it’s called white privilege. Until I was in the seventh grade, white students and black students in our county had to attend different schools.

This fell under the US Supreme Court ruling in 1896 in the case, Plessy v. Ferguson. It mandated “equal but separate” schools for the two races, although the “equal” part was never enforced. The landmark US Supreme Court case in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declared separate schools for the races to be unconstitutional; however, it was 1965 before the schools in our county started the desegregation process.

The ways in which I was rescued from my speech impediment and the frustration, embarrassment, and teasing it produced were both a by-product of white privilege.

Orthodontia

The other tangible thing that rescued me from what would otherwise have been a life doomed to not being able to speak to be understood was orthodontia.

Considering that orthodontics was established as a dental specialty in 1899, the fact that I was fitted with braces on my teeth in 1957 amazes me.

Dr. P.C. Hull, Jr. was my orthodontist, and I adored him. His waiting room in The Doctors Building on Kings Drive in Charlotte was a bit small but nevertheless included an aquarium — or a fish tank — in the vernacular of the times. I’d never seen tropical fish before, and I was fascinated. But I digress.

Dr. Hull proposed to experiment on me. He theorized that if he could straighten my temporary teeth, my permanent teeth would maybe absorb the roots of my temporary teeth and follow them into proper alignment. It was worth a try, so I wore braces from the age of four until it was time for me to start losing my baby teeth.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t losing my baby teeth. They weren’t even getting loose. Although nicely aligned by the age of six or seven, most of my temporary teeth had to be pulled by the dentist because they retained their long roots, and my permanent teeth came in all over the place.

Cutting to the chase

To make a ten-year-story of orthodontics short, I wore braces off and on until my teenage years, my only breaks coming when my temporary teeth had to be pulled.

I’m sure my parents sacrificed financially in order for me to wear braces, but that sacrifice made all the difference in my life. Being able to have straight teeth along with speech therapy ultimately made it possible for me to attend college and graduate school and pursue a career.

In conclusion

White privilege — which I was blissfully unaware of until middle age — made it possible for me to have free in-school speech therapy and, doubtless, made it possible for me to have access to orthodontic care in North Carolina in the 1950s-1960s.

Perhaps there were speech therapists in the racially-segregated “equal but separate” public schools for people of color at that time, but I doubt it. Perhaps there were black orthodontists or white orthodontists in Charlotte who would take black children as patients, but I doubt it.

I realize now just how fortunate I was to grow up in America’s middle class which meant although it was a financial struggle for my parents to pay for my braces, not being poor made it possible for them to even consider making that sacrifice.

The braces and speech therapy made it possible for me to escape the teasing, frustration, and embarrassment of those childhood years of not being able to speak clearly, but Ms. Kaye’s book, Words We Carry made me realize how the name calling and teasing, etc. probably resulted in some negative character traits in me.

Perhaps I would have been shy even if I’d had perfect teeth and impeccable pronunciation, but Words We Carry prompted me to reflect on the ramifications of some early childhood experiences. I still carry feelings of inadequacy even as a 65-year-old. I suppose we all do.

Let’s all be mindful of the things we say and do that are hurtful to others — especially to children. Even if they rise above and appear to cope well with the teasing and name calling, they will carry those words with them for the rest of their lives.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading A Bigger Table:  Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, by John Pavlovitz.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time. I didn’t work on my novel last week, but I enjoyed writing today’s blog post.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog. I appreciate it!

I look forward to your comments about today’s post and some of the words you carry.

Janet