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I was three years old, and all I could see was the cupcake.
I’d been tugging at my mother’s pants for the past five minutes while she juggled me, cleaning the kitchen, and talking on the phone. I wanted something ordinary, like food or television or attention. And since I wasn’t dying – since, more importantly, I was being very annoying, I was not very high on my mother’s list of things to which to give attention. When she had enough she shook me off, snapping –
"Emily! Be polite!"
Now I don’t have much of a recollection of this particular incident, just the bare skeleton of a thirteen-year-old memory that I’m fleshing out with details that, while I can’t be sure of their accuracy, are still probably true. But what I do know for sure is this: any three-year-old’s education, especially concerning vocabulary, contains several significant gaps which would completely befuddle one who commonly uses such vocabulary.
In my case, I had no idea what the word "polite" meant.
I probably also had a fundamental misconception of common English sentence structure and verb usage, because after some thought I concluded that "polite" was a sweet and if I did something good I would receive a large chocolate cupcake with white icing on top.
* * *
My younger sister is extremely articulate.
Twelve years my junior, Brigid speaks better than I do now – distinctly, confidently, and with only a few verbal tics. She also plays better, is more sociable, and is better dressed, although that last one is my mother’s fault. The only thing I have on her, pretty much, is that I have better hair.
Once, last year, when she was three, we were getting ready to go outside together. It was cold and windy and the leaves of our neighbors’ holly trees ("pricklies," we call them) were strewn all over their driveway and ours. Shoes were, of course, a must.
"Let’s get your shoes on," I said after I buttoned her coat.
"Can I put on these?" she asked me, holding up a pair of blindingly black Mary Janes.
"Nuh-uh," I said. "Let’s put on some sneakers."
She gave me one of the wildly exaggerated expressions so typical of small children. "What are sneakers?" she said, as if the word was completely made-up gibberish.
I narrowed my eyes at her. How did she not know? "Tennis shoes," I said in explanation.
"Oh," she replied. "Okay."
* * *
Until I was fourteen or so, I had a big floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my room literally stuffed with books. When I was two and three and four years old these were all thin picture books, books I would take to my mother several at a time, thrust them at her, and say, "Read."
She would, and I had my favorites – Rock-a-Bye Farm and Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are and countless others whose names I cannot remember.
One of the ones I can’t remember had to do with dogs and fishing. Or rather, it was a book containing several stories about dogs, one of which concerned fishing. My mother read it to me very frequently, and I enjoyed it immensely – all except for one page. It was during the dogs-and-fishing story, and about twenty-five of them had crammed themselves on a tiny little wooden raft and taken to the high seas to catch fish. They threw their lines into the water to see what they could get. They caught a whale. This particular whale was so big it took up an entire two pages, which for some reason absolutely terrified me. I always made my mother skip the page.
It was with this book and some others that my mother tried to teach me how to read. "Sound it out, Emily," she said over and over again, "Sound it out."
I hadn’t the foggiest idea what she meant, and I didn’t figure it out until I was almost six and a half years old.
* * *
She doesn’t do it as often as she used to, but every so often Brigid will disappear and reappear with an armload of her own books from the floor-to-ceiling shelf. "Read these to me," she’ll command. She has her own favorites – Strega Nona and Miss Nelson is Missing and a more recent, more revolting one from the library, Pee-ew! Is that you, Bernie?
Miss Nelson is Missing is the most frustrating one for me. Every time Miss Viola Swamp appears with her hooked nose and her disgusting black dress, Brigid will blurt, "That’s – that’s actually Miss Nelson, Emily –"
"Yes, I know, Brigid."
"– and she’s dressing up to scare the kids –"
"I know, you don’t have to say that every –"
"– but it’s really just Miss Nelson."
Every single time.
A few months ago, my mother decided that she was going to teach Brigid how to read. "She’s smart enough," she said. So she put Brigid on the sofa and pulled out a flip book that allowed her to rearrange different letters into three-letter words.
My mother formed the word "cat." "What word is that, Bridge?"
"Cat," my sister promptly replied. She’d been told that one many times before. She recognized the shape of it like she recognized her own name.
After lavishing praise, my mother changed the C to an H. "What word is that?"
And Brigid, always the one to persevere and never give up, immediately said, "I don’t know."
"Well, what does the letter H sound like?"
"Huh . . . huh . . ."
"And what does A sound like?"
"Aaaah . . . aaaah . . ."
"And what does T sound like?"
"Tuh . . . tuh . . ."
"And so if you put the letters together, what word does it make?"
"I don’t feel like doing this anymore."
And she wriggled off the couch and toddled away, leaving my mother and me staring after her.
* * *
As my parents told it, I could recognize my name early. I knew my ABCs and 123s and states and random bits of trivia at an age too young to comprehend.
Once, I was watching Barney. My dad saw me, and, being a perfectly rational human being, decided to interrupt his two-year-old’s TV-watching experience.
"Hey, Emily," he said, "What sound does a cow make?"
I didn’t answer. Barney was doing something really interesting.
"Emily," he said a little more forcefully, "what sound does a cow make?"
Again no answer.
"Emily," he said loudly. "What sound does a cow make?"
I turned around, stared him straight in the eye, and blew a raspberry.
* * *
My sister was able recognize the alphabet when she was eighteen months old. She knew her colors and numbers and ABCs before she could even talk. She wowed people at restaurants by identifying the colors on the wallpaper.
Once, she was deeply engrossed in a game she was playing with blocks and Barbies on the family room floor. And I, being a perfectly rational human being, decided to interrupt a two-year-old at play.
"Hey, Brigid," I said, "Where’s my nose?"
She didn’t answer. Barbie was doing something really interesting.
"Brigid," I said a little more forcefully, "Where’s my nose?"
Again no answer.
"Brigid," I said loudly, "Where’s my nose?"
She turned around, stared me straight in the eye, and said, "Poop."
* * *
Every time I go out in bright sunlight, I sneeze.
* * *
Every time Brigid goes out in bright sunlight, she sneezes.
* * *
I have an insatiable sweet tooth.
* * *
Brigid has an insatiable sweet tooth.
* * *
Every so often it’ll be me, Brigid, and my father just sitting around doing nothing. She’ll be playing or watching TV, and I’ll be reading or watching TV with her. And after a few moments of contented silence, my dad will say, each time with a tone of complete awe in his voice, "You know, you two are exactly alike."