I’m 11 years old, it’s springtime of seventh grade and my friend has a neighbor whose nieces from Texas visit every year to spend a week in New York. One of the girls was our age, the other, a bit older. For several reasons that you can probably decipher, we look forward to this visit every year. For the other 50 weeks of the year, we’d devote a great deal of time discussing them. When you’re 11, you can spend loads of time talking with your buddies about nieces from Texas. We could kill a whole afternoon considering the nieces; add-in, “who’d win in a fight”, and that’s a full day of conversation for a bunch of unsophisticated young adolescents (for the record, I still think my sixth-grade math teacher could “take” the lady at the security desk at my school). When the nieces were in town, we’d use any excuse to walk by the house or even ask the aunt if she needed us to help her with anything. I can only imagine how transparent our motives appeared to her as, for two weeks of the year, we became the most altruistic kids she’d ever met.
Not the only, but one of the reasons we fixated on the nieces from Texas were their accents. They spoke with a deeply appealing southern drawl that was captivating to our ears. My friends and I were fascinated by their use of the “ah” sound in simple words like “faav” (five), “pah” (pie), and “naht” (night). In conversation, we’d artfully try to get them to employ this diphthong for our benefit, “What’s that cake with the fruit inside called? What’s the opposite of ‘day’?’ Okay, maybe not so artful. Their way of speaking rendered the native diction of our East Flatbush neighborhood both crude and pedestrian.
On stoops (Dutch for “porch”) in Brooklyn, kids spent a great deal of time solving the world’s problems. Some of our chats had this theme, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have an accent.” Hours contemplating which dialect would be best. Some of our grandparents had peculiar ways of speaking, but their “off the boat” inflected English from Ireland, Italy, and Germany seemed to our ears out of touch with the modern world. On T.V. we heard elocution from every part of the country. Wouldn’t it be cool to talk like somebody from California (Beach Boys), Hawaii (Hawaii Five-0), or Texas (the nieces)? We may have even tried some of these accents on for size. It’s my recollection that most of these debates ended, as many young adolescent discussions do, with my friends concluding that having any accent beside the one we had, would be stupid. That it never occurred to us that all we had to do was move 100 miles in any direction out of New York City and we would have had an accent was a testament to our naïveté.
The fact is, while this is another post about regional dialect and pronunciation, it’s also an accurate snapshot of the nature of adolescence. Middle school kids, teenagers, want to fit in, but at the same time, they want to stand out. They want to be different, just like everybody else. As an 11-year-old, I was enthralled by the distinctive regional accent of the nieces from Texas. But, if I tried to affect it myself, if one of my friends did, we would think it was stupid. It’s challenging to be different when you’re in middle school, but you can, as long as you’re being yourself. There’s something that people always respect, at any age, authenticity. If you really are from Texas, or California, or Hawaii, or if you really are into Star Wars, or coin collecting, or Harry Potter… then kids will respect that. Be yourself. If you don’t believe me, go stay with your aunt in Texas for two weeks, they’re gonna think you are sooo COOL!