The Scarlet L(etter): the “L” Word Revisited

While on the faculty at Oral Roberts University, I wrote the following poem.  The year was 1988.  I had been teaching a women’s literature course, a senior seminar.  When I introduced feminist criticism, I used a text, which I then loaned to a student, a copy in which I had (scandalously) underlined the word “Lesbian.”  This female student took the book to the dean, in an effort to report my behavior (apparently unbecoming an ORU faculty member).  I was then called into the Dean of Women’s office to “discuss” the matter, where I was asked about my sexual orientation–I kid you not.  At the time I hadn’t discovered yet that I am, indeed, (blush, blush) a Lesbian.

In reading back over the poem, planning to discuss the incident with my now partner, I think to myself, “What kind of God-forsaken place was this!  It’s no wonder I subsequently had a nervous breakdown.”

I hope you’ll read the poem and tell me your thoughts on the matter.


i balance on the edge
of a yellow wing back
chair in a room that’s
clean and at odd angles
with a window and  
a view of roof
it’s easy to think
of her as an enemy—
the fat woman with stiff
hair across the desk
from me
we don’t want you to
feel like this is
a witch hunt, she says
but, of course, we both
know that it is—that
it’s me at stake, because
i’ve got a back that’s
made of bone,  because
i bleed
we don’t believe
in blood, she says,
we don’t believe
in bone.
(poem written 7 December 1988)

A Tale of Miserable Failure: moanings of a second language learner

So—I’m trying to learn French.  I’m not good at it.  In fact, I think I hate it!

Don’t tell my teacher—it might cause her to reassess her positive opinion of me.  She thinks I’m a “good” student.

Now, I don’t know what kind of pathetic linguistic losers she’s used to teaching—but if I’m a “good” student, it doesn’t bode well for the language acquisition skills of these other wanna-be-French-speaking-idiots she’s teaching here in Haiti.

The fact of the matter is I’m getting older. 

I can almost watch it happening.  I hover slightly over-head, a stunning display of aging unfolds below, a slightly over-weight woman morphing before my very eyes.  What’s that she’s saying?

Unfortunately I think age is interfering with language acquisition.

I watch myself struggle with the words.  From above I observe—the woman has gotten dumber—way, way dumber.  She’s nearly mute.  She mumbles. 

It’s sad, really.

It’s not that I was ever an intellectual heavy weight.  I’ve never had the brainy brilliance of my sister Lynn, for example.  She’ll probably never dumb down with age.

But at one time—mind you this was a good 25 years ago—I was decent with languages.  I studied German and Spanish—and was able to get along—limpingly—but at least I held my own, made myself understood, made out what native speakers were saying to me.  Yes, I asked them to speak more slowly, to repeat themselves—but eventually I understood.

Not so anymore!

In light of this language lapse, I’ve begun reading a book I think might jump start a little linguistic hope in this old tongue of mine.  Called Dreaming in Hindi, this book by Katherine Russell Rich, is about the year she “spent living in India, learning to speak another language.”   Rich addresses the “transformative power of language,” its ability to “tug you out of one world and land you in the center of another” (Prologue).

So far, studying French has landed me flat on my linguistic ass right here in the middle of Haiti, not the most romantic of language learning destinations.  Surprisingly, however, this little island in the center of the Caribbean Sea has romanced me—welcomed me with arms wide open—even as I’ve stumbled over every sound, struggling to make myself understood in either Creole or French.

The lesson to be learned is this—

Despite an earthquake that left most of Port-au-Prince in ruins, despite cholera that continues to kill folks by the thousands, despite election fraud that in the last week has brought the country to the brink of yet another unnecessary disaster, the Haitian people soldier on—

—keep trying.

So—I’ll keep trying too—

Language learning be damned!