The other day I revisited an essay written by David Sedaris called “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” The thoughts expressed share humor, mixed with the raw emotion of an individual attempting to overcome those emotions. The author spends a great deal of time focused on his insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. A common theme for him. If you are not familiar with the article or David Sedaris, as I was not, he has a new book out, “Theft by Finding,” based on the journals he kept from 1977 – 2002. The essay I am discussing came out years ago and I did not like it. I felt it was mean spirted. He spoke about his peers in a derogatory manner while simultaneously conveying how horrible his teacher was to him and his classmates. It really was a contradiction to me. It was Sedaris’ use of sarcasm that put me off. I have softened my thoughts about it. Yes, it is funny, but digging deeper I see now that it conveys that goals can be reached through perseverance. By showing even as adults mature, built in insecurities still need to be overcome, they must acclimate to unfamiliar environments, and overcome difficult personalities that trigger our emotional core.
The author moves to France with the goal of perfecting his language skills. His perspective, as a forty-one year old returning student, speaks to those who face insecurity, in this case, returning to school later in life. He introduces us to his classmates and he reads them as appearing to be better prepared than he is. His perception of his classmates add to his inner conflict about himself. Together, Sedaris and the other students endure the demands of an ill-mannered professor. In the process, the class supports each other emotionally as they struggle to acclimate to the learning environment. The author shares his experience (warts and all) and carries us with him as he traverses these difficulties.
As children leave home for the first time they often express feelings of insecurity. In his essay, Sedaris shares this by tumbling back to one of his earliest childhood recollections, his first day of kindergarten leaving his mother’s side, “…my fingers pried off my mother’s ankles and led screaming toward my desk” (Sedaris). This early experience reveals feelings of separation, angst and self-doubt thought extinguished long ago. He concedes that even as an adult his “Prison of the nervous and insecure” had not eased, his mania had in fact “seasoned and multiplied” (Sedaris). He connects brilliantly with the audience and does so comically, his feelings are exposed to the reader. It is not unusual to feel awkward and self-conscious when you are placed into a new environment. I gave him points here. I was sucked in.
Immediately, as Sedaris enters his new surroundings, he encounters new people causing him to evaluate himself once again, where does he fit physically and emotionally in relation to them? The classmates are seen as younger, cooler and more hip. He is old and disheveled “Not unlike Pa Kettle” (Sedaris). The professor enters the room exhibiting poise and fortitude in direct contrast with the students. She is introduced and adds an external challenge to his confidence. The environment she fosters delivers more anxiety to his situation. This professor doles out insults on top of criticisms towards each of the students expressed in this text:
The teacher proceeded to belittle everyone from German Eva, who hated laziness, To Japanese Yukari, who loved paintbrushes and soap. Italian, Thai, Dutch, Korean, Chinese—we all left class foolishly believing the worst was over…We soon learned to dodge flying chalk and to cover our heads and stomachs whenever she approached us with a question. She hadn’t yet punched anyone, but it seemed wise to prepare ourselves against the inevitable. (Sedaris)
This professor is not a pleasant person. She is not encouraging. You could argue she is your worst fear in terms of a teacher. She pounces on the students as if they were her prey. She is pictured “licking her lips…crouching low for her attack.” (Sedaris). She feeds off her pupil’s insecurities. The students are not unlike sheep, wary of her movements. Anyone would enter this class with trepidation. Having already announced his own insecurity, this teacher’s interaction has introduced another return to his emotional core. These preceding moments bring forward feelings of fear and inadequacy. The students must be fully prepared each day in hope of not falling victim to her wrath. It is difficult situations such as this and people such as her that cause nerves to be exposed.
Further, the environmental impact on Sedaris is expressed by the perception of an unfriendly community giving way to feelings isolation and fear. Sedaris recognizes his initial confidence with his French language skills was a false sense of security. Sedaris believes, the “entire population” of France is most likely part of a larger plan to “belittle” the French language learners. From the “butcher to the concierge of his building,” it seems they are all a party to this treatment of him and his peers, further exposing his emotional core. It is as if they were one big “gang” intent on “hazing” the students (Sedaris). Learning a language is hard enough on its own, and being immersed into a new country and culture causes further emotional imbalance.
The impact of this new environment complicates already tender emotions. Sedaris avoids speaking with the locals whenever possible “fearing brutal encounters” (Sedaris). This evidence of his feeling isolated is built upon as Sedaris uniquely uses gibberish to express feelings of disorientation. The words not understood by him are literally scrambled letters. Gibberish paints how the language is received. In this typical attack on the author, the professor announces to all that “David Sedaris is an ignorant and uninspired ensigiejsokhjx” (Sedaris). The gibberish is helpful to share his current state of understanding and state of emotional imbalance. He attempts to overcome his deteriorated confidence by working long hours on assignments, no matter how mundane adding, “I suppose I could have gotten by with less” (Sedaris). He sees his lack of knowledge and understanding of the language as roadblocks to acceptance and respect. To overcome these feelings, he works harder. He wants to prove to the professor and the community that his is a strong and emotionally confident person.
As I have noted, insecurities are built deep within individuals no matter what age they may be. When the emotional security blanket is removed, one may fall into expressions of anger and sarcasm. When first reading the article by David Sedaris, I found his style and use of sarcasm to be distasteful. Sarcasm is a tool used by many to mask insecurities. However, he became mean spirited, describing one of the two Anna’s in his class using physical descriptors of “her tombstone like front teeth” (Sedaris). He follows by further degrading Anna’s reaction to the professor, “Her rabbity mouth huffed for breath” (Sedaris). In that moment, he places himself on equal footing with the callous professor and removes some of the sympathy he had gained earlier. The article would be just as productive and enjoyable without his demeaning of Anna personally. His professor was quite adept in this arena on her own and he was able to convey that aspect well. This type of writing is a turn off and Sedaris lost me. However, the sarcasm does express his masking his own insecurities and help the reader observe his emotional state.
The final turn for me was one evening while re-reading the article, I was reminded of my son. Born in Bolivia, he first came to the United States at age three. He would return home from his pre-school crying. He could not understand anyone. Nobody could understand him. He felt isolated and alone. Many times he was wrongly labeled unintelligent, solely for his grasp of the English language. As a result, he did not enjoy school for many years. I came to appreciate how he felt. One day, I misused a word communicating in Spanish. Instead of asking someone if they were embarrassed (avergonzado), I had asked them if they were pregnant (embarazadas). I immediately was made to feel awkward and uneasy. It was this recollection, triggered by Sedaris’ writing, which provided a new perspective and appreciation for his essay. He connected by expressing his feelings and emotions. His self-deprecating humor and sarcasm are attempts to mask his insecurity, but it also helped deliver his message. Sedaris illuminates the concept that you do not graduate from the insecurities of youth. They merely lay in wait and resurface. Our emotional core is tested as we enter new environments and those uneasy feelings bubble to the surface. At five years old or forty-one, overcoming emotions will continue to present opportunity for growth at every age. It seems that today, more than ever, we need to be aware of how we treat others and receive them. I will certainly try to keep the memory of my son’s experience with me as I greet any new person entering my sphere of influence for the first time. I don’t think I will ever be a fan of David Sedaris. He is a talented guy, no doubt. Some of his stuff gives me a chuckle. The problem is – too often, it is at someone else’s expense.
Sedaris, David. “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Esquire, vol. 131, no. 3, Mar. 1999, p. 86.