A song of embarrassment that no longer hurts

My mom with me in 1992, before I knew to be embarrassed.

Karolina and I are sitting on the couches in our sorority’s study lounge as we have probably a hundred times before. Our books sit cast aside on the table, long forgotten in favor of the stories at hand. I grimace as I tell her about my mother’s incessant need to embarrass me.

With her quirky dances and chipper voice, my mother manages to turn everything into a song. “Don’t forget to take out the trraaaaaasssshhhh!” and “Leeeettttt’s make cookies!” were fine around the house, but the ever impending doom of what she would say in front of my friends haunted me everywhere. As a fourth grader there was nothing more mortifying than having to admit it was my mother skipping around crooning about walking home from carpool.

Karolina giggles and tells me that is nothing compared to the embarrassment her parents caused her. With another laugh she tells the story of her book report.

She remembers the pride she felt as a fourth grader walking to school carrying a huge poster. She painted a beautiful replica of the cover of the book. On the inside was a report on each character, including descriptions and facts about them. She knew she had the most wonderful book report ever. Then she remembers how red her face turned and the burning feeling of embarrassment she felt when she walked into her class, looked at all the other students holding page summaries of their books, and realized this is not what the teacher meant by a book report.

Karolina is a pre-med junior at Northwestern University, studying biology and Spanish.. Her petite statue and short blonde hair complement her bubbly personality and contagious laugh.

To Karolina, the story of the book report is a simple misunderstanding; neither she nor her parents knew what a book report was. Like other fourth graders, Karolina asked her parents when she did not understand her homework. The difference was her parents did not speak English very well. Karolina and her family are all immigrated from Tychy, Poland, when Karolina was barely three. Her parents misunderstood the directions and rather than a summary like everyone else in the class, Karolina made a huge poster that read more like a police report.

The language barrier divided Karolina from her peers. Seemingly easy translations caused her stress in school. She struggled with the difference between many and much.  She lost class grammar competitions. Karolina remembers her mother refusing to take English at the local elementary school because they were taught by Karolina’s teachers.  She recalls painfully the transition from being an immigrant in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, to living in suburban Wheeling.

I sit back on the couch and laugh with Karolina. She looks back on the memories of her parents’ poor English as moments of embarrassment, but moments of learning as well. She sees the incidents as the growing pains of childhood and her parent’s struggle with language as part of life. Karolina’s parents still occasionally make small mistakes and embarrass her, but now she finds it quaintly funny.

My mom with me at a charity event in 2010.

I think about my mother’s singing and the humiliation I felt. On my last visit home, I found myself laughing and singing along with my mom. Rather than let it embarrass me, I see it as part of my mother, and let’s face it, part of me.

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