My first speech at Toastmasters International ...
Good evening Madame Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters, and guests.
At a small departmental reception during my college graduation, I was happily introducing my mother to all of my favorite teachers. Over crackers and veggie dip my zoology professor, Dr. Heidemann, praised my scholastic dedication and complimented my mother on having such a studious young woman for a daughter. My mother replied:
“You know, we raised her just like a little boy.”
There I was, half-chewed baby carrot hanging out of my open mouth, mortified beyond belief. Dr. Heidemann stammered out a polite response and, with one last sympathetic look in my direction, excused himself back to the cheese cube tray. My mother simply smiled.
The thing is … I knew exactly what she meant. My mother was born in a small village in India. It was common for girls to marry young and never finish their formal education. My mother herself narrowly escaped betrothal to a man she didn’t love, only by excelling in her studies. Her education landed her a successful career and carried her across the ocean, to build a life in America entirely different from the one she was raised to expect. That her daughter was not only allowed to pursue the field of her choosing, but encouraged to do so, was remarkable to her. Of course, I wish she had found a better way of phrasing it.
These little misunderstandings are common in the Sri household, and are in no way unique to my mother. English is not my father’s first language – it’s his third. Whenever he goes to use a proper noun, I can almost see the Kannada and Tamil versions running through his head as he struggles to find the one that I will understand. He and my mother agreed not to teach these languages to my brother and me. I suspect it is because they wanted us to think in English, to succeed in the American school system before bilingualism was so highly regarded. English will forever be a foreign language to my parents – they never wanted that for their children.
But nothing could have prepared them for having a child who fell in love with the English language. Growing up, I would spend all day during my summer vacations in the library, soaking up the air conditioning and the written word. One year I developed spontaneous nosebleeds and my pediatrician blamed the constant exposure to cold, dry air. My mother was terribly concerned, but I could care less. Once I’d worked out a way to press a tissue to my nose, tilt my head back and read out of the corner of my eye, I was happy. My father developed a habit of searching me out a sunset, just to remind me to turn on a reading light. He warned me I would ruin my eyes and, sure enough, by sixteen I could hardly see without my glasses.
Even then, I was not content to merely absorb the English language – ever since I was a child, I have dreamed of being a poet or novelist. And my two biggest fans are my mother and my father. Often, one of them will read something I've written and shake their heads in wonder. “Where this is coming from?” They constantly underestimate their influence.
Words are what set my mother free from the constraints of traditional Indian society. Words are my father’s gift to me, that I may achieve even more than he did. Words are what I use to honor their dedication, their struggle. Words have power.