Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Lost In Frustration

The minute I waded through the first puddle of the day, I knew I was in trouble. My foot was suddenly cold -- too cold. Icy water oozed between my toes. Of all the days for my shoe to spring a leak! Once the wind picked up and it started to sleet, then snow, my wet foot felt all the wetter. And colder.

I kept wondering if anybody else could hear the squelch-squelch I made as I loped along, gamely leaping over puddles in a vain attempt to keep my foot from getting any wetter. I pulled my hood over my head and cursed myself for leaving my umbrella in the car.

But I couldn't stop to do anything about it. I had a student to meet in the morning, at the University of Glasgow. Running late, I had to sprint across town to meet her on time. As she and I pored over her essay on economics, I surreptitiously flexed the toes of my frozen foot to get some circulation back into them. Then I had to rush back in the opposite direction to get to the library. I'd left home without the lesson plan and teaching materials I needed for my next student, and I needed to cobble something together. Perhaps the library would have simple books for learners.

"Do you have any books for beginning readers?" I asked the librarian, trying to wiggle my toes. I was concerned that I was losing sensation in three of them.

She looked at me over the top of her glasses, taking in my wet hair and clothes. "What do you mean by beginning reader?"

"Someone who can read fairly well, but still struggles a bit with vocabulary," I told her, distracted by my frozen toes.

The librarian studied me a bit, then shook her head. "Perhaps a children's book..."

"But she's not a child," I protested, thinking of Megumi, my smart, quick-learning student, a young, busy housewife. "She's a grown woman and very bright."

Another librarian stepped forward. "There are easy-reading books over on that shelf," she said, pointing.

I squelched my way across the room, leaving muddy footprints on the library floor. A few minutes later, my toes were still numb, but I'd found five good books I thought Megumi might enjoy.

As I waited my turn at the desk, I noticed that an EFL tutorial session was going on. Three women in burkas sat huddled with a middle-aged woman with a heavy Scots accent; a young man with a Spanish accent frowned at the book in front of him, trying to copy his tutor's intonation.

I handed the librarian my five books. "I'd like to check these out."

She took the books from me and eyed me, as though trying to make her mind up about something. "You know," she said slowly, "we run free classes for slow readers." She glanced across the room at the EFL students.

"No," I said, shaking my head. Megumi's level was way over that of the library's EFL students.

"Not just for foreigners," the librarian rushed to add, "but for people such as yourself..."

My chin dropped. She meant me! She thought I was illiterate! I'd just edited a hard paper for a graduate student. I have a Master's degree in English. I had a book in my bag I'm supposed to be translating into English, and another to read, with loads of multi-syllable words in it. I'm all over English, reading, writing, speaking -- I teach it myself, for pity's sake!

"These books aren't for me," I said a little too quickly. "They're for my student."

The librarian smiled and gave me a pitying look as she handed me back my card.

I could feel her eyes on me all the way to the door. It didn't help that I pushed the wrong door either -- the one with the 'No Exit' sign on it.

As I shut the door behind me, I could see both librarians looking after me in concern. Suddenly I saw myself in their eyes: a middle-aged American, a slow reader, but -- poor thing! -- in denial. And on top of it all, frazzled and miserable-looking, shivering and limping, wearing a spectacularly unflattering coat. Which was wet.

They say humility is good for the soul. It's a comforting thought.

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29 comments:

Dale said...

Tee hee! Although I suppose it is good to get a glimpse of the humiliations of being illiterate.

Carole said...

This was a total crack-up. So many times I have had similiar situations where people took pity on me...and I guess I needed it.

Once people make up their minds, there is no amount of righting the wrong that makes it sound like anything but a poorly disguised excuse.

Catherine A. Winn said...

Oh, Mary, that was so funny and so humiliating. I'm sorry!

Charles Gramlich said...

I would have gotten such a laugh out of this, I think, if it had been me. It would just be so surreal in a way.

e said...

As a beginning librarian, I'd say those two women made too many assumptions and no attempt at a good reference interview to help you find the best materials for your adult student. I'm sorry you experienced that even though it makes for a funny post.

MG Higgins said...

My chin is dropping along with yours. The librarian's assumption was bad enough, but to actually come out and say what she was thinking! Sure makes for a wonderfully funny story, though.

Bish Denham said...

Oh my, the assumptions people make. But this is what gets me, can you imagine learning English from someone who speaks it with a heavy Scots accent? (Or any thick accent? How confusing is that?)

Kim Ayres said...

I've just lost another front tooth/crown, which means to the rest of the world my IQ has suddenly dropped by 50 points

Mary Witzl said...

Dale -- I think this was good for me. I've got a knack of finding myself in situations where I'm pulled right off my high horse. You'd think I could learn to stay off it in the first place, but I seem to need the humility training.

Carole -- How right you are! A closed mind is harder to open than a locked safe. The more vigorously I might have tried to deny my illiteracy, the more of an idiot I'd have looked. Having that soggy wet shoe leaving slug-marks all over their shiny floor didn't help one iota.

Catherine -- The fact that you enjoyed hearing about it goes a long way to making up for the embarrassment. I felt like such a loser and slob, but these comments are making me feel like somebody with an amusing anecdote instead.

Charles -- As I walked out of the library, I snickered a little, but it was in a pathetic sort of way. I kept sneaking peaks at myself to see what kind of bag lady I looked like, to others. My kids say it's the coat. I'm totally getting rid of that coat.

e -- The minute I started talking, I could see the wheels turning in their heads, but I figured they were just registering my American accent. People do that here, much the same way I register foreign accents myself (sigh). I like to think I don't make assumptions like these, but I'll bet I do. I'm going to be monitoring myself VERY carefully from now on.

MG Higgins -- Yes, I thought that was a bit much myself! The way she said it too, with that gentle, pitying tone. I don't walk around carrying worthy-looking books; maybe I should start doing that. And using a lot of big words in my vocabulary -- like 'egregious' and 'sycophantic'. Maybe that would make me look smarter in the eyes of librarians.

Bish -- One of the teachers had a heavy Scots accent, but then again, we are in Scotland and EFL students really should get used to hearing the accent from their teachers; they'll hear it plenty from everybody else. The librarians had very nice accents, and I could understand them, and I think they could understand me too. They just read me wrong!

Kim -- That cracks me up! Say...I've got a cracked molar. Maybe the librarians could sense it and that's what threw them off? Because everybody knows that people with cracked teeth are hillbilly trailer trash types.

Cindy said...

I could easily relate to this story. Sounds like something that would happen to me. LOL

JLD said...

Phish, Mary, this was only a 2.5 on the humiliation scale! At least it would be in my life. The same thing would have happened to me only I probably would have spilled my coffee in my lap so it looked like I was incontinent on top of everything else. At least she didn't offer to look for a pair of unholy shoes for you in the lost and found box!

Very funny story! Totally brightened my day to know I'm not the only one who has these kind of experiences.

I kind of think it was good that she spoke up though. I mean she could have asked instead of making an assumption, but illiteracy was a deep, dark secret for so long. I'm glad it's finally being addressed in the open so people like you can get some book-learning.

Judy

Falak said...

I'm sorry Mary but that really was funny!Reminds me of the occassion when the vegetable vendor in the market started talking to me slowly and was holding his fingers up to show me the amount I owed him. I couldn't for the life of me understand why he was doing that since I knew well enought that both of us were capable of talking. It was only after I reached home I realised that Iwas using the Hindi word for fruits all that time that I was shopping for vegetables. I never went back to that stall.

Falak said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
annebingham said...

Humility is over-rated, Mary, but I always say that any bad experience is worth it if you get a good story out of it.

And your post is very timely, helping me justify the $$$ I spent this week on anti-rain gear. I had a membership rebate from an outdoor store plus a 20% off coupon, and the minute it came in the mail I headed out to the store and bought a pair of Gore-Tex oxfords for walking in rain at about 40% of retail, and a genuine water-repelling rain parka--not Gore-Tex, alas, because I'd used up the rebate--that I've been stalking for almost a year.

Mary Witzl said...

Cindy -- I'm good I'm not the only one who does things like this! I was thinking about trying to fix my shoe with super-glue, but after that experience, I may have to shell out for a new pair.

JLD -- That was the most embarrassing part: how kind she was about it. The fact that I tried to wave away her offer of literacy classes only strengthened her view.

There ARE a lot of non-readers around, to be sure, and I can imagine that librarians are keen to get them out of the closet and into some kind of program. I must have frustrated them, coming so close, only to pull away just when help was so near at hand!

Falak -- How interesting (and sometimes confusing) it must be to live in a country where there are several languages spoken. I'd be doing things like that ALL the time if I were there! When we went to France, the waitress stared back at me in a puzzled fashion after I'd ordered dinner one evening. I thought she was a little dim, but my family assured me I had spoken to her in Japanese. Somehow my brain thought that because what I was speaking wasn't English, it had to be French.

Anne -- You SHOULD feel justified -- you walk a lot, so you need waterproof clothes. I need waterproof shoes and a water resistant coat too! Scotland is serious rain country and the finish on my so-called waterproof coat melted away after its first week here.

planetnomad said...

Is it wrong that this post made me so happy? Oh how often have I been in your shoes, only dryer. ;)

Marcia said...

I guess we might as well forget ever using the line "it's for a friend," even if that's true.

Anybody who thinks appearance is unimportant or says "you shouldn't judge by appearances" has their head in the sand because we all do it and so do they. We don't even know we're doing it half the time. When one of my kids was struggling in a high school class, I made the mistake of going to parent-teacher conferences in jeans and a casual jacket. I was treated like the "dumb mom." Next time I met that teacher -- with a different kid -- I wore dress slacks, a trench coat, and clickety heels. She fawned all over me.

Sam Hranac said...

Not only is humility good for the soul, so is laughing, especially at yourself.

Robin said...

Oh, too funny! How awful. What a silly woman, though. It's so impossible to deny you're in denial. Shrinks use that trick all the time.

Murr Brewster said...

Okay, this is off-topic, but it sort of reminds me of how many men cannot be cajoled into buying tampons in a store, as if they thought the clerk would think it was for them.

Right, totally off-topic.

Mary Witzl said...

Elizabeth -- When I got into the car later on that day, still frozen-toed and with wilted ego, my husband heard me out and laughed. "You've got to write about that," he said. In answer to your question, the thought that reading this made you happy makes me even happier.

I'm still ordering myself some brand-new Seibel shoes, though.

Marcia -- That is sadly so true. On a trip back to the U.K. from Japan once, I got myself and the kids all dolled up in our best clothes. I'd flown dozens upon dozens of times before, but I've never been fussed over so much by stewardesses as I was on that flight. The same thing happens on the rare occasions I leave the house in make-up and actual going-to-work clothes. People think I deserve hat tips, winks, and polite greetings all of a sudden.

I'd like to think I don't do this, and actually I AM very unfussy when it comes to people's clothes. But I'm a grammar and a food snob: I grit my teeth at people who use 'I' for 'me' and mentally roll my eyes at those who think Chef Boy-ar-dee pasta sauce out of a bottle tastes great.

Sam -- My soul is richly seamed, then. If I didn't laugh at myself, somebody else would. I make a virtue of a necessity and beat them to it.

Robin -- Yes! All I could do was give her a watery smile (very easy to do when your feet and coat are wet) and make my inglorious exit. I felt like granny on the Beverly Hillbillies (if she'd been self-aware, that is).

Murr -- That's not off topic, I made that connection straight away: we're all afraid of being misinterpreted, no matter how delusional it is. Although a store clerk thinking a man is a woman because he's buying tampons is sillier than a librarian thinking I'm illiterate, so that cheers me up a little.

And I'm so proud: my husband will march right into any store and buy tampons, whether for me or our girls. I've never been able to brag about that, so thanks for giving me the opportunity.

Eryl said...

Lord that was funny! Hope you've got new shoes now.

debra said...

Thank you for making me smile this morning, Mary. I recently went to the thrift store, and the woman took a look at me,shook her hear, and asked me if I had the senior citizen discount card. I knew I was tired and needed a hair cut, but, as my daughter would say, "seriously??"

Robert the Skeptic said...

My wife's ex used to bring her kids back from his summer visitation the night before school started. Amy was exhausted from riding non-stop in her dad's car from San Diego to Portland, Oregon.

The first day of classes she was given an aptitude test so the school could assess her progress - tired and sleep deprived, she did poorly on the test. They put her in remedial math class.

It turned out to be a blessing as the class was structured to progress with the individual, not the class as a whole. She quickly acquired the necessary concepts and went on the the next level. It turned out to be a great advantage for her.

Medeia Sharif said...

I've had those days! I used to want to explain myself, but now I don't bother. I figure, what's a few moments with a stranger who misunderstands me? Still, not very pleasant.

Girl Friday said...

To be honest, I'd laugh about it, but I wouldn't be offended. I think it was nice of them to offer to help - can you imagine how hard it must be to be illiterate or semi-illiterate as an adult, and then to admit it and ask for help must be even harder. I'd just be glad not to be in that position for real.

Anne Spollen said...

Wow, imagine if you were the illiterate customer at that library - bad, bad on the librarian's part, but maybe a good lesson for all of us who teach. Sometimes it's beneficial for us to see the world through the eyes of the folks we teach.

And I can't stand having wet feet. For me, it's worse than a headache...you are brave, Mary!

Pat said...

The ability to laugh at ourselves is a God-given gift.
I hope you escaped trench foot.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I still haven't gotten them. I've got my eye on a pair of Seibels, though. Want to go shoe shopping some time?

Debra -- I know how that feels! The other day, I passed one of those professional beggars, a well-fed looking woman with sturdy new boots. She was shaking her can at everybody who went by, but as soon as I walked past, she got quiet. I think I need new clothes AND a haircut.

Robert -- I have a child who is in a remedial English class because she budgeted her time poorly on her last exam and only did ONE out of five essay questions (which we're told she did very well). She's a prolific and perceptive reader, a skilled writer who knows how to punctuate, and she can use words like 'egregious' correctly. We warned her about budgeting her time! I just hope she'll find this experience as helpful as your daughter did.

Medeia -- You're right. In fact, I was more amused than I was offended. But my feet were wet and cold and that made me extra grumpy, and for the rest of the day, I really hated my coat.

Girl Friday -- I am glad! I've known smart people who struggled to read and I can't imagine how hard life must be for them. Actually, come to think of it, I can: for years in Japan, I struggled to read everything.

AnneS -- I HATE having wet feet! They weren't just wet, they were soaking, and it was snowing outside. I felt a lot like my cats when they've been stuck outside in the rain.

I know the librarian was just trying to help me. Being illiterate shouldn't be insulting, but it also shouldn't have anything to do with how somebody dresses.

But I'm still going shopping.

Pat -- I don't think I was born with this gift; I've been honing it over the past several decades. When I was a kid, I'd have sobbed my way out of the library, I'm sure of it!