At first glance, the woman reminded me of my younger self, a mother with a small child filling the hour or so before dinner with a visit to the bookstore.
That’s why I noticed her, I suppose. No matter how long I live, I expect to feel the tug of sorority with other mothers, regardless of their age. I always smile at the young moms and fight the temptation to share my secret. “Once upon a time, I was just like you,” I want to tell them. “I had young children, too, just like you.”
On this particular day, a recent Tuesday, I was at the bookstore because of my 4-year-old grandson. I had just picked him up from preschool, and in an effort to charm him, I returned to the one place that always made my children, including his father, so happy.
I held his hand as we crossed the parking lot and felt the old anticipation of discovery. “ You can pick one book,” I used to tell my kids. Now, as a doting grandmother, I’ve upped the bounty.
“You can get two books,” I told him. Both of us knew full well he’d end up with four. All of them were about dinosaurs.
We sat on the floor together to sort through a stack, when the little girl approached us. She was staring at the pop-up book, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” It comes with a CD of Peter Yarrow singing the song, of course. You can take Grandma out of the ‘60s, but …
“ Do you like dinosaurs?” I asked the little girl. She smiled and nodded. Her mother, wearing the universal look of worry that her child was intruding, called out her name. The girl rushed to her mother’s side.
A few minutes later, the mother started reading in a loud, animated voice to the little girl, who was now sitting in her lap. The child held the book as her mother spoke in Spanish, her arms waving as she read. I looked at the cover of the book and saw that it was written in English.
Clearly, this woman wasn’t a younger version of me. She was smarter — and braver, too. I always used to read aloud in whispers at the bookstore, afraid of drawing a chorus of “sh-h-h-.” There is no way I ever could have translated as I read. English is the only language I really know.
I watched the mother with a combination of awe and envy. What a lucky little girl.
I grew up in a working-class town where many of my classmates were first-generation Americans.
This was the ‘60s. They never spoke anything but English, and most of them knew little, if any, of their parents’ language. These children were to be Americans, their parents insisted. In those days, that meant they were to assimilate. A parent reading aloud to a child in his or her native tongue — particularly in public — was unthinkable.
Times have changed, thank goodness, because America has changed. Granted, we have our holdouts. There are still those conservatives who continue to clamor for an act of Congress declaring English to be America’s official language, but that’s just fear — and insecurity — talking. The more we learn about bilingualism the clearer it becomes that every child in America should learn at least a second language — and early.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a staff writer at Science magazine, recently wrote a piece for The New York Times, titled “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter.” He gets straight to the point in his first paragraph:
“Scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. … It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”
In the past decade or so, I’ve interviewed countless immigrants who speak to me in English and then translate for others or chastise their children in Russian, Spanish, Polish, Swedish, Arabic — you name it, I probably have heard it here in wildly diverse Cleveland. So often, I drive away from these interviews marveling at how smart they have to be to build a life in this country.
Last week, I marveled at that young mother who translated as she read to her little girl. Clearly, that is a child whose mother has insisted she will speak at least two languages.
Yet again, I fought the urge to share my secret.
“Once upon a time,” I wanted to tell that mother, “I was just like you.”
But times have changed, and she is a better version of younger me.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.