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Despite an Accent

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To fit in, to blend in, to be accepted by, and part of, the “in crowd” is probably any teenager’s dream. My son was no exception. His self esteem and personal worth was in jeopardy, as he felt handicapped by poor English and a strong accent. When he came to join me in the United States he was only fourteen years old, a difficult age for any boy. Obviously I tried to encourage him, but my efforts did not make much of a difference to him. He was afraid his inability to communicate effectively will forever keep him at the periphery of social life, will condemn him to a less than satisfactory career.

I was telling him about Schwarzenegger who was making a great living in a very competitive industry, were others with no accent were struggling. Then I told him about Kissinger who made it all the way to a powerful and prestigious position as Secretary of State, despite his pronounced accent. “Intelligence and hard work could overcome any accent,” I said, but the look in his young face was far from convinced. 

We enrolled him in Daniel Murphy, a Catholic school, across the street from were we live. The principal was a fairly young man and opened minded; after testing my son for English, math and science, he made a very special schedule for Mircea; out of the six hours school day, my son was attending English in the 8th and 9th grade, math, science, and history at an 11th grade level and one hour of religion like everyone else. The principal also told me that he reserves the right to reevaluate my son periodically and make adjustments as he will see fit. I agreed to all of it and thanked him for his flexibility and willingness to accommodate a special situation. My son did better than expected; his grades were good and he did make some friends. The principal congratulated him at the end of the school year and expressed his hope that Mircea will return for the following semester.

He did not. Although grateful, he felt he outgrew Daniel Murphy’s rigid cod of uniforms and, by now, his personality was blooming into independence and sophistication. He wanted to go to Beverly Hills High School and, although not trilled with the idea, I agreed and even pulled some strings to get him accepted (we did not live in the city of Beverly Hills as required by internal regulations). At the most talked about school in the world, my son felt as a fish in fresh water; part of it, because it is mostly frequented by children of immigrants (very rich ones for that matter). Having an accent and being from Europe, at the Beverly Hills High School, was chic. The freedom of dressing up anyway he wanted, but most importantly, the exposure Mircea got to a school of first class reputation (the school has its own radio and TV station as well as tennis courts and swimming pools) made a world of difference in his self esteem. At that time the TV show “90210” was running in Romania as well and all his friends from back home could see the very upscale environment Mircea was part of. That was a stroke to his ego. To my surprise, he was also proud to drive an old Honda when everybody else was driving a BMW or a Mercedes; he has learned to celebrate his uniqueness rather than being overwhelmed by it.

At times he will take “his unique personality” to some extremes and I was called by his advisor to do the needed explaining. Knowing that the complained had everything to do with smoking, I arranged to meet the advisor outdoors and had a cigarette in my hand, demonstratively. I was fully aware of the drugs that were circulating freely in the school grounds and told the advisor that smoking is a lesser evil and I encouraged my son to do that rather than what was silently accepted as “normal” teenage behavior. He was not pleased with my answer, but he knew they had a problem at the school, so he let it go, so Mircea was never suspended.

After graduating from high school was time for college and, by now, my son knew exactly he wanted to be in a less flashy and more of an academic environment. We visited a few Californian State Universities and the final destination was Sonoma; a small, rural, up-and-coming college. The campus was modest, but beautiful and the students seemed to be well-grounded; a perfect fit. At the opening ceremony we met the dean; he had an unmistaken Latino accent. Born in Cuba, he came to United States as a teenager; he graduated from a prestigious University in Florida and was now the dean of a west coast State University. I didn’t even have to point that out to my son; by now his accent was minimal and did not bother him at all; in fact, he grew to find it charming. My son went on to graduate school and attended George Washington University where he got a master in political science. He is presently working for the Smithsonian Historical Institute and writing his PhD dissertation. In a city like Washington D.C., with his education and talents, his slight accent turned into an asset and, God willing, it might take him to high levels of political life.


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