How is it that you can live on the beach, but when you go to the beach you’re at the beach? How is it that you sit on a bench and at the piano? Why not sit by the piano when you sit by the bay? How can you be on the expressway if you’re in the streets? Prepositions are a nightmare for non-natives like me who learned English later in life. Dealing with this dilemma on a daily basis can be exhausting!
I should start by mentioning that I came to the U.S. when I was fifteen years old. I spent over two years without attending schools while living in Cuba and during my ten-month stay in Panama. And then it took my mother another four to five months to decide whether we’d stay in Houston or in Miami, and that meant I wouldn’t start school until she had made up her mind.
Once settled in Miami I found myself immersed in a whole new culture, in my sophomore year of high school. Never mind I’d never finished seventh grade! I was catapulted into my age-correspondent grade and placed in an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class. My teacher then was a lovely lady from Haiti and I soon found myself unintentionally imitating her accent. And did I get laughed at by the English-speaking studentele! (See? Spell checker says “no suggestions”. I’ve done it again. That’s one of my many Cubanisms. But let’s pause for a moment here. Can a big kahuna lexicographer please tell me why businesses can have a clientele and schools can’t have a studentele?)
I graduated from high school as an “honoree,” which was completely new to me as I had no idea what it meant. I represented the school in music festivals and then my music teacher freaked out when he discovered I had perfect pitch. So I sang in the chorus and played classical guitar at every event, and as a result was nominated by him (and him alone) as one of two music department’s honorees. As a public school teacher, I now realize this is something we often do to make the child feel successful. I sucked at math and still do to this day. I was learning English then. At least I had something going for me. And it certainly was a big deal to be recognized for the talent I had worked so hard to develop throughout my childhood.
Then came college and even though I’d learned a lot of English by singing Foreigner, Europe, and Whitesnake songs, I was still placed in remedial English classes. Yikes! The panic of having to write essays for Psychology 101. I never understood why I had to take those courses when all I wanted to do was play jazz. Eventually, once I became stronger at speaking, writing, and understanding English, I transferred to the University of Miami where I graduated with . . . you guessed it, another music honoree award! Once again, I never took a single honors class. Maybe I was just a tad above-average talented in music, and likeable enough to save me a spot with the big names oin campus.
It was when I took the job as managing editor at a local music book publishing company that I really began to lose sleep over my poor use of prepositions. I came up with intentional typos such as:
“oin” (Wait, is that an in or an on you wrote there?)
“frof” (Aww, look honey, you have a cluster word here!)
“ato” (What happened? Did you sneeze onto the page?) This one’s usually followed with, “Sorry. Allergies are terrible this time of year.”
There were other less famous ones such as ointo, byat, asbut. Yes, that last one didn’t sit well with readers. I got some nasty replies from composers that had submitted compositions for consideration.
Uttering Cubanisms is as natural to me as breathing. It drives my Word spell checker and my writing group buddies insane. I get a lot of “Awkward,” comments written in my manuscripts. I’ll try to save face by reminding them that every table limps from one of its legs. Of course, after saying this they’d simply look at me with one of those “What the . . .” looks, and I’d have to explain that it’s a commonly used but poorly translated Spanish phrase. Another Cubanism, if you will.
Here's why I’m blogging about this. After much debate I’ve decided to leave my blog posts unedited—a decision that wasn’t easy for me. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my writing. I normally have at least three people check my manuscripts before submitting. While my biggest fear is that an agent or editor might find these grammar mistakes unacceptable, I find a certain amount of relief in knowing that most of my readers see these Cubanisms as proof of a great accomplishment in the making. In order to accept this challenge, I have to remind myself quite often that I’m the typical girl-interrupted case. I didn’t finish seventh grade, skipped eighth and ninth grade. I didn’t get a complete education in Spanish. I took remedial English courses all the way into my early twenties. And yet I’ve managed to make it this far.
What the English language and I have is an ongoing love affair. We’re still exploring each other’s potential. This is what gives me the fuel to follow a dream that might seem impossible to some. And I promise myself long ago that I’ll continue to write relentlessly, and do whatever it takes to make the best out of the opportunities that lay ahead of me. (Wait, is it lay or lie? . . . Ugh!)