I tamed my native tongue, but long may it wag

Back in the mid-1960s when I was in third grade, my family moved from our native Kentucky to Kettering, Ohio, about 140 miles away. We had moved a couple of times before, but this was the first time we would live north of the Mason-Dixon Line. This demarcation had a significance of which an 8-year-old like me was clueless.

The house we'd left in Louisville was a brand new two-story brick colonial, the kind of house my parents had dreamed of and worked hard for. But before we had even lived there a year, my father was transferred to a new job. So our family packed up, crossed the Ohio River, and settled into our new house in an established, tidy neighborhood of close-set houses. Ours was a 1950s ranch, complete with pale pink kitchen appliances, sunken family room, and paneled bar in the basement. The house was not the epitome of modernity, but it was all new to me. Everything was - a new school, brand new places for my brother and sister and me to ride our bikes, and new kids to discover.

I always relished the prospect of receiving mail, especially handwritten letters from somebody I knew. And so, one day soon after our arrival, I rushed to inspect our mailbox for such a delivery. I'd hoped for a letter from a cousin or grandparent back in Kentucky, but, to my surprise, the box held only a single piece of white paper folded in half. Curious, I opened it and saw a crayon drawing of what looked like a hillbilly girl kicking up her clodhopper-clad feet. Colorfully drawn by an older child, she had a wide, bucktoothed grin, large freckles, and wild, flailing pigtails. In large capital letters above her was written: "BRIARS GO HOME!" ("Briar," short for "briarhopper," was slang for hillbilly.)

It took me very little time to absorb the full intent of this note, and when the revelation came, it hit me like a bucket of ice water dropped from above. Until that moment, I had never thought of myself or anyone in my family as anything remotely like a briar.

It's possible that the note's author was watching me from behind a bush or window, waiting for a reaction. But he or she was robbed of that pleasure, because I stoically walked into my house and closed the front door. I showed my mother the horrible piece of paper and asked why someone would send this to us. She must have felt just a little angry, deep down, but she didn't show it. She glanced at the paper and told me that it was just some kid's idea of a joke. It was a mean thing to do, she said, and I should forget it.

Forgetting was not even a remote possibility. It utterly perplexed me how our family could be perceived as backward hillfolk. My father held a good job, we owned two average cars, we wore decent clothing, and we all most assuredly wore shoes. Yet someone in the neighborhood knew where we had come from and did not like it. Our Kentucky license plates must have given us away. People in small towns do take notice of such things. But why would that compel them to paint us as unwelcome foreigners? My wall of innocence about matters in foreign relations was about to crumble.

After I joined my new third-grade class at Southdale Elementary School, I soon realized that something else glaringly distinguished us from everyone else in Kettering. At lunchtime and on the playground, where children speak freely and loudly, it became obvious that I did not talk the way everyone else did. I used the same words, but they didn't come out of my mouth the same way. All my "i's" came out broadly, so that "fight" sounded like "fat," and "right" rhymed with "rat." My pronunciation of "can't" was "cain't," and "naked" came out "neck-ed" - which, of course, betrayed my roots faster than a pig to slop. The last thing a new kid in school wants is to stand out. And nothing teaches conformity quicker than one's peers.

So there it was. The Ohio River was as clear a dividing line between accents as it was between North and South. Yes, I was from Kentucky. But I was not, and never had been, a Briar - and I was not about to let anyone label me as such. I started tightening up my "i's" and replacing "you all" with "you guys" until the accent eventually faded away. The same happened to my brother, who was a year behind me. Our 4-year-old sister clung to her twang a little longer, since she was young and untouched by the taunts of schoolmates. But having spent all their young life in the South, my parents retained their Kentucky drawl. And despite moves to countless places since, they still sound fresh from the Bluegrass.

I live in New England now, where it's rare to encounter a Southerner. When I do, it takes only a few minutes of conversation to lure traces of my old accent back up to the surface. It seems a shame that it went into hiding, because I really like the comfortable, familiar way it sounds.

I never did figure out who put that note in our mailbox. We didn't receive another one, so I hope that whoever sent it got to know us and realized that the funny-talking folks from across the river weren't so bad after all.

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