For Shame

I’ve almost finished reading Scott Turow’s One L, a memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School in 1975, and I’m struck by how bedeviled he felt by shame. “Me, too! Me, too!” I want to shout. This past year, while studying Vietnamese at Harvard, I struggled mightily. Learning a new language at my age has become a prolonged internal wrestling match with my fear that I’ll never be good enough—a good enough mom, a good enough translator of Vietnamese culture for my son, a good enough writer.

Turow’s account sounds so familiar. The context is very different—first-year law student in classes of 100-plus litigious brainiacs vs. my small language class—but his observations feel fresh 30 years later. He likens studying the law to studying a foreign language. And as the semester grinds on and he sinks into depression and bombs a mock exam, he makes clear that this kind of intensive learning experience lets loose personal demons (or “my enemy,” he calls it) very fast.

Here’s just one quote: “Over the weekend I remained in agony and disarray. I had never before failed an exam. That it would have no bearing on my grade did not matter. I had been confirmed in my suspicion that I was a ludicrous, miserable, unworthy failure.”

Ah, Shame. You are a great humbler. Perhaps you have the firmest grip on us perfectionistic types. I’ve begun working with a Vietnamese tutor this summer, and she corrects my pronunciation every other word. I don’t love it. It’s sort of great. It takes me far outside myself—as being a parent does—into landscapes where I’m constantly checking the map.

Sometimes it’s just plain funny, like the time in class when we were answering questions about a Vietnamese folk tale. In it, the River God (Thuỷ tinh) and Mountain God (Sơn tinh) end up locked in battle. As I attempted to say in Vietnamese that the angry River God finally had to withdraw his troops, I managed to mix up the word for troops (quân) with the word for pants (quần). My teacher replied, deadpan: “So Thuỷ tinh is taking off his pants?”

My seven-year-old son still delights in telling this story on his mom, who unlike Mary Poppins, is practically imperfect in every way. Vui lắm!

As for Scott Turow, he’s still practicing law and writing terrific mystery novels. From Turow’s web site: “Only in the mystery novel are we delivered final and unquestionable solutions. The joke to me is that fiction gives you a truth that reality can’t deliver.”

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