When I was in the eighth grade, in a small town in Vermont, I had an algebra teacher named Mr. Jeffries. Mr. Jeffries was not a tall man, but he had clearly been good-looking in the past. He had the sort of world-weary air one would expect from a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, except that far from being a man-about-town, Mr. Jeffries was a native Vermonter. His face was lined with deep wrinkles that had developed partly from countless hours spent outside in Vermont’s extreme weather (hot and humid in the summer, bitter cold and snowy in the winter), and partly from his serious cigarette habit. At least once a week, leaning back in his chair or standing beside the chalkboard, Mr. Jeffries would announce to the assembled thirteen-year olds in his raspy voice, “Remember, kids… don’t assume. It makes an ass out of you and me.”
Algebra marked the beginning of the end of my days as a math student, and most of what Mr. Jeffries said about finding xwent in one ear and out the other, but I have had lots of reasons to remember Mr. Jeffries’ favourite saying.
As an undergraduate, I became good friends with a woman named Sheila. Sheila, in turn, introduced me to one of her friends, Jennifer. The three of us were enrolled in the same French course. Jennifer, a recent transplant to Vermont from South Africa, had very long, very dark hair that she always wore in a strict ponytail. She had a petite, heart-shaped face, freckles, and blue eyes. Sheila, Jennifer, and I would often visit the small cafe in the lower ground floor of the college hall for banana bread and coffee after class. We would sit on chairs with wrought-iron backs around small marble-topped tables and talk.
I took an instant dislike to Jennifer. I blamed it partly on her ponytail. How could she wear her hair the same way, pulled so tightly back from her face that it stretched the skin at her temples, every single day? Looking back, I am stunned that I would have even entertained hairstyle as a reason to dismiss a potential friend. But I clearly remember telling my husband, “It’s her ponytail. I can’t get past the ponytail.”
Sheila, however, was fond of Jennifer, and always included her in our after-class plans. As the term wore on, my feelings about Jennifer began to shift. I had known next to nothing about the situation in South Africa before I met Jennifer, but over weekly hazelnut coffees, I learned that her life there had been challenging. Jennifer spoke about her home country with a combination of longing and bitterness that I now recognize this as the tone of the exile, even the self-chosen exile. I imagine that I sometimes use a less intense variant of this same tone about the United States, as I have now lived in England for over ten years. As I got to know Jennifer better, my attitude toward her hairstyle also changed. The permanent ponytail was no longer a reason to condemn Jennifer, although it remained curiously irritating to me.
Jennifer, Sheila, and I all signed up for the continuation of the introductory French course, and we all added a French literature course as well. By the end of our second term as classmates, I had become friends with Jennifer, and had come to accept her ponytail as an unfortunate but surmountable quirk. After that second term together, the three of us had all chosen to either major or minor in French, so we were frequently in the same classes. One fine spring day a few weeks before we graduated, when the windows were open and a fresh breeze was cooling the classroom, Jennifer walked in to our medieval French literature class with a pixie cut. She had cut off her entire foot-long ponytail– now there were just little wisps of black hair framing her face. The improvement in Jennifer’s appearance was considerable, and she was clearly pleased as well. I was mightily impressed that she had possessed the nerve to cut off all those inches of hair, but at the same time, I could finally see that it didn’t matter. Jennifer was still Jennifer, whether she had a ponytail or a pixie cut. Not long after cutting her hair, Jennifer, who- like me- was a bit older than most undergraduates, invited Sheila and me to her wedding. She had fallen in love, somewhat clandestinely, with a teaching assistant, and they were very happy together. The wedding took place just after graduation, outdoors, on the banks of Lake Champlain, an enormous lake with views over the Adirondack mountains in New York. It was a small wedding, with no more than forty guests, and Jennifer was radiant with joy during the ceremony. I was honoured to be in attendance. I laughed later with my husband about how I had nearly foregone what had come to be a valued friendship based on an assumption about Jennifer’s personality that I had made on the basis of something as hugely superficial as a ponytail.
I laughed, but I didn’t learn. Many, many years later, in the suburb of London where my husband and I now live, I began attending the local church with our two children. My church enlists a volunteer or two each week to stand by the door, greeting people as they enter. Every few weeks, one of the welcomers would be Gillian, a tall woman with blue eyes and short blonde hair. I rather dreaded the weeks that Gillian was standing by the door, because I had pegged Gillian as a woman with a possible drinking problem. Whenever I met Gillian, her speech seemed slurred, and she moved in the unsteady way that people do when they’ve had a few too many. She would greet me and my kids enthusiastically, and I would cringe inwardly. During my second Christmas season at church, Gillian was one of the members of the congregation chosen to read a passage during the carol service. I watched curiously as she approached the front of the church, and when she again seemed under the influence, I made my final judgement: definitely drunk. When I came home from the carol service, I informed my husband of my verdict. He nodded, unfazed, and quite lacking any sort of moral indignation.
A few months after Christmas, a social evening for women from church was held at a local pub. I went along, and I was chatting with Trina, one of the women I knew casually from church who also had a child at the same preschool as my daughter, when Gillian arrived. The table was crowded, but Gillian found a seat quite close to me. When Trina stood up to order another drink, I realized I would need to speak with Gillian or risk seeming dreadfully impolite.
“I’ve seen you at church, but I’ve never really introduced myself,” I said. “I’m Beth.”
“Nice to meet you Beth, yes, I’ve seen you, you have those two adorable children,” Gillian said, already slurring slightly.
I smiled. “Thanks.”
“So you’re from America… I’ve been to Arizona,” Gillian said cheerfully.
“Yes, that was after the accident.”
“The accident?” I repeated, and even as I said it, I felt a sinking sensation as I rapidly understood that I had labelled Gillian incorrectly.
“Yes, I don’t know if you’d heard, but I was in a horrible accident several years ago. My car was hit by a lorry. It was awful. I was in a coma for awhile. I had to learn how to speak and how to walk all over again. That’s why I come to church, to thank God for helping me recover.”
“Wow,” I said, humbled. “I had no idea. I’m so sorry to hear about the accident, but how amazing that you were able to fight your way back as you have.”
We chatted some more, about Gillian’s recovery, about America, about kids. When I got home, I confessed to my husband that I had been terribly unfair to Gillian. I recounted the story of the accident and of Gillian’s recovery.
“So she isn’t a drunk,” my husband said. “She’s a survivor.”
“She certainly is,” I agreed, and I scolded myself for having jumped to conclusions yet again. I assured myself that I would be more careful about being open-minded in the future.
But old habits die hard. This past weekend, I was feather-dusting upstairs in the late afternoon when I heard a peculiar noise through the wall. It was a repetitive, rhythmic, high-pitched sound, very faint, as though it were emanating from a TV or a computer. I walked downstairs quietly and found my husband.
“Come upstairs for a minute,” I said.
“There’s something I want you to hear.”
We went back upstairs together and I took him to the spot where I had heard the noise. The sound was still audible.
“He’s watching porn, isn’t he?” I whispered.
“Sure sounds like it to me,” he said.
“Can you believe that? They have that huge vegetable garden! How could he be watching porn?” I demanded. Even there, I had made an assumption: people who tend substantial vegetable gardens couldn’t possibly be porn consumers.
My husband shrugged. “We don’t know what their lives are like,” he said calmly.
I admit there was a part of me that relished the idea that our neighbours’ lives were not perfect. I have only spoken briefly with the neighbours on that side, but I know they own their half of the house, as well as a Jaguar and an Audi. We rent our half of the house, and we drive a Peugeot with a substantial dent on one side, the unfortunate result of a close call I had with a concealed brick wall. I felt a certain schadenfreude at the thought of a chink in the neighbours’ seemingly superior existence.
My husband was upstairs sending email a few days after the porn incident when he called me softly from the top of the stairs.
“Beth,” he said, “I want you to hear something up here.”
I joined him in the same location where we had heard the porn. The sound was coming through the wall again, but it was different this time. It was stronger, less regular, but very familiar. It was the sound of a baby crying.
“It’s a baby,” I said, stunned at my mistake.
“So much for their secret life,” my husband said, with only the slightest hint of “I told you so.”
I blushed, embarrassed by having suspected the sound of being illicit when it was in actuality the sound of something completely innocent. I was ashamed of having gloated even the littlest bit.
I have a slight idea of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of preconceived notions. Most of my adult life has been spent abroad. The first country I lived in outside America was Sweden. I understood quickly that to be American in Sweden meant that I had a bit of cachet. When I moved to Sweden, the TV soap opera “Dallas” was at the height of its popularity. Several Swedes I met asked me if Americans really wore high heels in the kitchen and drank cocktails continuously. I grew up in Vermont, where people wear sensible shoes or hiking boots and drink kegs of beer at outdoor parties, so whenever I was asked that question I would grin and answer that no, not all Americans resembled Pamela and Bobby Ewing.
In England, where I’ve lived for the last ten years, to be American is often more of a liability than a benefit. Just last week someone visibly recoiled when they heard my accent. That sort of strong reaction to my nationality is thankfully very rare, but it is far from uncommon that English nationals are politely standoffish upon first meeting me. I have read “Watching the English,” by Kate Fox, so I know that politely standoffish may describe English people meeting other English people for the first time as well, yet all the Americans in England that I have spoken to agree that they have sometimes experienced anti-American sentiment.
Children are often far more forthcoming with their thoughts than adults. Last year one of our daughter’s six-year old friends came to play. After glancing at me suspiciously several times during the play date, she finally looked me square in the eye and posed the question that had likely been on her mind for some time.
“Did you know there are lots of books written about bad Americans?” she asked.
A small grin tugged at the corners of my mouth. “That is definitely true, but do you know what? There are lots of books written about bad English people as well,” I responded.
She considered this for a moment. “Maybe, but I think there are more about bad Americans.”
As the hostess, I felt it was best not to rock my daughter’s friend’s boat more than necessary. “That may be,” I conceded. “It’s hard to tell.”
Another little friend of our daughter’s was clearly on the fence about me when I first met her. This particular girl is a huge fan of a certain American singer. I attempted to influence her opinion of me by pointing out that I was American, just like the singer she adores, but that didn’t sway her. She remained undecided about me for over a year. Then one day, at a birthday party for one of the children in the class, she walked right up to me, smiling broadly.
“Did you know Tom and Jerry are American?” she asked me excitedly.
“Yes, I did know that. Do you like that show?”
“It’s my favourite. They talk just like you!” She laughed.
I had never actually watched Tom and Jerry, but if they had made Americans acceptable to this little girl, then I was a fan.
“How funny! Are you enjoying the party?” I inquired.
“Yes. I’m going to go get a fairy cake,” she informed me.
It seems safe to surmise that childrens’ reactions to my nationality mirror adult reactions. Granted, I have met a number of English people who have been favourably predisposed towards Americans. They are usually people who have worked or travelled in America, or who have become friends with other Americans previously. With most English folks, it feels as if I undergo a probationary period; it’s like being American is my ponytail, and they need time to come to terms with my nationality, just as it took me months to see past Jennifer’s ponytail. I am a patient person, and I don’t mind waiting, but I do relish the instances when my accent is warmly welcomed.
I recognize that anti-American sentiment is completely trivial when compared with racism, homophobia, or discrimination based on religious beliefs. I do not suppose for a moment that I have any idea of what it is like to encounter that level of hostility. Yet the distancing effect of my nationality has had consequences. Even after ten years in England, most of my close friends are not from here.
I make assumptions about people every day. I assume, for example, that the people I meet will follow the broad social norms for human behaviour and will be generally well-meaning. I take for granted that people are doing the best they can as professionals: that the family doctors will attempt to diagnose and treat any illnesses, that my children’s teachers have my children’s best interests at heart. I rest assured that my close friends and family are on my side. In addition to making these generalizations, I also categorize people. If I learn that someone is married, I put them in the “married” box. When I discover that someone is from another country, I pull out whatever knowledge I have of that country and its nationals and use that information as a guide for speaking with the person. So far, all is well. It is only when my preconceptions include some element of negative judgement that I get into trouble. Similarly, only when being an American is considered less than ideal do I mind being categorized by nationality by others. The giveaway that I have misstepped is even the slightest bit of scornfulness. I felt better than Jennifer because I didn’t always wear my hair in a ponytail (as a woman who now wears jeans every single day, I am dumbfounded by this, and I can only wonder what I would have thought had I met my future self at that time). I figured Gillian as a person with a drinking problem, when in truth she is a brave and determined survivor. I jumped at a possible reason to feel more morally upstanding than our neighbours, only to find that they have embarked upon the morally demanding journey of parenthood.
My son, who is nearly ten, is in the midst of an all-consuming love affair with mathematics. He talks about math throughout the day and reads books about math at night. As a result, all the math teachers I encountered as a student have been parading through my memory. Most of the concepts they valiantly attempted to teach me have been washed away by time, much like pictures drawn in the sand are erased when the sea washes over them. But the next time I feel that creeping sense of superiority as I judge another person, I aim to call to mind the most important thing that Mr. Jeffries taught me sooner rather than later. I will envisage him standing by the chalkboard, with his James Dean haircut and his furrowed brow, saying laconically, “Remember, don’t assume… it makes an ass out of you and me.”
(Note: some names and minor details have been changed.)
(Note: some names and minor details have been changed.)