The Axe and the Key
I wrote this essay as a sample literary synthesis essay for my ENGL110 students...
M. G. Vlaun
Professor Meg Vlaun
9 March 2020
The Axe and The Key
According to the Bible, the Babylonians once attempted to build a tower so tall it would protect them from floods and bring them notoriety. God saw this blasphemy, cursed mankind to speak different languages, and spread the Babylonians all around the earth; they never completed construction on the Tower of Babel. Whether or not the roots of language diversity stem from this story, from it we learn one universal lesson: language can be used as a weapon – an axe to divide us. What this story does not show us is that it can also be used as a tool in families and communities to create a sense of “belonging” – a key to unify us. In “The Chinese in All of Us,” Richard Rodriguez illustrates this theory, showing how language can be used to divide or unify people; the theme of language in Sherman Alexie’s essay, “Superman and Me,” and in my own experience confirm the truth of Rodgriguez’s theory: language is powerfully double-tooled – it is both an axe and a key, depending on how it is used.
In his essay, “The Chinese in All of Us: A Mexican American Explores Multiculturalism,” Rodriguez shows the complexity of language: he places no moral value on language, yet he provides various examples of how language binds families while simultaneously alienating individuals (from family, from society, from classrooms). Rodriguez’s first experience with this is personal; it happens when the nuns from his private school ask his parents to begin speaking English in the home so that he will speak English better at school. He writes this:
At first, it seemed a kind of game. We practiced English after dinner. But it was still your language.
Until one other Saturday. I remember my mother and father were speaking Spanish to one another in the kitchen. I did not realize they were speaking Spanish until, the moment they saw me, they switched to English.
I felt pushed away. I remember going over to the sink and turning on the water; standing there dumbly, feeling the water on my hand. I wanted to cry. The water was tepid, then warm, then scalding. I wanted to scream. But I didn’t. I turned off the faucet and walked out of the room. (234)
In this moment, Rodriguez’s public language (English) becomes more important to his parents than his family language (Spanish). They are so concerned that he possess the key to succeed in the outside world that they force the family language out – but only for him – and in doing so, symbolically cut him away from his own family. We know this because of how he turns away from his parents. We feel his searing fury and repressed tears. Language can cut deep.
Another moment in Rodriguez’s story shows how by adapting to American public language at college, a young black girl becomes isolated from her family. Coming home from college, “She remembers getting off the Greyhound bus…When she got home and walked up the five steps of the front porch, her mother was waiting for her behind the screen door. ‘I don’t want you talkin’ white in here,’ her mother said” (234). Here, the public language the young student learns at school, a key she uses to assimilate and succeed in American culture, simultaneously becomes an axe that cleaves her from the family community to which she once belonged – where she found her identity and comfort. Her new language, learned to help her “fit in,” has made her an “other” inside her own family, and, as with Rordriguez’s, her pain is palpable and relatable.
Sherman Alexie’s experience with language as a double-sided tool in the classroom is strikingly similar to Rodgriguez’s. In “Superman and Me,” he writes about attending a reservation school where students were expected to fail because they were “stupid” Indians. But read how his classmates use language:
We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations inside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basic reading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. They were monosyllabic in front of their non-Indian teachers but could tell complicated stories and jokes at the dinner table. (209)
Yep, his “stupid” Indian classmates cunningly use language for both of its purposes. They use it as an axe to defend themselves against the cultural imposition of their non-Indian teachers. In doing so, sadly, they miss the opportunity to use it as a key to succeed in life outside the reservation. But then, after school, these kids use language as a key among their families and friends to share their more intimate (and as they perceive it, more valuable) Indian culture. These “stupid” Indian kids are, in fact, far from stupid; they know that language is a tool, and they actively implement it to shut out their teachers but include their friends and families.
Directly following this, Alexie illustrates how he used language as a tool differently from his classmates:
I read books late into the night, until I could barely keep my eyes open … I read books in the car when my family traveled to powwows or basketball games … I read with equal parts joy and desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I was trying to save my life. (209)
Alexie goes on to explain how eventually he becomes a writer, and how his access to the key side of language allows him to succeed as an Indian in a non-Indian America. He tries to share this key with Indian schoolchildren as a means of setting themselves free; some listen, while others do not. Again, we see that language is a tool whose usefulness is determined by its user.
Contrary to Rodrigues’z experience, Alexie’s personal use of language was never as the swift axe. He makes no mention of being alienated from his family at all – and here is why: language and literature were Alexie’s family culture. Indeed, Alexie’s father loved books and loved reading. During his whole upbringing, Alexie’s “house was filled with books … stacked in crazy piles in the bathroom, bedrooms, and living room” (208). Furthermore, he writes, “…since I loved my father with an aching devotion, I decided to love books as well” (208). For him, language was always the key. It was a key to family, love, and belonging. It was also a key to success in American culture. Alexie felt the swift axe of language only in school – where he observed its consequences in his peers’ lives from a distance, knowing there was an alternative use for the tool.
Both Rodriguez’s and Alexie’s stories were written in the 1990s about events that took place during their childhoods in the 50s and 70s, and although our world has become more globalized with time since then, language persists simultaneously as axe and key. My lifelong experiences with language and culture are a testament to this.
During my junior year in college, I decided to major in French and study abroad at the Sorbonne, in Paris, for a semester. It was an opportunity that I hoped would allow me to complete my French acquisition. Once there, as an “outsider,” I consistently failed to fit in; I fumbled clumsily, dropping the key, as French came at me like an axe. Every day became a challenge to fight my way forward in an alien world – my phonetics instructor chastised me, servers could not understand me, the Swedish students spoke six languages each, and locals talked down to me. Parisians are much like New Yorkers: they do not take well to outsiders, and they do not like people attempting to appropriate their culture (and this includes most staunchly their language). Even when I legitimately tried, they told me, “Bien sûr que tu parles un peu de français.” How disheartening! I was failing to use the key and was isolated from this culture by the axe. I would love to say that at some point a switch flipped and French became a key for me, but with only one semester in Paris, there was not enough time. My only thoughts were to go home and lick my axe wounds – in spite of any progress. French never truly became a key in my hands, notwithstanding eight years of effort.
Many years later, my husband’s job transitioned us to Madrid for two years in 2016, where lived with our two children on the local Spanish economy. When we moved to Madrid, I had little interest in learning a new language. Living in Spain was not my decision. I already knew enough languages, and the last experience did not end well. Moreover, at this time, in my late thirties, wasn’t I too old to learn a new language?
As my mind closed down to Spanish, language’s axe swung at me violently: no one in Spain spoke English. At all. From our gate guard to our mail man, to the dishwasher repairman, to the gardener, to the bus driver, to the butcher, to the cobbler – no one spoke English. Yet, I still had to function as a human and a mother: I needed to buy clothes and groceries; I had to get the internet installed; I was required to make doctor, dentist, and mechanic appointments; and most importantly, I wanted to find friends! Again and again, language’s axe swung down on me. I became isolated and lonely. Anxiety became my only close friend, stealing all of the joys that accompany a “remote” tour in a beautiful old culture because I was afraid to leave my house. My husband spoke English all day at work and my kids spoke English all day at school; they each had friends outside of the home with whom they could connect. I had strangers and no way to connect with them -
– until I decided to use the key.
It was clear I’d need a Spanish teacher, so I found one: an energetic, extroverted Colombian my own age. Her name is María Paz. A self-proclaimed “love doctor,” essayist, and proud divorcee, María has bronze skin, wild hair, a frank opinion on everything, and joie de vivre to surmount every cultural obstacle and misunderstanding between us. Although she speaks very little English, she can code switch between Colombian Spanish and Castellano – and had an interest in teaching me both. At a cozy, chic café in the heart of Madrid, over a cup of té verde, we began with basic lessons. María quickly realized that lists of colors or numbers weren’t enough; my mind moved fast to decode vocabulary and verb conjugations based on French structures. We progressed to conversations. At first, we conversed haltingly, but then accelerated.
Over the next year and a half, Spanish came to me inevitably. María Paz placed the key in my hand, and I began to open doors with it. No longer afraid, I begged the startled cobbler to re-sole my Texan cowgirl boots, I asked the aloof grocer whether I needed to weigh my parsley and kale, I told the young gardener that the shrub was “demasiado gordo,” and I understood when the satellite dish technician requested a taller ladder. I surprised myself when I recognized the dishwasher repairman attempting to swindle me. My confidence soared when my husband shoved me forward at the auto repair shop so that I could talk to the mechanic about timing belts. And when I recognized María had become my first friend in Madrid, I knew I was going to be OK. My anxieties melted away, and my children and husband began relying on me to guide them; we saw Spain together, basking in each new discovery because I held the key in the palm of my hand without fear.
It has become clear to me: how language is used depends upon the intentions of the user. It can be an axe, used to divide – with profound consequences. Thankfully, however, it can also be a key, used to decipher, include, incorporate, and fit in. Whether the language is a formal one, like Rodriguez’s Spanish, or whether it is informal, such as Alexie’s Indian children’s cultural and family language, it is always a tool – and since man has spoken words, it always has been. Although in Babylonia God initially used language as an axe, this does not change the fact that God gave us a tool with two uses: axe and key. Choose to use it wisely.
Alexie, Sherman. “Superman and Me.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument, edited by Missy James and Alan Merickel, 4th ed., Longman, 2011, pp. 208-210.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Chinese in All of Us: A Mexican American Explores Multiculturalism.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument, edited by Missy James and Alan Merickel, 4th ed., Longman, 2011, pp. 230-236.