Some people might argue that my voice today is not truly my own: that it is copied, imitated, and to some extent they would be right. I did once speak differently. I had a different vocabulary, cadence, and tone of voice. In fact, it was not until the year 2004, in a small summer camp in middle-of-nowhere, Vermont that I developed the ‘accent’ that still finds its way stealthily into my voice. When I returned to New York from this camp to begin fifth grade, my friends informed me that I had begun to speak differently, and, listening to myself, I started to hear the change as well.
The manner of speaking was subtle, a tense thickness and stiffness of the jaw blanketing the phrases, and a distinctive slowness and care to speech, as if there were some imaginary innuendo in every word that only the speaker notices. A young woman named Jaime, a counselor at the circus camp, had first exposed me to the accent, but to suggest that I ‘copied’ the voice from her would be a gross over-simplification. The imitation was unintentional, and the process was slow. At first I merely found it to be a novelty, a distinctive mannerism unique to Jaime, but as the summer progressed, I noticed traces of it in every staff member, in the campers as well, and eventually, I discovered, in myself. It was as if some unmentioned rule or force were spreading it, or perhaps just bringing it out in everyone at the camp.
By the end of the summer, a stranger arriving at the camp would have been surprised to discover that everyone was talking the same way, regardless of ethnicities, ages, genders, and all the other titles that are usually so successful at separating identities. Interestingly, upon discovering our imitation, we did not reject this tendency toward homogeny—we embraced it. The voice lent us a tangible sense of unity, and reminded us of how similar we were to each other. In a camp filled with people who were outcasts and social pariahs in their hometowns and schools, I imagine many were eager to be accepted and connected by this identical distortion of language. There was a fulfillment in our conformity.
Yet, when we left camp, this accent that had made us feel like part of a group soon became the quality that made us stand out. We were speaking in a way that matched only a few others, and they were dispersed around the country. And even compared to those few people who did speak in ‘the accent’, shocking as each of our transformations had been, we were still not identical. No copy is ever totally perfect, and thus Jaime’s voice had not been duplicated in us, but rather interpreted, mixed in with the other nuances of expression that came originally from family, friends, radio and television that each of us had incorporated into our tones already. In other words we took on Jaime’s unforgettable voice without letting go of all the other bits of voices we had acquired by copying others.
I refer to it as Jaime’s voice, because at the time, I assumed that she had been the source of infamous accent I had adopted for so long. Several years after that first summer in Vermont, however, when I grew up, and began to meet new friends in the circus community, I began to hear the accent everywhere, and not just in people who had attended my camp, but in Jugglers, Acrobats, Aerialists, and Clowns from all over the country. Anyone I ever asked about it merely shrugged and informed me that it was the “circus accent.” No one seemed to know where exactly it had originated. It is possible that it actually began with Jaime, and spread from performer to performer in the tight-knit community of circus. But it may have started long before that, from a series of inexact copies, isolated, over time.
Since my immersion, I have spent most of my life with family and friends, and for better or worse, my circus accent has disappeared. But sometimes, in conversation with a Canadian trapeze artist, or hand-balancer from Brooklyn, I feel my words slowing, my mouth twisting into that little secret smile, my word choice changing, and I feel a little proud. I feel proud because I am reminded that I am a part of an unusual group of people—a secret society of sorts—in which the voice I inadvertently copied earns me a certain level of recognition and respect. But I am also proud because it sets me apart as an individual. I am proud because when I say the words they mean something different to me than to everyone else.
To me they mean memories: they mean friends in a time when I did not have many, appreciation at a moment where everyone seemed to be telling me to change, they mean all the little instants, secret romances, invented games, eating waffles with my hands until my fingers are so sticky I have no choice but to wipe them discreetly on my best friend, only to turn around to find he’s already wiped his on me. And they mean bad memories too: they mean holding myself upside down until my arms ache and my head fills with blood, waking up at what feels like dawn to take a half mile run, and then to rehydrate with bad-tasting water. But I hold on to both kinds of memories, because I know now that there are many people throughout the country who talk in the same way that I do. But when they put on that accent, they color it with their own experience. I may have copied the voice, but no one else has lived the life that the accent allows me to remember, and that is what makes me original.
I think it’s a little like genetics—I have my mother’s eyes and my father’s ears. In fact, some omnipotent being with a magnifying glass and too much time on his hands could probably look at every feature of my face and point to the ancestor it was ‘copied’ from. And yet when they are combined—when all the copied features are assembled—they produce my face, something unlike any of the sources the from which the parts were taken. Perhaps some people in the world can claim true originality, can truthfully declare that they have created every thought, perception, and mannerism entirely singlehandedly. However, I imagine most people cannot assert this. Men are creatures of malleable construction, and we find our own definition of self through imitation of others. But this mimicry must not be mistaken for lack of originality. Because once we have copied others, we combine these snippets of imitation to create new characteristics, characteristics that lead us to think original thoughts, and live individual lives.
Finn Freymann, Age 16, Grade 11, Trinity School, Silver Key