Identity is one of the most essential things a person possesses. It defines each individual’s very core, and once discovered, it is the lifeline that guides each and every decision in a person’s life. Without identity, there is no distinction between any two human beings on this Earth. In Dave Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, the author faces cruelty and violence from a French teacher, who constantly belittles him and refuses to respect or even acknowledge any of his determined efforts to establish his identity as a funny and hardworking student. Through powerful diction and metaphor, Sedaris conveys that some people simply cannot be satisfied, but determination to find gratification in one’s own achievements is what truly matters.
David Sedaris’s somewhat peculiar, but powerful word choice significantly assists him in expressing the feeling of worthlessness his teacher invokes upon him and the pride he feels towards the hard work he invests in establishing his own identity, despite not meeting her impossible expectations. When describing the violent nature of his teacher, who frequently throws chalk at the students for not meeting her standards of perfection, Sedaris muses that “she [has not] yet punched anyone, but it [seems] wise [for the students] to protect [themselves] from the inevitable” every time the teacher approaches them (Sedaris). Sedaris’s use of the word “inevitable” not only highlights the extreme extent of the teacher’s unprecedented violence in suggesting that the narrator has no doubt in his mind that she will eventually physically abuse her students, but also Sedaris’s fear of a women who is supposed to be a caregiver of both his learning and wellbeing. The job of a teacher is to nurture the budding students in her classroom; therefore, she should be at least somewhat invested in the future and developing adult identities of her students. Instead, all she seems capable of doing is lashing out in violence and verbally “proceeding to belittle everyone” (Sedaris). In one of these sessions of belittlement, the author is “singled out as a lazy kfdtinvfm” (Sedaris). Sedaris’s inclusion of the phrase “lazy kfdtinvfm,” which seems like complete gibberish, creatively puts the reader in his shoes by emulating his own confusion and lack of complete understanding his teacher’s use of the French language. However, despite not fully understanding her, he is still able to pick up the gist of his teacher’s insult—that he is lazy—which serves to undermine the validity of his teacher’s mindset. She is fixated on the inferiority of the students’ understanding of French in comparison to her own and punishes them for not reaching that standard, which she believes is necessary, but the author’s ability to still pick up on the important part of her insult without understanding every word disproves her entire philosophy and only serves to further exhibit her cruelty. As a result of his teacher’s severe insult about his laziness, Sedaris resolves himself to disprove her through hard work, and though she still refuses to respect his determination and effort, he manages to “create some sort of identity for [himself]: David, the hardworker, David the cut-up” (Sedaris). In building this identity, Sedaris describes how he “[fools] with the thing for hours” when given an assignment and come up with an invariably witty response (Sedaris). The phrase “[fools] with the thing for hours” implies that Sedaris puts incredibly hard work into his studies in an effort to please his teacher, but also reflects his pride and affection for the work he produces, which very effectively illustrates his very purpose in writing his short story: no matter if someone cannot please others, what truly matters is a person’s own accomplishments and growth, which cannot be measured by anyone other than themselves.
In addition to diction, Sedaris employs metaphor in his piece in order to convey the turbulence of his teacher’s discouraging and belittling actions, which shape the author’s identity and character. Sedaris initially believes that his teacher’s penchant for cruelty is like that of any other teacher and “just an act designed to weed out the deadweight” (Sedaris). When Sedaris compares the weak students to deadweight, he implies that he himself is not part of this group, indicating that he believes himself to be above the learning curve. It is clear that he possesses above-average intelligence and work ethic, which makes his teacher’s claim that his is lazy a clear act of malice, rather than a stated fact. Her nastiness is evident in her every action, but Sedaris’s determination to be successful is just as clear. Put together, this combination is the perfect formula for facilitating the author’s construction of his identity in order to prove his teacher wrong. David Sedaris’s teacher instills great fear in her students, “[teaching] them what it [is] like to be in the presence of a wild animal, something completely unpredictable” (Sedaris). Animals do not behave as humans do. They do not feel empathy and the do not follow human laws, meaning people have no idea what to expect when they are around them and can never let their guard down unless they wish to risk being consumed. Sedaris’s comparison of his teacher to a savage, untamed creature reveals the constant apprehension of the author in her presence and allows the reader to sympathize. This persistent expression of caution reveals exactly why Sedaris feels the need to infuse humor into his identity: comic relief is the perfect cure to fear. This influence on his identity perfectly demonstrates how awful experiences can shape a person’s character, even if said person does not necessarily cure the horror, their efforts are aimed at escaping.
Through diction and metaphor, David Sedaris expresses that some people are impossible to please, and though it can be very discouraging, the work an individual invests in striving to meet their expectations often shapes one’s character for the better, and the only thing that is truly of any consequence is the pride one feels for identity one has built for him or herself. The experiences people face build who they are, whether they be unpleasant or gratifying. All that matters in the end is what we have achieved for ourselves, and that cannot be judged by anyone but the person in the mirror.