Things Left Unsaid: To My Former Language Arts Teacher (Or What Happened)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose

Bart Simpson, "I Will Not Encourage Students To Speak Good English"

Bart Simpson, "I Will Not Encourage Students To Speak Good English"

I never got why you tried to make me conform to your supposedly standard English … until I read Lisa Delpit.

You see, it’s easy even to this day to look at one form of English as inferior to another (instead of appropriate code in different settings), and when teaching children of color, such a prejudice against (and suppression of) another’s English takes precedence over establishing a meaningful connection between what the child understands and what the child WOULD understand if explained better. And while you certainly did an excellent job of insinuating this to me, Lisa Delpit actually explained the matter clear to me in a way that almost prevented me from even writing this.

But it’s a good lesson for all of you language arts teachers who wonder why even some of your brighter students have no motivation to do anything remotely close to their potential. So fuck it.

In case you forgot, let me recap what happened (a play on words the reader will soon giggle at):

In 7th grade, you, the bearded tall fellow with the nervous caffeine-induced twitch and penchant for particulars, taught me language arts, a class seemingly geared towards the technical aspects of standard English. With orange-red textbook in tow, we would pick apart sentences looking for articles, pronouns, and conjugations, underlining like a literal treasure hunt.

Yet, the games stopped being fun when you took a particular fondness for my use of the phrase “What happened?” after missing what you had said. At first, I would say it once every few days, and you’d correct me with “You mean to say ‘Excuse me.'” I’d say, “Oh …” and go about my merry way. Then, for some reason, I went partially deaf in one ear, or so I’d like to believe, repeating “Excuse me a good 11 times.” My friends who were closer to you said, “Yo, after you said ‘What happened?’ the second time, he said, ‘For each time you say ‘What happened?’, you’re going to write ‘What happened?’ for punishment 100 times on looseleaf front and back.”

I only started to piece together the scene after the 556th ‘What happened?’ with mouth agape, shocked that this just transpired. 7th grade had already sucked from first day to last. While I still did well academically, I was an anti-social misfit, and even my teachers probably found this brown know-it-all-who-secretly-just-needed-some-guidance a bit obnoxious. I couldn’t wait to get to school and just say “Excuse me,” meekly, just to get the big elephant off my back, just to have my good-student-card reinstated, just to ease the glare of those darted eyes staring at me.

I flashed back to this as I read the Language Diversity and Learning chapter of Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children, hardly able to get past how much of this experience reflected my own. In it, she says, “Teachers need to support the language that students bring to school, prove them input from an additional code, and give them the opportunity to use the new code in a nonthreatening, real communicative context.” Harder to swallow still is that your role in making my small faux-pas in the context of whether I had an acceptable code of English only solidified who we believed “owned” the language of English. You tried your honest best to superficially teach it but secretly pose yourself the master of said language.

Yet, I write. In that very English. For any language teacher, one might think that the language never reaches to youth like me because of our incompetence towards it. In the face of such adversity by the arbiters of English, many of us can still read and write English well. You might even wonder what happened.

Well, what happened?

Mr. Vilson, who’s often left wondering that, too …