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

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose4 Comments

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 …

Comments 4

  1. I think it’s more about what’s appropriate for any particular situation. I’m wondering whether it’s appropriate to make kids write anything 100 times. Often, people who make kids do such things are considered pedantic assholes, even by kids who don’t have that particular phrase in their vocabulary. And often, the kids are right, and shouldn’t even be required to excuse themselves.

  2. Excellent! When working at an alternative school, I explained to my students the difference between the way they spoke with and around friends and how they spoke to those ‘outside’ their circle. I supported my support of the dual language by sometimes engaging in conversation using familiar terms and sayings, so they wouldn’t think that I ‘thought I was better’ or they were ‘less than’ because we spoke differently. I think I was able to convince my students to learn to improve their ‘other’ English (standard) by explaining that, while with my friends and family, I also use slang (if you will). what’s really interesting to me is the fact that you remember this teacher because of his negative attitude towards you and your language. I get sad and frustrated when kids/adults have memories of teachers who were mean or hurtful, for lack of a better word. I don’t have any memories of a teacher directly saying/doing anything negative towards me. I do, however, remember our elementary art teacher. She yelled at EVERYBODY..Black and White and eveything in between…She just yelled…ALL THE TIME! Now that I think about it, I wonder if that’s why I can’t draw worth S&*^! She has scarred me for life..damn!

    Ok…gotta go!

    Again, great post!

  3. Post

    Both of you, thanks for your honest responses. I love how NYCEd just broke out with

    And often, the kids are right, and shouldn’t even be required to excuse themselves.

    EdCEO, I’m glad we have people, no matter what color, that can help our students decode the way they speak in different contexts. Many people don’t and come with preconceived notions of heroism when it’s really just faux platitudes.

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