That happened in November 1971. Rather quickly I returned to teaching. A dedicated immigrant from South Africa had gotten the funds to begin a dropout center for teenagers—sixty African American students and one Caucasian. As I remember, the students ranged in age from fifteen to twenty-one. The faculty consisted of five African Americans and two Caucasians: Denny, a young Jew, and myself, an ex-nun.
Denny taught American history; I, composition, grammar, and literature. Quickly I discovered that only a few students believed in their ability to learn. My job was clear: I needed to help them appreciate the knowledge within themselves.
Several had been in the reformatory and that was rich fodder for writing. We began by sharing their life stories, some of which were acutely poignant while others had us all laughing.
We spent days sharing stories, then we began to write. I didn’t want spelling to get in the way of their writing so we began with their calling out words they’d need for their compositions. I printed these on the chalkboard.
Next they wrote. Then came the reading of their stories. By this time, a community was forming in each of the classes—freshman through senior. The students now felt bound to one another within this community, so they supported one another’s efforts in finding the “telling” word; forming alliteration, analogy, simile, metaphor; and developing the story arc. We discussed sustaining suspense and preparing for the denouement.
Once we trusted one another, the students shared their dreams about what they’d like to do with their lives. Clearly, they needed to be prepared for work that would earn the necessary funds to fulfill their dreams. And yet their spoken English was non-standardized. Who would hire them?
The day came when I said, “ You know all of you are so smart.”
“What makes you say that, Ms. Ready?” they asked.
“Well, I can speak only one language but all of you speak two. That’s smart.”
The statement astounded them. Two languages? What did I mean?
To illustrate, I asked one student to pretend to be in a downtown Dayton office for a job interview with a white personnel director. “What questions do you think that man or woman will ask you?” I inquired.
The students reeled off a list of things they’d heard asked before: What job experience do you have? How old are you? What are your skills? What was your attendance like in high school? How about your grades?
As the students asked the questions, I printed them on the chalkboard, just as the students said them—in Black English. Beneath each question I printed how I—a speaker of standardized English—would ask it. “Notice any difference?” I asked.
Yes. They saw that how they spoke and how I spoke were different. “If you want to get work out there in that big white world, you need to speak what’s known as Standardized English,” I explained.
“So what are we speaking?” one student asked, “Dayton English?”
“You’re speaking Black English.”
“No. Black English. It’s a real language. Just like French or Spanish. Or any other language. It has rules and something called syntax. You speak it. So you speak two languages. When you’re with one another you speak Black English.”
“But white people don’t seem to understand me when I talk,” one young man complained. “They say I speak ‘broken English.’”
“Not broken. Black. But you’ve put your finger on the problem. We’ve got to practice speaking what is known as ‘standardized English’ if you’re going to get past that first job interview.”
So we began. They asked questions in Black English. I printed these queries on the chalkboard. Beneath them, I’d print standardized English. We’d practice saying this second set of questions. I wanted them to get used to the questions they’d be asked.
Then we practiced answers in Black and standardized English.
Slowly, as the weeks passed, the students became adept at switching from Black to standardized. I participated in countless mythical interviews as the personnel manager or the boss of a Dayton business. The students participated as Black English speakers and as standardized English speakers.
Time passed and they beamed at their growing expertise to shift from Black to standardized English. “Just look at us,” their smiles declared. “We speak two languages! We’re downright educated!”
I agreed. “Yes. The cat’s meow!”
Next Tuesday I’ll continue the story of my work at the dropout center with these students, who were so eager to learn.
Afterword #1: Thanks for all your comments on my posting this past Tuesday and for the suggestions about how to keep the newly cleaned shower stall pristine. I’ve now taken a shower and “ah, my foes, and oh, my friends” the wiped stall “gives a lovely light”—with an acknowledgement to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. I just got a call that tomorrow—Sunday at 10 am—I'll have my first "showing" of this house. Send those good wishes winging this way! I'm on Central Daylight Time!!!
Afterword #2: For my postings from January through March, a number of you commented on my “courage.” I thank you for that, and I’d like to introduce you today to a storyteller whose courage and fortitude I greatly admire. Some of you read Rita’s blog Soul Comfort’s Corner, so you’ve met this extraordinarily talented woman who lives daily with the aches and pangs of fibromyalgia and fills those days with painting, journaling and creating exquisite note cards. However, fewer of you know her second blog: Soul Comfort’s Stories.
During April, Rita posted a two-part story on this second blog about her youth during the Vietnam War. I urge you to read Installment 1, which is entitled “The Helpful Hooker: Running Away to Canada” and Installment 2, “Innocents on the Road: Running Away to Canada.” Once you read her stories, you’ll go back for more. Her latest is “Uniform.”