Saturday, May 5, 2012

Black vs. Standardized English

Let’s return today to how peace and justice issues impinged on my life in the early years after I left the convent. Between January and April, I shared my becoming aware of racism within myself and society, my attending grad school in Minnesota to learn about Black English, my encountering violence there in the classroom and on the street, my protesting the Vietnam War, and my returning to Dayton only to discover that I had an FBI file that kept employers from hiring me. Finally, I landed a job in a department store warehouse where I tried to unionize the female workers and got fired.            
            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.”
            “Bad 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 tomorrowSunday 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.”  


39 comments:

  1. I wish you could have been MY teacher!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Fran, . . . thank you. And I wish that all the students I've been privileged to meet could know you and your great zest for life. Peace.

      Delete
  2. I have noticed Rita's comments for quite a while--I'm not sure why I never checked out her blogs. I am now a follower of her "corner" & "stories". Thank you for the recommendation!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Fran, . . . I'm so glad that you went and read Rita's two blogs. There's so much comfort in her corner of the world. When I read her I can feel tension oozing out of me. Peace.

      Delete
  3. I wish you all the good luck.
    Again I was so interested what you wrote I read it twice over before commenting.

    Yvonne.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Yvonne, . . . thank you for the wishes of good luck. I'm so glad you find these posts interesting. Your interest and that of others are what keep me remembering the wonder of my life. Peace.

      Delete
  4. I too would have loved to have you for my teacher. As it was, I had a couple favorites over the years, but none of them hold a candle to the memory your students have of you, of that I am sure. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear DJan, . . . one of things I'd like to think might happen in an afterlife is that we would meet all the people who have touched our lives and whose lives we have touched. What a celebration of joy that would be.

      I was so blessed by having teachers who made Latin and algebra and history and civics and English interesting. I came to love learning. And I modeled my teaching on what I'd seen these fine women--mostly all nuns--do in the classroom. Nearly all the teachers I had wanted nothing more than for their students to love learning.

      Peace.

      Delete
  5. Dee, This post is beautifully written and illustrates perfectly why you were an amazing teacher. I wish I would have had as much success. I wasn't allowed to talk to the students about the need for standardized English. My blog is public again. I'm not sure if you're a follower. If you aren't, then I hope you join us. Next week I hope to review your book, which I read while you were taking your break.

    Love,
    Janie Lola

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Janie, . . . You know while I was teaching I didn't see myself as being successful. That's what all you are saying. I simply saw myself as wanting to make learning exciting and interesting. I wanted the students to come to know the keep down goodness within them. I bet that happened for you also, Janie. And yes, I do follow you, but for the month of April I was away from home much of the time.

      I'm starting next week to again follow all the blogs I enjoy. This past week I had computer problems for three days and only today can I really begin to blog again. So I'll be seeing you on Monday! Peace.

      Delete
    2. I know you're a member of my PRIVATE blog, but I don't know if you're a follower of my public blog. I don't seem to be back in the blog rolls yet, but you can use my URL to access my blog. I wanted to make learning exciting, but I only got to teach one lesson that I created myself. Everything teachers are supposed to do is an order, with no room for creativity.

      Delete
  6. What treasures your stories are - so well written, engaging, and poignant. So glad to be able to visit again.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dear, dear Dee! While you were teaching students new ways of looking at their abilities that they would remember the rest of their lives, I was in survival mode--LOL! Thanks so much for your kindness, dear lady. I admire all you have had to deal with in your life and all you have accomplished. Thanks so very much. I can't tell you how much your approval is appreciated. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Rita, . . . yes, I was teaching and you were living a life that teaches all of us.
      Most of us can talk the talk; it's the walking the walk that makes such a difference and for the past several years I've made an art form of being lackadaisical. I need to start protesting again!!!! Peace.

      Delete
  8. Each time I read a post of yours I am filled with awe and wonder. All these miles and years away from the situations you are describing I can warm my hands at the light of your caring nature.
    Thank you so much.
    Off to check out your friend shortly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear EC, . . . thank you. I like to think that I do have a caring nature. What I do know is that I have a fierce sense of justice. I'm so glad you are going to Rita's blog. She's a wonder. Peace.

      Delete
  9. I love the sense of camaraderie that grew out of your class. It sounds like a great place to learn!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Emily, . . . building community and "camaraderie" in the classroom was always important to me. I wanted the students to support one another in their endeavors. If a community is working together--students as one--then so much can be accomplished and all the children learn and grow--together. Peace.

      Delete
  10. You were a teacher who loved to teach and loved her students. How lucky were they!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Arleen, . . . it's true: I did love to teach and I loved the students. To be a part of their lives in this way was a true privilege--a blessing in my life. Peace.

      Delete
  11. I love the way you teach this, Dee: what a lucky class you had.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Kate, . . . from reading your blog and seeing your inquisitive mind in action and learning how much you value the connection between things and people, I know that your classes are lucky to have you too. Peace.

      Delete
  12. you did quite a service bringing this issue to the light of day. it's too often uncomfortable to white people to talk about. bridging communication gaps is nothing short of holy work, especially with the intention you were going for as far as jobs and helping them achieve their goals. very shrewd. your life experience just sparkles with wisdom in action.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Ed, . . . thank you for calling teaching "holy" work. It truly is. I've said before that when we teach we are like Moses standing before the burning bush and taking off his sandals because he stood on holy ground. That is what students are--holy ground waiting to be sown with the beauty of their own being and the Oneess of the Universe. Peace.

      Delete
  13. Oh what a gift you were to all your students, Dee! You could have done nothing that would have helped them more to survive in a world where so much was stacked against them. I'm sure so many of them must remember you with real gratitude and love.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Perpetua, . . . I hope they do remember those days at the drop-out center as a time when they were truly valued by all the teachers there. On Tuesdays posting I'll tell about how those same teachers helped me understand something that I needed to learn. Peace.

      Delete
  14. Wow, you reached those that some would have called unreachable and helped them to not only learn curriculum but you also gave them life tools. Quite impressive. Thanks for Rita's link. I will check it out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, . . . we all need life tools. I remember 1953, when the Sisters of Mercy at St. Mary's High School taught our junior class how to engage in conversation. How to meet a stranger and be able to talk about whatever interests that person. That skill has served me so well throughout all my life. Those nuns were wonderful teachers. A blessing in my life. Please do check out Rita's link.
      Peace.

      Delete
  15. You discovered the true art of teaching: first you reach their hearts and then you will reach their minds. I enjoyed this post. I am heading over to Rita's now. Thank you for sharing~

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Shelly, . . . you are so right about teaching being the art of reaching the whole person--both heart and mind. Peace. And I know you will enjoy Rita's two blogs. Peace.

      Delete
  16. Another thought provoking post, Dee, and one I will come back to read again for more insight as it is getting late. When I do, I know I will spend some time on Rita's blog. Right now, I'm slowly getting back into the swing of things.

    I'm reading a memoir I think you would find interesting. I'll post on it soon. It is called "The Midwife" and is about tending to the poorest of the poor in the East End of London in the 1950's. I bring it up now because the author has an appendix witch includes the vernacular of the folks, mostly women, she tended to. It is a fascinating read about midwives, both nurses and nuns.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Penny, . . . I'm so glad to learn that you are getting "back into the swing of things." The time off I took in April was refreshing and made me realize just how important all of you whom I've met through bogging are to me.

      I'll go to the library website and see if I can find "The Midwife." You've recommended so many interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking, poignant, and entertaining books on your blog. I'm indebted to you for introducing me to some wonderful authors. And of course, I'm indebted to you for sharing your lyrical soul on your blog. Peace.

      Delete
    2. Thank you, Dee. I appreciate your support. The blogging community is really wonderful, isn't it?

      Jennifer Worth is the author of The Midwife. I would not have know about if I had not read about it on a blog. I find the best reviews on bookish blogs - better than what I usually read in the papers and magazines. Life is grand. Your words are kind and I am so glad to share books I've read.

      Delete
  17. So fascinating. Those kids were very lucky to have you--we're lucky to have you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Elisa, . . . thank you.

      Peace.

      Delete
  18. HI Dee,
    I found this post fascinating, just the thought of the Black English. Because I work with many ELL students, and they are already fluent in their home language, it's challenging for them to make the transfer to using English syntax. I'm thinking of one student in particular that I've worked with all year, especially verb and plural usage. I never thought to take her sentences and rewrite in English, rather than just rewriting a word or two. Perhaps that would help her make the leap more completely.

    As usual, a great post about fantastic teaching!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Sandi, . . . I hope that technique helps your EEl student "make the leap more completely." Language makes such a difference. And people can judge others so harshly when the other person doesn't sound like what we think an English speaker should sound like.

      I hope to take Spanish in the fall and be able to communicate with Spanish speakers I meet. Wish me luck!

      Peace.

      Delete
  19. I just can't imagine where your wisdom came from...what I mean by that is that your perspective certainly wasn't broadly shared! i took classes in the early 90s in which we discussed Ebonics as a distinct language, especially in Los Angeles schools at the time, and best practices for teachers. But even in the teaching community at that time it was extremely controversial to in any way legitimize the speech patterns of inner city youth. You just amaze me with your sensitivity and awareness! I see by the comments above that you are still inspiring other teachers. That is so wonderful, Dee. Debra

    ReplyDelete
  20. Bless your kind and caring heart, Dee.. your a great teacher filled with compassion and understanding for your students unique needs.
    Your writings are so humbling.. my thanks for sharing them.

    Fingers and toes are crossed for a quick sale!

    ReplyDelete