Wednesday, May 30, 2012


“English teachers as a whole are a scary lot. You can’t really blame people for flinching when you start talking about sin taxes, offering possessives and splitting infinitives. Outliers know all too well that interrogatives lead to tense, past perfect situations and eventual capitalization. “
The above came in as a comment on another post, but as I begin working on the novel I call “Prairie Gladiators,” I thought it was worth some reflection.  It’s a clever play on words that demonstrates how closely linked “English” is to violence and oppression.  Among Indigenous Americans it is notorious that the forbidding of their own languages was equated to sinful cussing and punished with pain and soap-in-the-mouth.  But I’m not sure that many see through that obvious and quite truthful fact to the purposes underlying them, which were to make the improper speaking of English a marker of possible subversion deserving violence repression and an indicator of the lesser nature of the non-English speakers.
The big joke is that the English themselves had this point of view thrust upon them by conquerers:  the Continent-based proto-French speakers versus the Anglo-Saxon Brit barbarians.  And before that it was the Romans who named the Barbarians by mocking their language as amounting to “barbarbar” or blahblahblah.  The patronizing virtues of saying “venison” instead of deer meat and other fanciness were markers of class.  “I’m better than you because I speak fancier than you and my way is the right way.”
Of course, we all know that plain four-letter Anglo-Saxon words like shit, fart and fuck will get one’s mouth washed out with soap.  I used to tell my students (this was in the Sixties when you could still tell students things) that they could name all those functions IF they went to the Latinate designations:  defecate, flatulate and copulate.  But here I am at over seventy still learning new-to-me traditional words about ancient sexual modes.  
I sometimes think of a day in animal control court when our most handsome-but-dumb officer said loudly about a witness in a quiet lull,  “What a dildo!”  I think he meant dork.  He couldn’t understand why the other officers hit him from all sides.  Or the principal’s wife who kept addressing one of the teachers, a really nice guy with a name that started with “sch,” as “Mr. Schmuck.”  Be very careful about using Yiddish words.
This sort of “proper language” is what some people think is the subject matter of English, because proper English is expected of people who are LIKE the English.  Of course, you’ll have to dress like them and live in their kind of a house and read their kind of books.  Much of what we think of as “bourgeois” is simply English Victorian, so no wonder the French dislike the mode.  It is a form of empire-building, the conviction that only this sort of person is qualified to dictate who gets published, whose Ph.D. thesis is acceptable, who can be elected to office,  The American Revolution only proved that we wanted to be English-style people on our own turf, but we kept their terms.
The trouble is that they were terms that went back to the Roman Empire, passed along by the Vatican.  Not terms of engagement but terms of domination, meant to prevent change or deviation from norms.  Ukrainian kids got the ruler for speaking their own language as much as NA kids did.  The only difference is that the Ukrainian kids were used to it.  And so were the Irish, but they had learned long ago that if you are stubborn and secretive, you can preserve yourself and what you love.  And so they have.  And so have many Native Americans.
So how does one teach “English” to such people in all their bloody assortment?  One goes behind the words to the ideas.  One teaches NOT to write until one has thought.  NOT to speak until one has listened.  Very subversive.  One teaches culture and vocabulary and great books and . . .
But I discovered that of the two other English teachers this last time around, one was actually a science teacher -- though she made the most of it by discovering Greek mythology alongside the kids.  The other one, who was conversant with the theories of the Algerian French-speaking post-structuralists, could not correct the grammar and usage worksheets of her students.  She had to get the former English teacher, now a business teacher, to make a key for her.  That man had been transferred to teaching business because he kept flunking athletes, which was to some minds the real purpose of organizing a school -- to sponsor athletics.  He had tenure and therefore could not be fired.  In 1961 my superintendent was a former English teacher.  In this school the superintendent was an old coach.  This is the common pattern now, I think.
Remarkably, while these small town people wrestle with the dynamics of making youngsters conform to traditional standards (which the educators themselves cannot meet), the actual language of the country -- indeed, the world -- has jumped to the Internet where it mixes tech jargon, foreign languages (much French, not much Latin), wild metaphor and common  media experience (especially music) in a pidgin vernacular of great power and color.  Forget spelling, usage, or eschewing alliteration.  Revel in rhyme.
The assumptions under language, which some people “get” and other people can’t understand as existing at all, are what really count.   It is often invisible to power, small town power, cocooned rich power, legislative power.  And that’s the reason it manages to persist, so that today people speak Gaelic despite all attempts to stamp it out.  It’s an attitude.  Interrogative outliers, always wanting to know why and how and always testing the barriers, ignoring the stipulated goals.
This sort of “English” teacher is probably not very English, not employed by any institution, not certified by the state.  More likely on YouTube, at the pool hall, in a studio somewhere, using the language of line and color and being highly “improper” but intensely liminal, in the Victor Turner sense.  They do not lack for students.
A reader of this blog suggests this video as an example.  He didn’t intend the revision of “Snow White” trailer, but maybe it’s also a relevant look at what many kids consider a contemporary sci-fi “Dark Ages.”

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