Maybe some people were born into a world that has always loved and accepted them just as they are. Maybe there are people whose families, schools, neighborhoods, religions, books, television, movies, and so forth, told them that everything about them was just fine.
I doubt these people exist, but I guess it is possible. I think it is more likely, however, that all of us have run into someone, or several someones, or entire cultural forces that told us we were not wonderful. If we wanted to be wonderful, to be loved and accepted, we needed to change. We needed to change weight or skin or hair or height or accent or gender or sexuality or talent or interests or intelligence, the list, unfortunately, goes on….
One way many of us are told we need to change is in the way we write. We must change our syntax, change our style, change our perspective, change our tense, change our word choice, change our rhythm, change our references….
But this process isn’t “just” about language. It’s not “just” syntax or word choice or structure or rhythm. Language is how we make sense of the world. When we express ourselves through language, we are creating the version of the world most true to us. We are our words. When people force us to write like someone else, just like when they force us to look like someone else, or act like someone else, or in any way be like someone else in order to be accepted, it is a violent act. And this act leaves scars.
Which is why I struggle teaching Composition and Developmental Writing (Well, this is one of many reasons). I explain and reinforce that what I teach is not “good” or “bad” writing. There is no “good” or “bad” in writing. There is, instead, a spectrum of possibility in language, just as there are many different writing audiences and many different writing goals. When it comes to the grammar and usage rules of Standard American English (SAE), I talk about the social and economic and historic forces that have gone into creating SAE, and how, in most ways, it is a tool of exclusion and repression. It wants everyone to sound and act in one way. It punishes those who do not. And that one way? That one way mirrors a specific portion of the population, and that population is more than likely not my students.
This is all so admirable. Oh, pat-me-on-the-back, aren’t I just such a clever and dedicated teacher?
Except I am absolutely scaring my students. No matter how much I explain all of this, no matter how much I talk about the SAE system as a game of power that they can learn to play, rather than be crushed under, in the end, I give grades. There are good grades and there are bad grades. These good and bad grades carry heavy consequences, and I am very much the person wielding that weight.
Because of this, there are times I am tempted to take cues from past colleagues and just not bother with SAE at all. If the ideas are sound, if I can understand what is being said, then why does it matter that someone throws commas around like dollar bills in a strip club? (Don’t worry, in the classroom I use a pepper shaker analogy.)
But I always come back to this: I can understand my students because I know them. I care about them because I know them. I can hear their voices when I read their writing and a comma splice or a verb tense shift doesn’t make me stop reading because I know them and care about them.
But others will stop reading. The people who have long been safe in the power of SAE will stop caring about what my students have to say if they do not prove that they can speak this language. It is a tool of exclusion. There are many people waiting eagerly to use this tool against others, and those people aren’t just grammar trolls on Facebook. Those people hold very real power in the world. SAE can make the difference between financial security and the lack of it. Financial security can affect everything from personal health to interpersonal relationships to mental health.
So don’t I have a responsibility to make certain my students are not excluded? Isn’t it my job to give them the tools they need to be included and safe and prosperous?
How can I do this without embodying those who would hurt them? How do I do this without excluding them myself? How do I get them to understand grades are a measure of how prepared they are to face those who would seek to ignore them because of what they sound like, not how intelligent they are, or how good of a person they are?
We are our words. In many ways, my job is to teach students to edit themselves to sound like someone they are not. I am creating scars.
They are scars I myself carry. As a woman born to parents raised in Ozark foothill poverty, who herself grew up working class in nowhere Oklahoma, I had to edit myself. The editing required to get me to SAE was not as ferocious as it is for many. My scars are not as deep as others. But they do exist.
And I can say that I am both grateful for these scars and resentful of them. I am grateful that these scars have allowed me to become part of the crowd with expendable cash and vacation time and community resources and a voice not easily dismissed by authority. I resent that I ever had to change to fit a system that told me I wasn’t good enough.
I also resent that this crowd to which I now belong will never include or accept certain people I love. Most of this crowd has never questioned their own privileged language. They’ve never had to do so. For most of them, the system works. For many, it has worked for generations. In their minds, therefore, it is not the system, it is the individual. Some people simply aren’t clever enough to learn it. Or, and this one gets to me more than any other, they are too lazy to try.
Ya know what? Maybe some people see the system, understand its rules, and want no part of it because they are just fine with who they are. Maybe some people want to be edited, but they already have so many scars that the language ones don’t have anywhere clean to land and each edit opens an artery. Maybe some people save themselves by stepping out of the system.
Others, I know, are working to change the system altogether, which is what should happen. The ivory tower doesn’t need defending, and it sure doesn’t need any more victims.
But how does this work from my end? How do I balance trying to change an educational system of which I am part? Is that even possible? Or does my position in this system mean I am one who must perpetuate it?
I don’t know y’all. I really don’t. I guess what I can do is keep being honest with my students about this system. I can keep insisting that they investigate and question it.
But I don’t know that anything I say can prepare them for the pain.