At another college, in another time and place…
“We was almost done,” says Kimmi, “and then four people come in, right before the deadline. Danny looked at me and I looked at him, and we both knew we was stayin’ at least an hour late.”
She’s talking about the wrap up of an essay competition, Kimmi is, the oversight of which is part of her job and the reason she’s still here tonight. I stopped to talk on my walk-through of the building; Kimmi, one of my favorite people, used to work in my department, and I am surprised to see her here so late.
It’s good to talk with her, this smart and savvy woman, as she waits for the late-comers to complete paperwork. She will wait patiently; they will never suspect they are keeping her late. They’ll hand in their forms, and Kimmi will tell them a little about the college, recommend a little walk around the campus, tell them how much she’s enjoyed her time here. Kimmi is a graduate.
Actually, Kimmi’s story is pretty amazing. She and her husband owned a business together, and that seemed to her all that she’d ever need as far as a career might go. But life swung around, like it often does; the husband died young from cancer, and Kimmie discovered that the finances weren’t as solid as she’d thought them to be. She lost the business and she went to work. With three teenagers to feed and clothe, it wasn’t easy. She worked the graveyard shift at a factory, and the kids, God bless ’em, all got jobs as soon as they turned 16. Now they had all graduated from high school, and two were in college. One, Kimmi said frankly, was a mess, and she was now raising that daughter’s handicapped child, who was four.
Along the way, at her factory job, a discerning boss noticed that when Kimmi ran into a problem, she tried to solve it before going to a supervisor for help. Often, she didn’t ever need to see the supervisor because she’d resolved the situation herself without interrupting workflow or management’s good humor. Impressed, the boss promoted her to be a team leader. He could promote her further, he told her, but she’d need a two year degree.
Kimmi had never thought of going to college; it just wasn’t in her cards, growing up or as a young wife and mom. But she found herself, aged 44, in school and discovering she was pretty darned smart. She graduated with a 4.0; she had wonderful mentors who also saw her potential, and she wound up working at the college after graduation. “No more factory work for me,” she said proudly. The college supported her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
The one area that Kimmi is having trouble addressing is her language. “I know, I know,” she says, “I talk like a redneck, and people think less of me because of it.”
I hate to agree; I want to tell her that people aren’t like that–that they stop and listen before forming judgements, taking the time to assess the person behind the words. But she’s right, Kimmi is; when she says, “We was just about to leave,” the subject verb disagreement hits the ear with a hollow clang, and the listener is wont to think, ‘Uneducated. Country woman. Probably poor.’
It may not be right, but it is a fact: people judge us on the way we talk.
Fast forward several years…
Early on in my tenure at my current job, we had a speaker come in from an initiative that wanted to help people build bridges out of poverty. Language is important, that expert said, and changing patterns is tough. Lots of times, people in poverty only know one kind of language, the kind they use everyday. They don’t talk differently when they go to a job interview, or to work, or to a parent-teacher conference. Why would they? That would be something like putting on the dog, and these folks are fiercely proud. I am who I am, they might be saying, suggested our mentor. Don’t like it? Go away.
The expert proposed we initiate a program to help our students recognize the times when they needed to switch their language gears. In the English department, we took on the project and came up with a thing we called WOMBATS. That stood for “Word of the month/ banish a term/ spelling.” Every month, we’d send out an email with a vocabulary stretching word–maybe, for instance, ‘matriculate.’ We didn’t tell people what to do with that word, but we suggested to our fellow faculty that they somehow reward its proper use. We hoped we’d hear ‘matriculate’ popping up, correctly, in all kinds of conversations.
Likewise with the ‘banish a term.’ One of the first things we addressed was disagreement between subject and verb–‘We was’ in particular. Some faculty members instituted ‘word jars’ in their classrooms; they might charge a quarter a slip, and students delighted in catching each other and examining the diction of faculty and administrators.
And then we tacked on a commonly misspelled word–we attacked their and there, to and too; we went on a campaign against using defiantly when definitely was the actually word of choice.
It was kind of fun, WOMBATS; it built some community within the College–kind of a ‘Yeah, we’re Appalachian, and we may talk a little rough, but we’re smart and we’re effective, and we can switch gears if we want to!’ attitude.
Then a new young faculty member raised a point. We were, she said, denying people the right to their authentic language. We were in essence, telling our Appalachian students the way they talk is WRONG. Who were we, she demanded, to BANISH a term?
We rolled our eyes, we wordy old war horses, but she made good sense. We accommodated a bit. We changed the ‘BOT’ to ‘Beware of a Term’ and dropped the ‘banish’. We had discussions about levels of language and being able to switch among them, about respecting regional dialect, and about the very real peril of being judged on language and denied opportunities.
The initiative, however, lost momentum, and then personnel changed, and WOMBATS just kind of faded away. There’s really not a mechanism now to help someone like Kimmi remember her subject verb agreement. We hope, I guess, that modeling and osmosis do their work.
I am not a linguist, although I am a lover of words, and so, trying to address this in English classes, I read up on registers and levels of language. I introduced that concept to my Comp students in the first week. We broke things into four levels. Non-Standard was the rock bottom, anything goes layer. Here, in non-standard, F-bombs can explode and people are not addressed by titles and rules need not apply. That’s the level of locker room and friend-talk (maybe).
When we defined that level, sometimes certain students would get quiet, and then they’d say, “That’s how I talk all the time.”
Take a step up, then, to Informal. Here, we follow rules of grammar, but slang is fine. Nicknames are, too, and abbreviations.
Then we land at Standard English, which is the form that our syllabus would talk about. “All assignments,” it read, “are expected to be written in Standard English.” Since most students had never defined that, they mostly just ignored that sentence. We talked about what Standard English meant–clear, direct, respectful language, rules in full force, no slang, no acronyms, no abbreviations. The language of college assignments.
The final lofty level was Formal; this would include the kind of writing done in juried publications and would be written for an audience that understood the language of the journal. Multi-syllabic words would fly in this level; anything remotely informal would be squashed quickly, with a gasp and a raised eyebrow, before such sacrilege might multiply and contaminate the whole. No first person language need apply.
The students got it; they really did. But they had a much easier time navigating levels in writing than they did in speech.
Why is it important to speak correctly? Not because we’re snobs or purists, but because navigating the language is one of the many keys that opens doors to opportunity. I’ve noticed, from talking with young adjunct colleagues searching for full-time positions, that the first step in the interview process is often a telephone interview. I imagine someone like Kimmi, smart, funny Kimmi, saying to a potential supervisor, “We was away this weekend, and I just come home yesterday.” I see the supervisor rolling her eyes and drawing a line through Kimmi’s name. Next! she’s thinking, but she goes through the questions, a rote process, because she has to.
But she’s not calling Kimmi back. She’s made a judgement–that Kimmi’s not as bright as they want her to be, that she probably won’t fit in.
What a loss–for the organization that rejects a Kimmi, and for Kimmi and her family, who would have been enriched by that full-time, benefit-rich job.
How do people learn to navigate the levels?
I remember my first factory job, during college. I worked the graveyard shift at an ice cream factory, which might sound cool and idyllic but definitely was not. My sheltered little self had a whole different kind of education at that job, and part of the education was in vocabulary. I learned, for example, that one could use the F word as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an adverb–and that my effing colleagues often did all four in the same in the same effing sentence. I learned to throw that term around along with the best (or the worst) of ’em. But that tendency just automatically turned itself off at the door to my parents’ house; I never slipped. Something just blocked the F-word from appearing.
Are language levels, and when to switch, something most easily learned in early childhood, when those synapses are still fluid and connectable? I’m guessing probably yes, but I’m guessing too that learning to switch registers is still possible with the right support and the requisite amount of work, later on in life.
Who should teach this? How do we do it without being insulting and doing exactly what that young faculty member claimed–asserting that the dialect is lesser and wrong?
Every place has a dialect. In parts of the South, y’all refers to a bunch of you people. Here, some folks say ‘y’ins’; in the town where I grew up, it was ‘youse guys.’ (Mark’s favorite story that illustrates how we talked back home involves running into a spurned suitor at a neighborhood bar. The man had tried to get a love interest out onto the dance floor, and she refused to go. “Jeez,” the guy said to Mark, “Dese Dunkirk dames don’t dance.”)
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any dialect–most are quirky and endearing. In fact, I remember reading, when we first moved here, that a prestigious theater company was doing Shakespeare in the park using southeastern Ohio Appalachian dialect. It’s the closest remnant of our language to pure Elizabethan English, maintained and preserved in the isolated hills and the hollows over hundreds of years.
But language isn’t endearing if it cuts one off from opportunity, if it constricts one’s life choices. If the regional speech keeps one from school or from a job that would allow the full flowering of someone’s potential, we need, somehow, to intervene. The only solution I can think of is school–where, maybe, we explore and celebrate the roots of the dialect, and then teach–almost like another language–the lingua franca, the language of national newscasters, pundits, and politicians. Give children the keys to navigate whatever paths, to open whatever doors they choose, to recognize their gifts and strengths and to work toward the goals they want to achieve.
I think of Kimmi, so fired up, so brilliant. And yet her brilliance will only shine in a limited sphere. Her life is good; she is right to be proud, but who knows where she might be today if the flame had been tended a little earlier? What if she’d been given the right words right from the very start?