My father often tells a story about an event that happened when I was quite young. And while the story has nothing to do with me, it has everything to do with my understanding of literacy, and so I tell it too. It seems that a man came from out of town on business. Dad met him at an informal reception in the workplace, and upon learning that my father was Polish, the man began telling Polack jokes. This particular situation can be easily compared to the same man visiting, and upon meeting a particularly beautiful blonde colleague; he begins telling dumb blonde jokes. My father might have laughed at the first basically benign joke, but as the jokes continued, and as time went on, became more distasteful and bigoted, my father was no longer smiling. Dad knew that he could have just left the room; instead, he waited for a lull in the barrage, and asked pointedly, “Do you speak Polish?” When the man answered negatively, Dad asked “How does it feel to be dumber than a Polack?” This put an effective stop to the jokes. This particular story has stayed with me throughout my life. My dad tells the story often, always in response to some particularly bigoted statement by a family member or acquaintance. I think the story stays with me for the same reason. I mean, how can a monolingual individual possibly be more intelligent than one who is bilingual? But I think now, too, of the gender-related as well as stereotypical issues with dumb-blonde jokes. How can we use language, gender, hair color, skin color, or country of origin as a measure of worth? Why do we?
A similar story is told by my mother, always in response to the assumption that she must be bilingual. Both of my maternal grandparents were immigrants. My grandfather, an illegal German immigrant who jumped ship from a merchant vessel when it landed in California. My Grandmother came as an Austrian refugee of the Holocaust. The two met and married in California, and spoke fluent, albeit different, dialects of German in their home. When my mother was born, local school officials suggested that speaking two languages, one at home, one in public, would confuse my mother (despite the fact that her two sisters, both more than a decade older than her, were bilingual). So my mother was raised speaking English-only. I feel that my mom was deprived of some important linguistic skills that could have opened so many doors for her.
I think of the general attitudes and discourses regarding literacy today, and I can see how closely related they are to the attitudes and discourses regarding the first languages of my grandparents, and the value they placed on learning English as direct evidence of their worthiness to become citizens of the United States. Grandma spoke a dialect of German commonly referred to as Platdeutsch (Low German), while Grandpa spoke Hochdeutsch (High German). Grandma, being painfully aware of the disadvantaged classification of her dialect, made every effort to adapt her skills to accommodate the more privileged dialect of Hochdeutsch. She knew how this advantaged categorization of language affected the way others classified her, so she reverted to her Platdeutsch only when arguing with my grandfather as a point of irritation. Grandma’s painful awareness of the privileging of dialects led her to insist on the use of “proper English” at all times, just as she insisted that my mother never leave the house without gloves on. Both modes of communication, the one verbal, the other visual, were distinct determiners of status in the eyes of my Grandmother. Much of this insistence on “proper,” albeit arbitrarily defined behavior, is still evident in the values expressed by my mother today, especially when it comes to language.
As a child I came to adopt these same values, insisting that there was just one correct way to communicate, and that “proper” English must be used as a method of maintaining societal integrity. When I think about those attitudes in relation to my own life, I think most specifically of a field trip that I participated in when I was in the third grade. This particular field trip was significant to me at the time, and has stayed significant as part of my growth as a literate woman. In retrospect, it has become even more significant to me as a way of understanding differences in backgrounds and cultures that contribute to the growth of a literate America.
This was the year my family moved from a middle-income neighborhood in “white American suburbia” to a rented home in Lark, a tiny defunct mining town that housed a
variety of elderly widows, Mexicans, Navajos, and single-parent families. My parents were attracted to this location because of its low rent, and more importantly, its proximity to the property they were planning to build a new home on in an exclusive gated community. In my new school, I was among the minority—a child from one of only two intact white middle-class families in the whole town. We only lived there for two years, but those two years shaped my early attitudes about reading, writing, and communication in the English language.
Moving into that small town with its variety of cultures and low socioeconomic backgrounds was culture shock for me. By the time I was in third grade I was reading and writing above my grade level, and I was already imbued with a strict sense of grammatical propriety. I don’t recall whether I was aware of my unique talent for reading and writing at that young age. I have always excelled in those subjects, but I do know that I felt that my perceived ability to distinguish the appropriate use of language from the inappropriate contributed to making me presume social superiority to my classmates in that school. What I didn’t understand was that class instruction had been modified in order to accommodate the language barriers because most of these students came to the school as second language learners, making my own natural talent seem even more superior in strength. I have to admit though, that I was humbled when I fell solidly near the bottom of my class when it came to mathematics.
The class sizes were so small in my new school, that classes were combined. First and second grades shared the same classroom and teacher, and so did fourth and fifth grades. Field trips were shared as well. So even though this field trip to the zoo was shared with the kindergarten through third grades, most of us were able to have our own seats to ourselves on the bus. As I sat alone, I listened to the conversations around me. I remember being rankled by the different uses of the English language that separated me from the rest of the students. Even though I wanted so much to be a part of the accepted crowd, my discomfort with the different uses and misuses of the English language kept me separate. I remember that the students pronounced “get” as “git,” substituted “seen” for “saw,” and replaced the possessive pronoun “mine” with “mine’s,” along with a variety of other grammatical blunders which led me to consider myself superior to the other children.
Further separating me was my lunchbox with the typical sandwich made from homemade bread, apple, homemade cookies and thermos of milk. The other students clutched lumpy brown bags with Wonder-bread sandwiches, canned soda, chips, and store-bought Twinkies. I was embarrassed by my lunch, because I knew that my family was better off than the others, but I was stuck with the homemade stuff, while everyone else got the store-bought stuff. Equally frustrating was the question, “what kind of coke did you bring?” I struggled to come up with an answer to the question for two reasons. First, I didn’t understand that the other children’s lunches came from food stamps and that mine came from the socio-economic advantage of having a second parent in the home with the time to provide homemade goods. So I was trying to hide the fact that I didn’t get to have pop and Twinkies. Second, I didn’t understand that the children were substituting the word “coke” for “soda-pop.” I didn’t think that Coke came in different styles (it didn’t—not even diet in those days), but I wondered if there might be a category of Coke that my milk could fit into, thus evening out what I felt to be a humiliating disparity.
During the two years following that field trip I continued to be astounded by the fact that those children did not seem to be aware of their repeated grammatical blunders. I was even more confused by the continued ostracism by my peers. I didn’t understand that what I saw as just plain wrong, they saw as just plain bigotry. It was no wonder that they called me “Honky!” Their use of the language came from a different cultural background than mine did—it was simply a result of my displacement ino a unique American subculture. Making matters worse was my narrow-minded privileging of white middle-class America over the residents of this small town which contributed to my peers ostracizing me. The fact that their parents used the same terms in the same inappropriate manner, only contributed to my privileging of one use of language over another, widening the socio-cultural gulf that existed between my family and theirs.
My parents finished building their dream home in the gated community in the mountains just outside of town when I started fifth grade, and once again I was back in a school full of white, middle-class Americans. However, I did not overcome the prejudices from those experiences until I began working as a 34 year-old writing tutor in my sophomore year of college. Victor was one of my very first tutees. He was a presidential scholarship winner from the “wrong side of the tracks.” His family was Mexican, and he spoke often of the disadvantages that he had to overcome to get to college. When Victor asked me for help with an editorial about racial profiling in our city, I began to see that my blindness to the socioeconomic disparity between my world and his was nothing more than pure bigotry As we continued to work together, I learned that Victor and I had a lot in common: I was a single mother raising four children, while Victor grew up in a single parent family. We both needed financial aid to get through school, and we both felt singled out by others as less capable because of our socioeconomic circumstances. Most importantly, though, Victor and I had both won scholarships based upon our natural abilities to communicate. Victor didn’t come to me because he needed tutoring; he came to me because his socioeconomic situation qualified him for the extra help that he needed to even out the disparities between money and background. In contrast, I was seeing a math tutor because I needed to.
What I considered “proper English” in the third grade is what I call business English today: it is the accepted use of the language in a global business context. What I dealt with in Lark was a localized English—the same English that Victor used with his family and friends on his side of town, and the accepted use of the language in that particular locality. I have since learned that language changes over time. Even things that might have been considered appropriate thirty-eight years ago in third grade are no longer appropriate, and many things considered inappropriate have become culturally acceptable in much of mainstream America today. Most importantly, I have learned that changes in language are arbitrary—made acceptable by the social standing of the people making the decisions of what is acceptable and what is not; and these are the norms that we teach as “good grammar.”