'Be anxious for nothing..." ~Philippians 4:6

Friday, July 30, 2010

GOOD ENGLISH: WHO'S TO BLAME WHEN SUBJECTS AND VERBS DON'T AGREE?


My teachers always said, "Know when to turn it on, and when to turn it off". Mind you, their first hand experiences at discrimination was the fuel behind their warning. They were fearful that their Black students would have difficulty being accepted in certain circles. They felt that a firm grasp of the language was the ticket to a seat in predominately white arenas. All White people, we were led to believe, spoke properly. If we were to ever successfully communicate with them, we had to know their language--English. Funny. It was our language as well, but there was something about the way that intelligent Whites spoke that our teachers felt we should seek to emulate. They reminded us that it's perfectly fine to relax our speech if in the company of friends, but when it was time to stand before a group and recite a poem, debate, or give a speech, nothing less that proper English would do. Their efforts at producing articulate students often resulted in the incessant accusations of "trying to sound white", as if speaking well is a trait reserved for White America alone.
I sensed that my teacher's advice may be a help, today, to young journalist, Lindsey Mastis, whose on-air error in grammar inspired a not-so-nice letter from a viewer. In the letter, the viewer took swipes at Lindsey, public schools, and public school teachers. Lindsey in turn lamented that people still hold fast to the "private school is better" stereotype. I felt bad for her, and thought about the worth of what the viewer wrote. I suppose our viewpoints are primarily based on our experiences. I can unfortunately see how the viewer arrived at his or her conclusions, although they were a bit unfair to Miss Mastis.

Mastering language is not a black/white/public school/private school issue. It's a communications issue. If one is to master a thing there has to be a good example to emulate. One must see and hear how something is done and be able to distinguish when it is done well. A commentator's errors will ALWAYS stick out like a sore thumb, and cause attentive people to question the credentials of their English, Grammar, Composition, and Speech instructors. Many people are intently listening those in the media. There is a rhythm and flow in the voice of a news person that is violently interrupted when an error in speech or grammar is made. Oh sure. It's acceptable if the error is made by a gardener, plumber, stand-up comedian, street corner philosopher or gas station mechanic, but not a preacher, teacher, or commentator. When YOU, news reporter, make an error, IT becomes the story, as opposed to the incident about which you were reporting. Why? You're supposed to know better. You're PAID to TALK, not to entertain or casually chat. Some people just expect other people to be better at things than they are. No. They expect them to be EXPERTS, and often delight in pointing out mistakes (thereby secretly rendering themselves more qualified for the job than the person who holds it). As unwilling as some may be to accept the title, they a role models.

As bizarre as English can be-- as contradictory and confusing as it's rules are, if you made it all the way through school and have not mastered the basics of your own native language, the fault lies in many places-- and your teachers have to bear a part of it. I don't totally agree with the tone of the letter Miss Mastis was sent, but as I listen to the speech of court television plaintiffs and defendants, talk show guests, conference panelists, elected officials, athletes, and young people I know who attend private OR public school, I must confess, I, too wonder sometimes if ANYONE is still teaching English Grammar and Composition and Principles of Speech and emphasizing the importance of effective communication. The rule of putting one's best foot forward has given way to just sharing the information. We no longer care how we spell, write or speak. News reporters endeavor to be the viewer's family and friends, and along with that cozy atmosphere comes a relaxed attitude toward communication. If it's just a matter of carelessness, that can be fixed. One problem is that we don't always listen to ourselves, or think before we speak. Another is that we try so hard to be deep and profound that we end up appearing ignorant. Yet another problem is the notion that no one cares. Of course, some people expect those who are paid to communicate to be more adept and precise at speaking, reading and writing, but that's not always the case. Often the emphasis is on whether or not one has made his or her point, and the detail of whether subjects and verbs agree is a minor one.

I taught at a public school for 16 years. I'm a mom. I used to be a child. I know. Children learn what they live. If what they live, in word or deed, is chronically incorrect, and is then repeated daily at school, how will they ever learn unless they are self-motivated? The proof of what is or is not being emphasized in school is in the performance of the student once away from school. When one knows better, one hopefully, does better.

I remember when my teachers would recommend that we listen to radio and television news reporters in order to perfect our speech and grammar. Listening to the news was often a homework assignment. I'm not so sure if teachers are suggesting that students listen to the news any longer. Grammar aside, the content and the way it's presented just isn't always suitable. Nevertheless, the assumption my teachers had was that, on the news, greater attention was paid to presenting "The King's English" and the use of slang was a definite no-no.

I attended public and parochial schools and I have to say, I now appreciate the no-nonsense, orderly atmosphere in which I learned, as well as the emphasis on principles of speech, English grammar and composition, and Latin. I learned to read with Dick, Jane, Spot, Midnight, Dr. Seuss and the big phono-visual chart. My teachers read to us daily, and did it well. There was a huge difference, not in the quality of teachers, but in the demand and expectation for an orderly environment in which to teach and learn. My daughter, however, attended DCPS from kindergarten through 12th grade (elementary school east of the river) and is now a senior at Georgetown Law School. My requirements for her behavior in school afforded her teachers to give her their best. She knew, because I told her, that she was aiming to attain a level of academic excellence that her teachers already possessed. It's true. Students can only be as knowledgeable as the individual teaching them. Schools can only be as effective as they are allowed to be. We all could have probably learned a lot more had our teachers at any point along our educational journey not had to deal with all kinds of intrusions--social, financial, disciplinary, theoretical-- that hindered their ability to teach.

Too many parents leave the education of their children entirely up to the school. They forget the importance of reinforcing what their children have learned, and then wonder why very little of what their children experience at school is retained. Education has always been important in our family, so the school was always considered an extension of home. I always knew that every teacher was a second mother or father because my parents said so. It wasn't my place to correct them. My job was to do what I was told. As for the viewer, if they KNEW that their child's teacher was deficient, and they continued to send their child to his or her class, they had a bigger problem than proper or improper use of grammar. Parents must remember that they are their child's FIRST teacher. One may not personally have the educational expertise to spot teacher errors and correct what their child is learning, but there are too many available ways to find out.

We all make mistakes when we speak. The difference is whether or not we're aware of them and know how to, or care to make the necessary correction. When you know that people are hanging on your every word, whether to gain information or perfect their own speech, you have the authority to do better. The responsibility for one's own ability to communicate effectively lies with each individual. ALL schools in America should aim to graduate students who have mastered the English language, and have offered an introduction to the mastery of other languages-- no matter what field of work the students eventually pursue.

Miss Mastis' intent to be, and do better in her chosen profession, and her sensitivity is admirable. I could think of worse things than a journalist who is a poor communicator, it just seems a little out of order, though. Whatever your profession, you should be an expert at the essentials of it.

Miss Mastis now knows not to use "had fell" and will probably hear "had fallen" in her sleep. Like the kid who never forgets the word they misspelled in the spelling bee, she will never forget the rule, nor will she confuse "had went" with "had gone". (Sorry. So, so sorry. I can't help it. My late mother was an English teacher.) The letter Miss Mastis received inspired her to think about the reasons why she became a journalist. For that reason alone, poor argument aside, the letter was sent to the right address.

Here's a link to the delightful Lindsey Mastis' blog. All the best to her. http://lindseymastis.com/2010/07/no-need-to-diss-my-public-school/

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