Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"That's gay!" "I'm sorry, that's what?" "I said, 'that's..."

I often encourage my students to pay attention to how they present themselves--the language they use, the effect that language has on those around them, and what that language says about them. Oftentimes my students look at me as though I'm from another planet because I often speak grammatically correctly. My doing so is a conscious decision, the seed of which was planted shortly after high school. I had decided that I wanted to spend my life teaching English (OK, so actually, I wanted to spend my life being Jack Kerouac; teaching English seemed more realistic) and that if I was going to do so, I should present myself in a manner befitting one of that profession. So I have made a conscious effort to speak and write properly since then. My doing so has been deemed offensive and off-putting by some, and this has always bothered me; it is never my intent to seem as though I am holding myself in higher esteem than those with whom I am communicating, but alas, that is at times the case. I've tried to be mindful of that around certain people, thus allowing me to make a mental effort not to come across as condescending. It doesn't always work.

And I say all that to say this: I understand how language functions in society, both by denotation and connotation. Such skills are not always present in my students, whether at the high school or college level. I tend to place more of a focus on the use of language with my college students, those who are either already in the workforce or preparing to enter it. In most cases, my students are nontrads who have spent years in a particular profession and for one reason or another have reached a stage in life where it is necessary to make a change. So they come back to school. And after some standardized testing, they end up in my class, taught by someone half their age. It is in these particular situations that my use of language and the manner in which I present myself can seem off-putting or demeaning. For example, my first semester teaching college, I made the mistake of telling students how old I was: 22. An older student stood up in the back of the class and called out, "My God! You're how old? My stepdaughter is your age!" This was not an ideal meeting, but sixteen weeks later she approached me and said, "You know, when we started, I thought you were a pompous little prick. But you're all right. You helped me a lot this semester." I've seen her several times since she left my class, and she's always nice and conversational. But had she not gotten to know me over the course of the term, I would likely always be that "pompous little prick" she thought I was in August. 

But sometimes we aren't given the opportunity to get to know those with whom we interact. Our decisions concerning them are based on a brief encounter. I always use the interview process as an example when discussing these ideas with my college students. I tell them to imagine that they've just walked into a job interview, that they're interviewing for their dream job, the first step in a long career in which they'll be happy. And then I tell them to imagine saying something along these lines: "I needs me this job 'cause I ain't got no money." Guess what, I tell them. You ain't got no job either. Now they understand that this example is a bit extreme, and we chuckle about it. But I stress that there are those who view us in Appalachia in a light not much brighter than the example I gave. It's up to us to affirm the stereotype or rise above it. And I can always see a glimmer in their eyes at that point; most of them, anyway. They get it. And over the course of the term, it never fails that students will come up to me and tell me that they've begun correcting themselves when speaking, that they make a concerted effort to focus on how they speak and the language they use and what that language says about them. 

Which leads me to the titular story here. I have a general rule in my classes: if a particular term could be considered offensive to a group of people, don't use it. I don't provide examples until prompted to do so. That is, when a student uses a particular term, I tell him or her not to use it, though sometimes I do it in the manner suggested in the title of this blog, as was the case earlier this week. I don't remember what prompted the conversation, but at one point, a student, kindhearted and one of the first to ask how I am most days, said, "That's gay," to which I responded, "That's what?" And he looked at me as though he couldn't understand how I could possibly have not heard him when I was standing a mere foot from where he was seated. "That's gay," he repeated.
"I'm sorry, that's what?" 

He thought for a split second. "Ah," he said. "That's dumb." He thought he'd done so much better this time. He wasn't prepared for my response.

"So you equate gay with dumb?" I asked, a quizzical look on my face. He just looked at me. I walked away, giving my implicit lesson time to sink in.

A minute or so later, it dawned on him. "Oh, ok," he said, nodding his head in final understanding. It was a breakthrough, it seemed. Will it last? Who knows. He may revert back to calling things gay. He may call something retarded, another word I don't allow in my classes. But for a moment, he realized the error of his way. And I sometimes wonder if that's what education truly is: a series of small moments, small breakthroughs, each of which builds on the previous until one day all those small steps coalesce into new thought, fully formed thought, and we are forever changed, incrementally but finally wholly, into creatures with a new intellect, a new way of seeing and interacting with the world around us.

And who knows-- maybe it does start with the language we use.  

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