The program leader asked teachers and principals
in the most isolated parts of Georgia
to look at the students from the most destitute families
and make two lists, the best students and the trouble-makers.
They did. He chose the trouble-makers.
For 11-12 years these students had sat in schools, devalued.
In any one paper they wrote prose as vivid
as any I had ever read–but only if I deciphered it,
as an inexact record of speech. They had mastered
few of the conventions by which to commit ideas
to paper effectively.
I had little success when I urged them to revise.
They had written once and for all. They wanted me to correct
their mistakes, perhaps even to scold them.
For the first time, a teacher valued what they wrote,
and they seemed to like the class. But they also suggested
that I could not possibly understand how difficult
and finally unimportant it was for them to master how to write.
They had seen no one win success that way.
Near the end of the summer, the director called me in.
“I’ve got to prove our worth so we can get funds for next year.
From now on you will earn your salary by helping me do it.”
“What do you mean? ” I asked, confused.
“Put together some of those papers they have written for you,
into a newspaper. We will give copies to the administration.
It’s as simple as that.”
“That’s not simple,” I warned.
“You won’t get a dime if the Emory administration reads
what these students write. They’ll suggest you should train them
to enter third grade, not college! It’s not the ideas, but the literacy…..”
“That’s why I hired you. You know that stuff. You take their writing
and put together a newspaper to keep us afloat. I have canceled
all your other classes so you can do it. Now get to work.”
From their own words, I discovered the hard diamond
of their sense of self-worth. I polished that stone to delight
every beholder three weeks later.
“Liked your comment about the crazy crackers!”
Denise shouted to Dianne.
“Man, you shore put the stuff together,” Bill told Don……
“They wrote powerfully,” a dean told me at the final banquet.
In those three weeks I learned as much about how to revise
as I have learned in any three years, but I learned even more
about our institutions and our students. I preserved their words,
as I sorted, deleted, compressed, juxtaposed….
Meanwhile, my students played, without a teacher.
The praise they won lasted no longer than the copies
of the newsprint, at best a few weeks.
The experiences I had have served me for years.
I did not merely proofread. I selected and preserved Black English
in its most forceful registers. Often I arranged sentences to make
their ungrammaticality zap the administrators
whom I wanted their words to impress….
How much better if I could have taught the students how to do that.
I became an accomplice in keeping the students marginally literate.
Why? I well remember the fear and the headaches that accompanied
the reasons I rehearsed at the time:
It is my first job with a doctorate but two months old.
Maybe I have given the students their money’s worth already?
He’s black; I’m white. He told me that I will be a racist if I do not cooperate.
Maybe I can redeem this mess in the next, more permanent assignment…..
My character buckled. It’s all too easy, once we get the knack of it.