Sunday, August 7, 2011

Juxtaposition of the Incongruous

A couple of weeks ago I taught a three-day writing class for my old company. Nothing really creative, just a refresher in basic grammar, punctuation and structure for an audience of customer service representatives who are in training to become senior customer service representatives. One of the new duties they will pick up if they earn the senior title is writing original letters to customers. Over the years, the company has found a disappointing lack of writing skill in its employees including those in management positions. After day one of the class I heard one student say to another: "So that's what an adverb is." Miss Baumann would be horrified.

I've written before about my fourth grade teacher, Miss Baumann. (We never knew her first name because we would never dream of addressing her so informally) She was one of a group of dedicated teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes School who, for far too little money, took scruffy street urchins and taught them the King's English. Not just enough to get by, but grammatically correct, properly spelled, punctuated, and capitalized English. Our class was not filled with "gifted and talented" kids to merit such a thorough grounding in our native tongue, but in fact, it was expected that every student who graduated that school could write good English. The Catholic school system had never lowered expectations for us just because we were poor or descended from immigrants; there was one high standard and everyone was pushed to meet it.

Trying to teach these skills now, to adults,  is very difficult. It's impossible to do in a three day class what wasn't accomplished in 12 years of formal schooling. These students are not dumb, but their basic elementary and high school education was so fundamentally flawed in that it did not place enough stress on English. What good is math and science if you can't communicate your ideas in writing. The English and writing curriculum have been terribly diluted over the years. People now get college degrees who can't compose a decent resume. As expectations spiral lower and lower, such idiotic books like "Handwriting Without Tears" find their way into our school libraries. We have ourselves to blame for tolerating this erosion; we don't ask enough of our kids, and the result is sadly apparent.

Compounding the schools' failure to teach proper English is the tendency for parents to park their kids in front of a TV or computer and take no interest in their education. Reading to and with kids can be a tremendous help in developing their ear. Listening to our language being spoken properly helps children know what good English sounds like by training their ear. They may not be able to cite the rule that makes a sentence grammatically incorrect, but it will clank on their ear when spoken aloud, and they will know to give it a second look. As it is, they enter adulthood blithely unaware of their inability to write correctly, and become frustrated when the deficiency is called to their attention. Trying to fix it now is nearly impossible, especially in the age of e-mail and "textspeak".

To impress on you just how well those Lourdes English drills sank in, let me relate a little story. I attended college at night while working days to support my family. I was always the oldest in class, but I didn't care. The wonderful gift of English that I had been given by teachers like Miss Baumann served me well. Even in classes in which I wasn't that strong, the professors were so impressed by papers that weren't full of typos, misspellings and grammatical errors that I usually got better grades than I probably deserved. In one class, an instructor asked if anyone knew the literary term for the placement of very dissiimilar elements side by side in the same sentence. Somewhere from the deep recesses of my memory came the answer: "Juxtaposition of the incongruous" I volunteered.

The students turned in their seats staring at me as if I had spoken Swahili. My instructor's jaw dropped a little as he nodded his head to indicate that my answer was correct. The only one who would not have been surprised by my answer was dear Miss Baumann.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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