Sep 9, 201108:52 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Grammar School Grammar
I got a comment on my last blog from an anonymous poster who signed herself “another New Orleans mama.” She wrote: “I had many of these same feelings of pride in Morris Jeff until my preschooler came home the other day and said, ‘Mama, I don’t got no raisins in my oatmeal.’ I almost fainted. Quite honestly, I would have rather heard the n-word.”
Now, I can get very defensive about my choice to send Ruby to public school. I can get very defensive about my own public school education. But my first reaction to this comment was not anger or even righteous indignation. My first reaction was relief: So it’s not just my kid who has started saying “I don’t got no …” and “I don’t want no …” And I'm not the only one bothered by it.
It’s no secret that language is important to me. I have even corrected my 4-year-old when she says, “Well, if I was you,” by saying: “Ah, ah, ah, Ruby. Use the subjunctive mood: If I were you.” And I once gave her a high five because she said, “Mama, I want less carrots – I mean, fewer carrots.” Not eating your vegetables: OK. Mixing up “less” and “fewer”? Not my kid. Not on my watch. And saying “I don’t want no carrots”? Absolutely not. You don’t have to eat the damn carrots, but you better be able to speak properly.
This new manner of speaking in double negatives isn’t a cute developmental blip or something, like when Ruby, at 2, used to say “I runned” or “I sitted.” This is something that just started, started the week after she matriculated to a majority African American school. And I hate it. And I hate that I hate it.
I followed the Ebonics controversy closely when I was in high school (I have always been a linguistics nerd), and I still get annoyed – all liberal knee-jerky – when someone tries to oversimplify that whole thing and completely misunderstands it in the process. I never even use the term “Ebonics,” honestly, except when referencing the 1996 controversy, because the term itself has such strong connotations. I try – I really do try – to tell myself that language isn’t about rules so much as about communication. And I really do love all of the different accents in New Orleans; I love to hear the different cadences, dialects, slang words. I love to listen to different people talk, and I’ve never had trouble understanding what people are saying to me, nor have they had trouble understanding me, even though I am ridiculously proper about my own speech. (Side note, but this is also true of texting. I have friends who will text “u” or “2” or “b4,” and it doesn’t bother me – again, the whole point is communicating a message – but I will still text back in complete sentences with extensive punctuation and no abbreviations. To each his or her own, right?)
All that said, I can sit here writing and saying that one version of English isn’t superior to another so long as everyone understands each other – but try as I might, I can’t quite make myself believe it. I personally am a huge advocate for ridiculously proper standard American English.
And I can’t quite wrap my brain around how my daughter went from speaking ridiculously proper standard American English to speaking in double negatives and slang in such a short amount of time.
However, she also came home last week and started answering my ridiculously proper standard American English questions in Spanish.
“How was your day, Ruby?” I asked when I picked her up.
“Muy bien, gracias,” she told me. “Y usted?”
“What color balloon do you want?” I asked at the store.
“Rosado, por favor,” she answered, her accent perfect, her manner nonchalant.
And I was thrilled. I love the idea of my 4-year-old being bilingual. I love that she’s learning a language that is so useful, learning about other cultures, expanding her worldview. So why did I react so differently to “I don’t got no homework tonight” than I did to “muy bien, gracias”? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t like what even the question suggests about me and my own prejudices.
I want Ruby to be a citizen of the world. I want her to be exposed to kids of all races, religions, ethnicities and classes. I don’t want her to take her white middle-class perspective for granted, to assume that everyone shares her values. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care what her values are. Is that a distinction I can live with? Is it a distinction she – or even I –can understand?
For instance, I have friends and family members who are Jewish, conservative Christian, atheist, lapsed Catholic, practicing Catholic, all flavors of Protestant, pagan, Mormon, Muslim and Buddhist. I am entirely comfortable telling Ruby that religion is a very personal matter and that we respect everyone’s beliefs but that we believe X. Our religious beliefs aren’t superior, but they are different. Just because I don’t want her to assume that everyone believes – or should believe – what we believe doesn’t mean I don’t have beliefs I personally want to impart on her as my daughter.
But can I do that for language? Can I say, “It’s fine if your friends at school talk one way, but in our house, we say, ‘I don’t have any homework,’ not ‘I don’t got no homework’”?
Is that even a fair thing to ask? Can you believe in grammar the same way you believe in God? Does correcting her grammar or not correcting her grammar teach the wrong lesson? Has anyone been through this and have any advice?
Because, yeah, I’ll admit than when I first heard Ruby speaking so differently than I’ve taught her, my first thought was: “OK, this little public school experiment is over. I will just sell all of my belongings and perhaps a kidney and enroll her at Newman immediately.”
But I don’t want to do that. I believe in public education. I believe in Morris Jeff. I believe in Ruby. I believe it’s all going to be OK.