Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Posted On the Internet*

Posted last spring on several open topic threads on different blogs.

I really would like to like the movie “Akeelah and the Bee”, if for no other reason than it isn’t another one of those mystico-macho football movies that have proliferated over the past ten years. I would like to like it if I expected to see it, which I do not. But reading a review of it in this mornings Boston Globe, the premise of the movie troubles me.

What, you might wonder, could this old, white, crackpot find to object to in a movie about a poor, black girl overcoming her poverty and stereotypical ghetto background to find glory in the world of elite spelling? Does his heart run so cold that he could overlook the heartwarming story because it isn’t agitprop? Would he rather that Akeelah read Angela Davis and become a revolutionary? To this I would answer no, after pointing out that it is a make believe story, that Akeelah doesn’t exist. And that she could do worse than Angela Davis if she did.

What I’m worried about are the other children in the girl’s school who do not possess an inborn talent for sight memory which is all that a skill for spelling English comes down to. In short, I’m worried about children of my own kind. Well do I remember the first years of school, of discovering that despite the ease with which I learned to read words on a page that when it came to writing them down, amid the myriad possibilities of spellings of vowel and consonant sounds, the mysteries of silent letters which appear and disappear according to rules too complex to apply and the entirely unsystematic use of double, unpronounced letters, I was hopeless. The hours of frustrating work memorizing my speller, hours that could have been put to use learning math or history. Memorizing spellings for a few hundreds of the tens of thousands of words I knew perfectly well how to use and then having the memories grow immediately vague in the choppy water of possible spellings of short e or long i made me want to chuck it. And, believe it or not, I was rated as an average speller.

No, I am worried about the real Akeelahs of this world and am always happy when they find achievement. But I would wish that they could find self respect with something more useful than developing this one, minor skill. And even more than that, what about the other children who don’t possess this mysterious ability? What about the 30 or more children in her class room who will find the English language their enemy, who will give up in trying to use it to improve their lives, who will stop trying to organize their thoughts on paper? Does her moment of glory at the spelling bee make up for their blighted lives?

Some people here will have absolutely no idea of what I’m talking about. You have the ability to use standard English spelling without trouble. But you, like it or not, are in the minority. Most people do not use English spelling with certainty. I also know that many, no, most, of the people who would know exactly what I mean aren’t reading this because they have gotten the message. The written English language is a private accommodation with a selected clientele. They are unworthy, they are dross, they are stupid and lazy, they are not welcome because they stink and have cooties. Those are the children I worry about just as much as I worry about Akeelah. As long as the present absurd standard English spelling is the turnstile through which you have to pass to gain respect, including self-respect, millions of English speakers will be doomed to a half life, never really believing that they are capable of intelligent thought, never trusting people who think for a living. Standard English spelling is a fundamental danger to democracy and freedom.

A better model for a feel-good movie is the one about the math teacher who brings along a whole classroom of children. Now, that’s one I like. It isn’t exclusive, it doesn’t sacrifice anyone for the greater glory of one person, it assumes the worth of everyone, it is, in the end, democratic. And also, whatever else it is, math is orderly and understandable with a beautiful and elegant written form. It is made for use. Like the standard spelling of Spanish.

You want to know what happened to the champion speller of my class? He dropped out of college and married into the fringes of organized crime somewhere South of Boston. I won’t go into details because he knows where I live. Though I’m certain that his shake down letters are impeccably spelled.

* It really was, based on the hostile reaction and heated arguments it generated. Those champion spellers, talk about your touchy people

It was shortly after this, while listening to the radio program “Saysyou”, that I heard the essential question, “Why is the word phonics spelled un- phonetically”?

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?