Posts Tagged ‘elementary school’

Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.

The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.

Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.

Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.

My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.

I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.

The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.

I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.

I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.

The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.

I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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A couple of Sundays ago, I passed through the yard of my old elementary school. Contrary to what people usually say about a childhood locale, it didn’t seem small. Rather, it seemed mundane compared to the occasional dream I have set there. At the same time, it seemed full of memories.

In fact, I could hardly walk two meters without some memory ambushing me. As I entered, I passed the tame woods where I used to play endless game of tag with the other boys, and the creek where I caught tadpoles that I watched grow into tiny frogs. Beyond them were the houses of various girls I used to know, including the one to which I delivered the local weekly paper, much to my embarrassment. I was always afraid that the girl in my class would answer the door.

There was the place where a girl scolded me for standing with one foot at right angles to the other one and on top it; as a member of the graduating class, I should set a better example, she said. A little further on was where the teeter-totters used to be where we played still more games of tag; the teeter-totters are long gone, of course, replaced by supposedly safer playground equipment.

Having a moment to spare, I decided to wind around the school before continuing on my way. I passed my Grade Three class room, then up the short hill where I once banged my knee so hard that the fluid had to be drained off it. I passed by the barred gate that, in my day, was closed only in the summer holidays, and passed the gym, where intramurals games, and school fairs and assemblies used to be held. Beyond that was what had been the science class room and the library where I first discovered my love of reading.

Doubling back, I passed the covered area that was once the scene of endless games of road hockey. The grassy enclosure where we used to play massive games of British bulldog and Red Rover was gone, but I could see where it had been. And below that was the grass bank where my crowd used to lounge with their bicycles and gossip about who had a crush on whom, with everybody giving everyone else bad advice about how to make the boy or girl they admired notice them.

And so it went, every step of the way. The place where I used to wait for my first crush to arrive at school, my Grade One and Two class rooms, the playing field where I had won track events and scored goals in soccer, the baseball diamond where boys and girls used to play endless games of two up all summer – but, by this point, the memories were coming so fast that I was glad to leave the school grounds and continue walking to my destination.

The experience was novel, but I don’t expect I’ll be back in a hurry. I don’t live much in the past, and nostalgia is far too giddy an emotion – at least when it comes in such concentrated form – to indulge in very often.

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I don’t come from a musical family. One of my parents admits to being stone deaf, and the other never developed much musical taste beyond the musicals and popular songs of the Fifties and their latter day equivalents. As a result, most of what I know about music I’ve learned through trial and error on my own. And, as might be expected in a writer, my tastes show a strong preference for music that includes poetic and intelligent lyrics.

I certainly never learned much about music at school. In elementary school, the teacher was a semi-professional musician whom those with musical training adored. Unfortunately for me, he had no interest in teaching those of us who didn’t already have a musical background. Given a trombone to play because that was what my brother had used, I was put into the band class with no understanding of what I was supposed to do, and no one who was interested in showing me.

Predictably, I suffered as only a proud child can suffer. Bad enough that a solo passage for trombone in “More” was given to a friend who played the French horn because I was incapable of it, but, by the end of my penal servitude in band the teacher wouldn’t even bother to see if I was in tune. That I was good academically and athletically, and that these humiliations were very public, with an audience that included several girls on whom I had crushes only made the experience harder to endure.

But I’ve always been a whistler and a singer, and somehow I started discovering some musical tastes on my own. I started with Simon and Garfunkel, attracted by Paul Simon’s songwriting, and soon branched out into Bob Dylan, whose cryptic lyrics made my tastes an oddity in my neighborhood and generation.

Stumbling blindly and still not really knowing what a flat or a sharp was (since no one had ever bothered to show me), I kept on in the same vein, discovering singers like Roy Bailey, Leon Rosselson, Maddy Prior, Stan Rogers, and June Tabor, all of whom were either song-writers themselves or at least selected intelligent material. I didn’t completely neglect acoustic music, but the music that I’ve kept coming back to all my life has generally had strong lyrics.

Needless to say, it was definitely not Top 40. But Vancouver is full of small concert venues for those who have come to listen rather than mingle, and, at times, the greater part of my social life has been going out to concerts.

Neither was my taste classical. To this day, my knowledge of classical music is made up mostly of enthusiasms. I know enough that I can tell Chopin from Beethoven or Mozart, but my favorites are a haphazard lot: Vivaldi, a lot of romantics or eccentrics like Sibelius or Grieg, some Wagner overtures, and even Scriabin, whose complexities are intriguing even to my erratically trained ear.

My blue and jazz knowledge ditto, although it’s been broadening recently. As for opera – well, English isn’t the language of operas, is it? If there are words, I am half-maddened by not being able to understand them. And a little light opera like Gilbert and Sullivan goes a long way, rather like reading too many P.G. Wodehouses in succession; you start longing for something of substance.

Still, I’m not complaining – much. Considering my unpromising musical education, I’m surprised that I have any musical interest at all. The best use I found for my trombone was using its case as a sled after school, and, unsurprisingly, I used the transfer to high school as an excuse to drop band.

Mostly, I don’t think about my musical mis-education. But, when I do, I start to get angry, not just at remembered humiliation, but at how unnecessary my lack of musical direction was, and how easily it could have been corrected by a competent teacher. I know I have a reasonable if limited singing voice, because I’ve used it at parties with no one fleeing. Yet when I think how close I came to eliminating music altogether from my life, I’m still full of resentments.

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Every once in a while, blogging delivers an unlooked-for personal insight. I had an example of this occurence earlier this week, when I mentioned that, despite being left-handed, I had won handwriting awards in the first few grades at school. Suddenly, I realized that this experience helped to explain my interest in typography.

The connection was news to me. I thought I had developed an interest in typography when I was working as a technical-writer, and wanting to branch out into design. Partly, my motivation was to make myself more versatile and therefore more employable, and to add a extra bit of creativity to what was sometimes monotonous work.

However, I soon became fascinated with typography for its own sake. Not many people – including graphic designers – are well-versed in typography, but the selection of typefaces and their arrangement on the page is a minature art-form, full of arcane jargon and fascinating lore.

It’s hard to imagine now, for instance, that the rise of asymmetrical design was as controversial as Impressionism or Modernism in the arts – or that one leader of the so-called New Typography, Jan Tschichold, was considered so subversive in Nazi Germany that he was given the option of exile or imprisonment (he chose exile, first to Switzerland and after the war to England, where he designed the standard templates for Penguin books of the period – little gems of design that you can still find today, sometimes, in second hand book shops).

And, like any art form, once you’re comfortable with the language of ascenders and descenders and kernings and letterspace, typography changes your perception. Just walking down a street of shops became a whole new experience for me as I examined all the signs in a new light. Similarly, opening a book, my pleasure is substantially increased by a fine layout, or lessened by a poor one.

These are all reasons enough for the large collection of fonts I accumulated. However, I suspect now that my font-fetish is also a revival of attitudes formed in the first years of my education.
You see, I was left-handed, and no one expected me to write with any elegance to my letters. The very fact that we read left to right makes writing awkward for lefties, and letters in cursive script especially are easier to form when your pen hand isn’t in the way.

But, having conquered a speech defect in Grade One, by the time I was introduced to handwriting in Grade Two, I was determined to defy expectations again. By an effort of will that, looking back, I now find hard to credit in a seven-year-old, I focused on the forms of the cursive letters, drawing them repeatedly over and over at home in my own time until I could draw them perfectly.

Or so I thought. I wonder now if I won handwriting certificates as much because I did better than lefties were supposed to do, rather than because my handwriting was objectively among the best in my classes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a sample of early handwriting to confirm or deny my suspicions.

No matter. What is important isn’t whether I really deserved the certificates, but that I became interested in the shape of letters for their own sake. I remember doing class presentations on the Greek, Phoenecian, and Norse alphabets. And, well into my teens, copying out the final version of my essay (this was before personal computers) became a ritual all its own. I remember labouring over the letter forms, not much concerned with what I said, but determined to produce a beautiful page. In Grade Ten, I even did a calligraphed creative writing project that I did and redid many times, and only completed because of the deadline – and I laboured at least as much over the page borders as I did the story contents.

Those interests went unexpressed as I went through university and became an instructor then a technical writer. Even when I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I never did much of anything with calligraphy. Yet, like a root buried deep underground, the interest remained, waiting for the right conditions to send up tendrils and be reborn.
Odd, that I never saw the connection from now. The continuity and persistence confounds me – yet, in seeing them, I now know a little bit more about myself.

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One of the major events of my life was taking speech therapy when I was six. More than any other event, it is responsible for me becoming a writer. Probably, too, it is responsible for my sometimes bloody-minded tenacity and wish to prove myself.

My problem was that I pronounced a hard “k” sound as “t,” so that that “cat” came out as “tat.” It wasn’t much of a problem in kindergarten, although I once overheard someone’s mother asking if I was “retarded” (as the term was in those unenlightened days).

But Grade One was another matter. The class was divided into groups for practicing reading. The groups were named for colors, but, even at six, I could tell the group that I was dumped into was for slow learners. One girl in my group later struggled along for several grades before leaving for a school for the mentally challenged, while another boy was notoriously slow all through school.

Young elitist in the making that I was, I resented being lumped in with these people. And looking back, I’m appalled – how does a pronounciation problem come to be associated with a lack of intelligence? But I was also an overactive child, often charging about and speaking too quickly, and often my left-handedness left me clumsy. So possibly there was more behind the diagnosis.

Still, at least my parents and teacher, or some combination of them, decided I would go to speech therapy. So, after school, I started going regularly to a speech therapist, a pale-skinned woman with a haircut like Jackie Kennedy’s and what I remember as endless patience as I struggled through the verbal exercises she gave me.

The outing was an exciting chance of pace, but I just could not get what the therapist was trying to tell me. I tried to position my tongue and other parts of the mouth the way she showed me, but somehow I just couldn’t. Even when she held my tongue down with a tongue depressor, I didn’t have much luck.

By the accident of being at the right place at the wrong time, I became the poster-boy for that year’s March of Dimes, imitating a deaf boy with a headset so I could hear myself speak. But I still had the speech defect. Nobody said anything, but I could sense the concern in the discussions after each session between my mother and the therapist. Somehow, I wasn’t measuring up.

Then, suddenly – I could do it! I could hardly wait until the next reading practice to demonstrate my newfound pronounciation ability. Opportunely, the piece from the reader I was given was given over to the adventures of ducks, so I had plenty of chance to show off.

The experience left me with a preciseness of speech that sometimes gets mistaken for an English accent, as well as the abilty to enounciate clearly while barely moving my lips. Both traits survive to this day.

More importantly, it left with the feeling that I had to make up for lost time. Within a couple of months of correcting my speech defect, I was devouring the Hardy Boy series, and sitting in the advanced readers’ group. At the year’s end, when I was recognized as top student, the book I received – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – was already seeming a little slow to me (It was only later that I learned to treasure it).

That summer, I tried my first story, written in a notebook and concerninga pack of wild dogs. Its plot, if I remember correctly, revolved around dog thieves, and one exceptionally bright dog’s ability to remember the last three digits of the serial number of the van used by the thieves to carry out their dirty deeds. By the next school year, I was well into Alexander Dumas, and not looking back.

Books had always been a part of my life, and my mother had spent long hours reading to me. But, looking back, it was the inability to communicate properly that really roused my interest in words, and the unspoken shame of being in the slow readers’ group that made me determined to not only master reading and writing, but to excel in them. Although I soon stopped comparing myself to anyone else and gave myself over to the pure delight of language, the fierce joy of those drives, once created, never diminished. I wouldn’t have been an English instructor, a technical writer, or a journalist without them. Maybe, too, I wouldn’t have had the tenacity to become a long distance runner, either.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had a pronounciation problem. Would I still have developed along the same lines? Or would I have gone in a different direction, or even coasted?

It bothers me, too that so much of the direction of my life should be due to over-compensation. I mean, surely I could have found direction without going through unpleasant experiences. Did my life really have to be so Freudian? Or did speech therapy simply awaken inclinations that were already part of my brain-patterns?

But it’s not as though I was aware of any choice at the time. All I knew at the time was that I was going to prove everyone wrong about me – and, ever since, I haven’t been the same.

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