I never doubted that English belonged to me. Even the most convoluted academic English, studded with the hegemonies, dichotomies, and Foucaultisms of my graduate literary theory seminars, seemed available for my use. I believed that, with practice, I could wield those words through the debates about literature, gender, and power.
Daughter of academics, I’ve been absorbing multiple registers of English since the crib. The first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a paleontologist, as much for the sound of the word as for the opportunity to dig fossils. One wine-soaked evening, my parents and their friends used the word “subtle” with such intonation that I wondered if it was a swear word. When I couldn’t find it in the dictionary, looking for “suttle,” I knew it was.
The languages of math and biology were less accessible. I didn’t play with numbers, didn’t wonder at the processes of cells. Somehow these bodies of knowledge didn’t translate.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, Eileen Pollack describes how, despite earning a bachelor’s in physics from Yale, she didn’t go to graduate school, mostly because no one told her she could do it, and she believed her advisor’s silence on the topic meant she couldn’t. Years later, she went back to talk to him, and he said her work had been “exceptional.” But she had come to believe that math and physics didn’t belong to her.
Her story reminds me that my social identity as a white, middle-class woman, the very stereotype of an English teacher, can impact my community college students’ perceptions of my discipline. I teach in a college whose population is about 70% students of color, about 25% immigrants and refugees. My students come from Somalia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, India, South Korea, Ukraine, and Mexico. Or their parents crossed borders, and they are growing up with English in school and other languages at home. Some were raised monolingually English, but unlike me, they have been surrounded by different tongues all their lives.
I try to keep in mind that my students’ positions as immigrants, English language learners, people of color, and working class folks may affect their feelings of competence in Dominant American English. To counteract anxiety, I put issues of language at the center of our discussions. We read and write about language and identity, language and prejudice, about self-expression. And I make explicit that English, in all its variations, belongs to them; it’s theirs to use — to tell their stories, report their research, communicate their ideas, and respond to the ideas of others.
One of my students recently posted an essay to her class blog about her multiple languages: Mexican and Puerto Rican Spanish, Tagalog, and English. Listening to English, she wrote, is like “listening to a new music genre for the first time. It can be difficult to understand the lyrics and find the rhythm.” What I hope is that my class will give her a chance to make sense of that music. We get out the lyric sheets and pore over them. We tap the rhythms on our desks. And then we open our mouths and sing.