English Ain’t What it Used to Be

Whatever happened to English? I’m not referring to the citizens of a certain country who cried “Uncle” in the late 1700’s and then again in 1812 or so. You know, the ones who said that the sun would never set on the British Empire? Our European forefathers made a point in saying that we do not speak or write English but an American jive.

Years ago, stenographers who knew Gregg shorthand would make a comfortable living. They were specialists. Today everyone is an expert in writing shortcut English when they email and chat. I figure by the time we get to 2050, right before we get blown up, we’ll all be down to writing words shortened to one letter of the alphabet. Each letter will have a different meaning depending on its context with other letters next to it. U c? Then five hundred years from now when this planet repopulates, scientists will try to decipher our present day email language. Hey, maybe they will also find my stories and conclude I was a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I put together a diversified vocabulary by listening to my parent’s conversations as well as the expressions friends and enemies hoisted upon me. I refined it by reading books that interested me and not what teachers assigned to me. I’d take out of the library a biography on Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. At school, once a month a very thin catalog would be distributed in class to each of us called the Scholastic Book Club. I would check off the paperback books that I wanted, figure out the cost with the help of the teacher and proceed to pester my mother to agree to give me the money to buy at least one of the books. Otherwise, it would be embarrassing to see classmates buying four or five soft covered copies of literature and I get nothing. Not just embarrassing but throw in a tad bit of envy.

I vaguely remember buying ‘Miss Pickering Goes to Mars” and a couple other stories in her series of adventures. There was also President Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” (kid’s version) and another one that listed each President of the United States up until that time, their vice president sidekick, the years they held office and other stories about them. I felt like a grownup reading this stuff. I read the last one over and over again as if I was pouring over the statistics on the back of a baseball card. Even baseball cards taught a little about language. I saw words such as “meteoric” and “mediocre” and learned that one was a compliment and the other was a nice way to say a player stunk.

High School had its ups and downs with learning the finer nuances of English. I just was not that much interested in reading what happened in 1840 England or about discussing the tragedy of having a large letter “A” sown onto an outer dress for all to see. In my school, if you had a big A on your jacket, it meant you played on the basketball team.

Freshman year I didn’t do too well. All the other kids in English class would get A, B plus, B minus, C plus, etc. I’d get a “See me” as in after class more often than not. My teacher’s name was Miss Carp, but I had a suspicion that she was dyslexic. She was on to the fact that I tended to read Cliff’s Notes rather than the full book assignment and even then I only read bits and pieces of that shorthand. I was convinced that she was going to flunk me and would have to take a summer school do-over. I had already mentally prepared myself for that disaster. After taking the final exam, I went up to her during lunch period and told her that I thought she didn’t do a good job of trying to inspire me and to go ahead and flunk me if she thought it would make her happy. She said that she had no intention of doing so, that she had already planned on giving me a solid D. I figured it was Cliff’s equivalent of a C so I quickly shook hands on the deal and considered it an improvement to my overall grade average.

The next two years were see-saw with grades. The attractiveness of the female teacher had a lot to do with cooperating in getting things to stick inside my brain. Sophomore year I got a well-deserved B.

For my junior year, I’m thinking that the principal’s wife did the hiring because the teacher had the ability to give a teenager acid indigestion. The first half of the year she was awful nice. Then the second half, she was just awful. She also changed her name at midterm as she got married. Again. This was a second go-around. I think she let her new husband know that life with her was going to be as miserable for him as it was for her students. Two of my classmates were also cousins to her by the new marriage bond, and they couldn’t stand her, either and neither.

Senior year changed my outlook on wanting to get educated. The school hired a drop-dead, gorgeous recently graduated looker from Tufts University to teach English. Instead of reading literature from the past, we were now looking at very modern prose such as Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul On Ice.” There were classmates who did not want to buy the book on the grounds that the money was going to a convicted felon. I was not one of them. I wanted to understand what made him and his ilk tick. If the teacher had told me to jump from a second floor ledge holding a book in my hand while reading it, I would have said, “can I pick the book?”. Needless to say, I ended up with an A in English. All it took was for reasons to get me interested. Recently I learned that the teacher stayed friends with some classmates for quite a while and one told me she died from ovarian cancer while in her thirties.

When it came time to go to college in the fall of 1970, I decided on a major in English. I figured that the other course paths would teach me a specific craft but English would teach me how to think and express myself to others. In those days, a good office job with a couple years of experience got one anywhere from two hundred to three hundred dollars a week salary. The thinking, therefore, was that a college degree was a door opener to a management trainee job. However, by the time I graduated in 1974, it was a down job market and there were plenty of other kids with the same aspirations including soldiers who returned in one piece from Viet Nam.

I never begrudged the decision to not major in accounting, history, philosophy, sociology, chemistry, physics, music and all the other stuff that keep teachers off the breadline. In all the business correspondence I’ve written over the years, I’ve never used any language other than English to express myself as well as represent others. Never used musical notations to propose a project to a client or prospect nor used an algebraic formula to present a breakdown of costs to do each phase of a job. I did use psychology in trying to figure out how to get the client to say yes but never took a class in it.

In the meantime, will somebody please tell the Pulitzer people my URL?

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