Friday, February 17, 2012

Tales from School: How to Get Mad Smart, Yo

"Grammar: The difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit."

I've been trying to articulate an idea to students over the past few years but never really set it down in writing. I'll start today by telling the story of working with Frank (not his real name, never his real name).

Frank, first thing this morning, said to the math teacher, "I ain't got no math class today, yo." She told me that as the English teacher I needed to do something about that. Kids don't know how to speak these days, she said.

I walked in and he asked what the big deal is with the way he talks. I shrugged and made a face. Then I talked with him about how to be smart and why it's a good idea.

I said, It's good to be smart. It gives you advantages that stupid people aren't going to have. That's not nice, but it's true. Dumb luck only works once in a while. Most of us have to concentrate on being smart, making good decisions, and thinking deeply. Speak like you're dumb and people will believe you're dumb.

So? he asked. I don't care what nobody thinks.

I said, put it this way: I'm thinking of hiring you for a job, but there is another applicant. You say, I ain't got nothing to do today but sit and talk to you, yo. But the other applicant, she says, I'm free to speak with you as long as you would like, sir. Who gets the job? She does.

She may or may not be a good worker, but she sounds smart and I want to hire smart people.

Yeah, he said, but what if she dumb and just faking it?

She might be, but she was smart enough to sound smart which makes me think that she might be smart and so I treat her as though she really is smart. Most people get accustomed to being treated that way and continue to act and behave like smart people. Along the way, they pick things up and get smarter. It's a cycle. Meanwhile, the guy who sounded dumb, even if he's really smart, doesn't get the job doesn't have the chance to be smart that day. People get used to that cycle too.

What you do is try your best to seem smart and along the way you work to get smart. You fake it, 'til you make it.

He asked, I just gotta fake being smart?

It's a start, I said. You concentrate on one thing, how you speak, and make a point of saying things the way they ought to be said.

How do I know how things supposed to be said?

Surround yourself with smart people and listen. Pay attention. When you watch television, listen to how the smart characters speak. Imitate them. And before you say you ain't got no math class, stop and rephrase.

He waited.

I waited too and gestured for him to give it a try.

"I don't have math class today," he said.

You sound smarter already.

So how did you get smart? he asked.

I corrected him: How did I get to seeming smart?

I'm still working on it. I know really smart people and talk with them every day. I married a brilliant woman and she sets me straight. My kids are too smart to believe and keep me on my toes. When I publish my writing I don't want to sound stupid, so I work hard to get things right. I read and listen to NPR. I soak things up.

Then I asked him if he gets it.

He said, "I gots it."

We have some more work to do. But it's a start. Pick up your pen, I told him. Time for us to write on.