Monday, October 8, 2007
I was sitting.
It’s Sunday, 90 degrees, October and a soothing warm rain holds back in the South, threatening to shower my purple heart, rose moss, a wild succulent plant, and variegated Halston. The steel colored elephant ears peak with three healthy leaves and a newer one makes its translucent spine aware. They must have tropic-like weather to survive. The clouds form a limitless smear of gray and blue and hang impossibly low, not as humid, but low like when you see them on a drive through the hills, through Hollister to get to Monterey...Dunes. Clouds always seem so far away in California until you make a drive like that. Here, in Texas, when the climate is moody and erratic, they are always within reach.
But I was contemplating language and the various benefits cultures have, the marvelous innate nature of not code, but upbringing and tradition. I have a fruitful, diverse group of students at the community college where I instruct—in Texas—a place where when I was sprouting like my new elephant ear leaf, I was limited to territory and broken dialect. To me English is not a beautiful language; it has become lost in necessity--it is outdone and all too common and its evolution rather dumb. However, in teaching my ESL students, I have learned another perspective, English is not merely the only verbal means to communicate, to survive, but it is something like an old rough, secret smile, a playful but grave dance.
Take these lines from Light in August: "She aint come from nowhere close ... She’s hitting that lick like she’s been at it for a right smart while and had a right smart piece to go yet.”
“Only a negro can tell when a mule is asleep or awake.”
How in the world could I explain to a Vietnamese, Mexican, Albanian, Hungarian, Portuguese, or African student what “hitting that lick,” or “right smart” or “right smart piece to go yet” means as a strand of English language so personal--so regional--so preserved? Even some native Americans might have a time, initially, translating Faulkner. I would have written "Hit'in".
In my profession, you must find away just as my Halston grows almost between the other flowers. Students drop the “s” and treat “th” as “d”—(which leads to the old reality that our own home grown people tend to “dis” naturally).
My great Auntie recently again reminded me of the sharpness of the English language that yet thrives. She was telling me about a recent trip to Oklahoma. She travels with her usual group of retired ladies—the eldest is 87, the youngest 82. All but one is not sold on technology and continues to use her glasses to see, to play, to read, to dictate her slot machines--instead of undergoing laser surgery. She also drove them to the casino this last time and my Auntie told me she can’t see to “damn good.” I said, "She can't?" She fired back in a voice that's just as boisterous as her color, “Girl, Bennie can’t see two white elephants fucking at midnight.”
My Aunt has never read Hemingway, but she’s probably kin to Faulkner—up the line, and only if the French LaRues had something to say. I could not evade this noticeable image, beyond my Aunt’s comical nature. Could we miss two blond, fleshy elephants gettin it on, at night, midnight? Can't use this as an example of anything...for students of course. English is a clever, pretentious habitual blab. And then a student will draw me back in with an anguish: chicken and kitchen, thought thorough though through throughout taught---these I can manage, these nuances I can explain.