Learnt by Edward M Baldwin
|Learnt by Edward M Baldwin
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: John Lloyd
|Summary: A school teacher finds lessons awkward when he finds a novel way of speaking is needed, in this superior example of the heroic inspirational teacher genre. A fresh approach to the language adds to the other reasons this book is recommended.
|Date: November 2007
|Publisher: Jazlo & Lossi Publishing
|External links: Author's website
It is often said, but the differences between the US and the UK are great. There, they eat things called grits and chittlins, call their parents Sir and Ma'am, and just refuse to talk English proper like what I does. In ascending order, those elements are factors in this book – culminating in the language divide Tony finds when he joins the local sink school fresh from teaching college.
Tony, a Black American, has trained himself, through the use of debating competitions and public speaking, to speak with something like RP – Standard English, as the prologue's definitions here have it. Things are verging on Dangerous Minds territory, when he enters the classroom and finds practically everyone – black, Hispanic, white – talking in an awful, slangy, hip-hoppish (hip-hopping?) argot – one that is close to how his mother and he himself used to talk, mind.
But we have no need to fear – Tony is soon evidently the sort of teacher who can say the right thing at just the right time, and once he has got discipline, he soon manages to get on the same wavelength as his students – though not particularly in the way he expected.
Tony is an interesting person out of the classroom as well. Engaged to a white girl he met at teacher college, he sees race problems everywhere – correctly so, perhaps, when one of his old, good friends seems to object to him dating outside his race, and is not alone in calling him Uncle Tom (apparently the worst of the worst – an Uncle Tom is some treasonous cop-out, sucking up to whitey, etc). Still, with his soft and loving relationship with his mother he does break away from the monotone hero-teacher character, and the relationship side of things with Sarah is well done.
Elsewhere someone else has a less than soft and loving relationship with his mother – Kenny. He is possibly even more interesting, for being a bit short on the sympathy side. Either he is a large lad, prone to comfort eating, and subject to abuse at the hands of his racist mother, or is a violent and insolent young lard-ass, who cannot stick with anything outside the gaming arcade. Or, of course, something in between. While his strands are very separate – and further so from Tony's when they nicely branch into the first-person reportage – it becomes more and more obvious that his and Tony's storylines will meet. Who, if anyone, will come out in one piece?
I haven't exactly chosen to read any books in the inspirational teacher genre, but I do declare this one to be a nicely successful one. While the way race becomes a part of everyone's story, in the way of the recent film Crash, is perhaps a little forced, and a little over-bearing at times (when can we get over the fact that non-white people can be racist as well?), the result of that is the linguistic thrust of the story, which serves as the unique selling point. Dubbing the quick-to-diss rap-talk of his pupils Choklish, Tony teaches them the results of that and RP, but thankfully never appears to be giving us a lesson. Of course, he has lessons to take on board as well, with his bride-to-be, his new (temporary? Huh!) job, and more.
The language side of things, which would be quite laughable if the writing were not fully engaging, is furthered by some of Tony's speech, plus that of his mother, the family friend, and all the class-mates, delivered in a phonetic way – Choklish as it is spelled. Hence (to quote at random) wait'n fuh h'uh ta open na doh is clearly waiting for her to open the door. This might slow some of the reading down a little, and were it to be spoken aloud by an English reader would be insultingly badly accented (I know, I tried).
I think that if you choose to read this book you will get what is to some point a slightly predictable read, but one superior to many other options. To my taste, at least, the linguistic side of the lessons is a lot more sympathetically appealing than the usual cinematic tropes of school-age drugs, dancing, gang violence, and what have you that similar works provide. There are suggestions (in the peculiar publisher's bit about the book being discounted for bulk, educational purchases, and in the author's website) of this being some educative, semi-autobiographical book, but again the preaching is kept to a rank minimum. The class as a collective is a stereotype, with far too many hard-to-discern pupils, but is given a strong and novel voice through Choklish, and the leads, to repeat, are interesting, strong and rounded characters.
Also, I don't think the book is only for the more literary reader, or those interested in linguistics, race and educational issues. It serves just as much as an entertainment as an issue book. While slightly dated in feel on occasion (especially regarding computer games) it is a current book, of some import. The only hindrances it has are a minor way of the inevitable about it, and the several cultural differences between it and us in the UK (and I certainly don't recognise the type of school herein, from the 300+ I have worked for over the last four years). That might be its biggest hurdle – the shrugging admission that the USA will never speak English correctly, so why read what only boils down to a confirmation of that fact?
So what has it teached me? That I can be entertained by such a book, and that this volume is worthy of a Bookbag recommendation. Our thanks to the author for sending us a copy to read. I might just search out that famed black authoress this book mentions, Tony Morrison, too. D'oh!
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