I owe almost all my cultural knowledge to significant others.
I'm not talking about "high" culture.
I'm talking pop culture.
It's just not my thing.
But, over the years, my boyfriends have educated me.
Every once in a while, I get to bring that knowledge to work in a powerful way.
This isn't a great story.
The analogy in it, however, is pretty frigging great.
The thing is, lots of kids have trouble adjusting their language to their environment.
We try to teach them to code switch, but many just don't get it.
The need for different language feels so foreign to their experiences.
Then you have kids like Kareem.
Kareem struggles with the concept of code switching.
On top of that, he has serious language related learning disabilities.
So his emphasis on how unnecessary formal language is may also be an avoidance tactic.
He isn't good at language.
He barely manages to master texting.
When I insist on formal conventions, he gets frustrated.
I've tried and tried to get through to him.
And continuously hit a brick wall.
Kareem and I have developed a strong working relationship.
I know how determined he is to succeed.
I know kids tease him about the size of his nose.
I know he hates making mistakes.
I also know he LOVES cars.
Because I know these things, I was able to make an analogy.
We were talking about formal language again.
We were also chatting about cars.
So I brought the two together.
Kareem understands cars.
I told him he needed to think about a brain like a transmission.
We all start out with manual transmissions.
Switching gears takes a lot of coordination.
We never lose the ability to switch gears manually.
The purpose of school, especially English class, is to help us function like an automatic.
Without conscious effort, we can move effortlessly from gear to gear.
And we can stay in the gear we need as long as we need to.
That way we can focus on the actual driving.
The what of our communication rather than the how.
Using appropriate language is like shifting gears.
If you can do it well, you'll make good time and win lots of races.
If you can't, you'll stall out and get left behind.
I like this analogy.
It isn't perfect.
Partly because my understanding of how transmissions actually work isn't perfect.
Partly because I haven't invested in polishing its rough edges just yet.
For Kareem, though, it made perfect sense.
I could see the wheels turning as we talked.
There was a moment when I saw it click.
For the first time, he really understood what code switching was, how it worked, and why it matters.
Without enduring the car enthusiast side of a significant other, I would never have been able to make the connection.
Relationships matter, but a little personal knowledge added in?
That is a good thing.
Because instead of just leaning on our mutual respect,
I was also able to connect.