Friday, August 21, 2009

Language Lessons

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by By Alexandra Teague

Language Lessons

The carpet in the kindergarten room
was alphabet blocks; all of us fidgeting
on bright, primary letters. On the shelf
sat that week's inflatable sound. The "th"
was shaped like a tooth. We sang
about brushing up and down, practiced
exhaling while touching our tongues
to our teeth. Next week, a puffy U
like an upside-down umbrella; the rest
of the alphabet deflated. Some days,
we saw parents through the windows
to the hallway sky. "Look, a fat lady,"
a boy beside me giggled. Until then
I'd only known my mother as beautiful.

Here’s a poem ‘seen’ from the point of view of a child, one who is attending kindergarten. The scenario in question here, in this poem, is a lesson in language.

If we still remember our own kindergarten years – those who went to one – most likely a young teacher would have brought out wooden blocks with the alphabets on their faces or sides, for the elucidation of the yet unmolded young minds.

In the case of this child in the poem, her teacher has placed such blocks on the floor, onto the classroom’s carpet. They probably wouldn’t have been such a lot that they cover up the entire stretch of the carpet. But for a little girl who is just learning the alphabet, they look like so. And, they seem so cartoonishly enormous, as though they are being sat on by tiny fidgety children. In the alliterations in "bright, primary", the b tells us what they are sitting on is hard, and the r that it is uncomfortable.

It’s quite interesting to observe that the first line cuts off – or runs-on, enjambes – at “room/ was ...”. The adult would have been taught to use a more active verb than “was”. However, a child still learning the language is expected to use something more static, like “was”, because she cannot think of a stronger word, or verb, yet. And, probably, also, a child always sees things as they are.

She is in empathy with her other classmates who are in a similar quandary. They are all fidgetting, unsure about the letters. This is made emblematic with the use of a semi-colon, instead of the normal comma to delineate a subordinate clause. We can imagine the confused child: is it a comma? is it a full-stop? Also, the incomplete syntax of the phrase following the semi-colon shows that they have all given up on completing a full sentence, after that punctuation.

The point of view, after the full-stop, is from the floor she is sitting on, when she looks up to see that week’s word or part of a word. Of course, she cannot envision or hear the sound that word makes. She just sees the alphabet as a tooth. For a child the alphabets look like a tooth, an umbrella, and other inflated and deflated objects.

And, learning how to make the correct sounds from these letters can take so much effort for a child: "touching our tongues/ to our teeth". The t sounds show this, the th showing the final strain to reach the teeth with the tip of the tongue. And later, they have to contend with sounds difficult to get around the tongue with, like the U (say "eweee"); so much acrobatics, too, ("upside-down umbrella") with the u's and r's. Then, they'll get a reprieve with deflated sounds : the f sounds in "alphabet deflated".

Now, at this point of the poem we see the significance of the use of "was" in line two. As I already mentioned, a child always sees things as they are. The last four lines illustrate this:

Imagine the shock this child gets when one of her classmates, a boy, suddenly is able to see things as they really are. He has seen her mother through the windows as she really is, a fat woman, and not as the beautiful woman she has alway known her to be.

The point of this poem is, this is one of the first of many lessons about how we use language. For instance, we can be polite and not hurt somebody's feelings by couching our language in vague terms. Or we can cut to the chase, as it were, and come right out with the ugly truth. Like, "You suck at this, at that", "You look fat in that dress".


To know more about the poet Alexandra Teague, click here.

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