Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Dec 13, 2010

Poor People and Speech

I was on the train the other day when a woman wearing a business suit captured my attention.  As she walked down the aisle to her seat, there was something a bit off about her.  Her gait was awkward and out of sinc with the clothes she had on.  It occurred to me very quickly that she lacked poise, a sign that she was not raised within the middle-class culture.  When I say she lacked poise I do not mean this as a put-down, only an observation.  Since I was born poor and transitioned into the middle-class, I have a keen perception regarding those of my kind who are trying to do the same.  
The fact is that women from the poorer class often tend to carry themselves in a less genteel way.  How they bear themselves is geared toward functionality, rather than daintiness.  There is a reason for this, based in a long cultural history.  In centuries past, wealthy women were little more than mere decorations on the arms of their men.  They wore voluminous dresses, tight corsets and huge hats to flaunt their affluence.  This created the need for dainty ways of walking in order to successfully balance themselves in these beautiful but extremely difficult to wear outfits.
On the other hand, poor women had to perform back-breaking manual labor all the day long.  They had to be quicker, tougher and stronger than wealthy women.  There was no room for daintiness in their lives.  In fact, if a poor woman attempted to walk in a dainty fashion, she might be accused of “putting on airs” and perhaps even laughed at or punished for behavior not in keeping with her station in life. 
Remnants of these class differences in how we carry ourselves when we walk down the street remain with us.  In modern times, though, even middle-class women can lack poise.  Therefore, I wasn’t a hundred percent certain that my hunch about her was right.  I needed her to speak.  If she was from the poorer class, her speech would give that away. 
Unfortunately, she had boarded the train alone and was sitting by herself.  Oh well, I thought, I may as well read the paper.  So, I scanned the headlines for the latest news, but found it difficult to concentrate.  Studying class differences is my obsession and so I couldn’t stop thinking about the awkward woman in the business suit.  My guess was that she was on her way to an interview for an office job and in doing so, was going to attempt to “pass” for middle-class.  In order to work in an office, you have to adopt middle-class norms, mannerisms and attire.  You also have to speak like a middle-class person.
It reminded me of the movie and hit play, My Fair Lady.  No other literary masterpiece is so brutally honest in its portrayal of class differences.  The main character, Professor Higgins, is a wealthy author and language expert who bets a colleague that he can pass a poor flower girl off as a duchess by giving her speech lessons for six months.  The flower girl agrees because she wants to learn to speak like a “proper lady” so she can work in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street.
Higgins insults the impoverished girl repeatedly, saying she should be hanged for the murder of the English language.  “She’s so deliciously low,” he says, then calls her a guttersnipe.  She sticks up for herself, demanding that she be treated with respect.  She even threatens to leave his beautiful mansion if he doesn’t treat her better.  He lures her back with promises of chocolate, a magnificent treat to someone of her station and in that time period.
After months of grueling speech lessons, the girl learns to speak like a wealthy person and Higgins successfully dupes aristocrats into thinking she is a duchess.  As poetic justice would have it, he falls in love with the girl once she is transformed.
I was jarred out of My Fair Lady mode when the awkward woman in the business suit was greeted by a friend.  She returned the greeting and all of my assumptions were confirmed.  Her speech was heavy with the unmistakable dialect of the poorer class.  
It’s possible she had gone to college and earned a degree.  Maybe she learned computer skills somewhere.  Perhaps she did well in her typing class at school and wanted to use it toward some kind of office work.  I started to gauge how her speech might get in the way.  She’d never be hired as a receptionist or switchboard operator, that’s for sure.  Those jobs required the use of middle-class speech.  She could certainly become a typist or deal with paperwork, but unless she learned “proper English” she could forget about climbing the ladder toward an executive position.  With skill and determination, she may be able to enter lower management someday, but it would be hard for upper management to take her seriously in the corporate world.  The fact is that speech can be a major handicap for a poor person trying to become middle-class. 
The school system is well aware of this, so it attempts to force poor kids into changing their speech to conform to what is considered acceptable English. Unfortunately, this is often done without sensitivity.  Imagine being told that the way you speak is wrong.  Consider the underlying message.  Speech is more than just words.  It’s an inherent part of the culture we were raised in.  We speak the way our parents, friends and neighbors do.  The people who are most important to us, who are in our circle, are the ones that taught us speech.  At six or seven we are sent to school, where adult outsiders (teachers) tell poor kids that they’d better get down to the business of speaking in a different way.  Why? Because the way they speak isn’t acceptable. How is a child supposed to react to something so confusing and devastating? 
I was a housing project child who attended school during the days of corporal punishment when teachers were allowed to threaten their students with violence and carry it out.  Back then, brutality was an effective means to get poor kids to change their speech.
Now that beating proper English into them is against the law, teachers are throwing their hands up in the air, frustrated.  They lay blame upon this new generation of poor kids who are resisting their attempts to change the way they speak.  But why are they resisting?
Well meaning teachers do not realize that changing one’s speech is confusing to a child’s sense of identity.  Add to this, many poor kids are racial minorities whose manner of speech is an inherent part of their racial as well as personal identity.  One can argue that Black English (also known as Ebonics) is just as valid as White English.  Why should they want to learn to speak the same way as their oppressors?  People resist what they don’t want to learn. 
On the other hand, the teaching of mainstream white English is a necessary part of the curriculum.  Without it, poor kids would find it impossible to maneuver through the corporate world as adults and would be extremely limited in job choices along with the ability to make a good income.   
How do we teach proper English to poor children without damaging their self-worth?  Instead of forcing it upon them, teachers and school officials need to recognize that manners of speech borne of subcultures have value.  These kids need to be told that there is nothing wrong with who they are or their dialect.  It should be explained that learning mainstream English is simply a tool to help them in the world, like math or reading.  It is not superior to Black English or the English of the poor white subculture and they don’t have to give up the way they naturally speak, only learn to speak both kinds of English.
If we stop telling poor kids that there is only one kind of “proper” English that is superior to all the rest, maybe they will be less resistant to learning it.  And their self-esteem will remain intact.

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