Laughing at love letters
Exchanging handwritten letters was a fad in our high school circa 2003. We’d pick special stationery sheets, fill them with our best handwriting, and fold them in the most intricate ways before handing them to certain schoolmates. While most of the letters were merely friendly, many were admittedly of the romantic sort, peppered with song lyrics that the boys likely plucked straight from “song hits” magazines in the hope of impressing their crushes.
But high school was cruel, and so were the girls. At times, they would huddle around a just-opened letter and pick it apart, laughing at every wrong use of “you’re” and every misspelled Stephen Speaks lyric.
Except for a few broken male hearts, the mockery probably caused no real harm. However, it did represent a prevailing culture of ridicule, one that made it a norm to laugh at someone who tried to write in English but couldn’t perfect his grammar.
In a way, there must have been a justification for ridiculing the letters in broken English: High school is supposed to be the time when students are already writing their own poetry instead of still struggling with basic subject-verb agreement. If you were still failing in the basics, then maybe something was funny with you and it was okay for us to laugh.
A callous mindset, really, but unfortunately common, too. The norm of derision goes beyond school cliques. Social media is a specially brutal arena where an innocent comment, photo, or video can attract bullying from all sorts of strangers, based merely on a misspelling or mispronunciation. Posts showcasing imperfect English easily go viral, easily bring out unkind remarks, easily hide behind the excuse of humor.
Even the classroom, which should be the most conducive place for learning and where students should be encouraged to participate, can often be a setting where a student is shamed into silence. It can take only one teacher cracking a joke about a student’s “dumb” answer to elicit laughter from the whole class—and discourage the “dumb” student from raising his or her hand again. As educator and author Katherine Schultz pointed out, “Sometimes a student’s silence protects her from ridicule or bullying.”
We sneer at those who have not caught up to the standards we uphold, whether it’s mastery of language or a good grasp of science and math. It is our ideal to be well-educated individuals in a well-educated society, and so we nurture a keen dislike for what we perceive as stupidity. That is probably why we shame other people when they show any sign of being intellectually inferior.
This is unfair. Despite the standards we think are appropriate to measure people against—standards like test scores and the ability to quote Shakespeare—there are still great disparities that cause many learners to fall behind, and none of these disparities are funny.
Take, for example, the numerous studies supporting how malnutrition, particularly at an early age, stunts a person’s learning ability. A 2013 global report from Save the Children provides a snapshot: Malnourished kids score lower in math, are less likely to be able to read simple sentences, and are also less likely to be able to write one. Considering that malnutrition is prevalent among Filipino children, it is hardly a surprise that many pupils and students lag in learning.
At a deeper level are the socioeconomic gaps that almost inevitably determine which kids would learn fine and which ones would struggle. These gaps are there right from the get-go—that is, from enrollment: Poverty and the education levels of parents have been found to be determinants of the enrollment of children. Enrollment rates, according to an Asian Development Bank report, “are particularly low in poor rural and urban slum areas.” So are school completion rates.
Worse, the lower the income class of a Filipino family, the lower its spending for education. Latest data published by the Philippine Statistics Authority show that families earning P250,000 and up spent 5.4 percent of their income on this expenditure, while those earning under P40,000 spent a measly 0.4 percent for the same.
We have to acknowledge that in the current scenario, we are not learning together. That’s what makes mockery so unfair. We may be sitting in the same classrooms every day, reading the same books, listening to the same teachers, but some of us will go home only half-filled, and it may not entirely be their fault.
Certainly, there is a chance that a person can overcome the oppressive realities and end up excelling in his or her studies and career. We know of success stories—the former street child who completed college, the orphan who topped the board exam. The next success story could be that classmate sitting at the back of the room, but if she’s too afraid to recite in class after having been laughed at, she’ll have a hard time getting there.
This is not to say we should shy away from criticism and correction. Where they are needed, they should be supplied. Those of us who are intellectually endowed owe it to the world to help others catch up—or at least, to not be smug and derisive when someone’s grammar slips. There are constructive ways of criticizing and correcting; ridiculing a person for being “stupid” is not one of them.
The boys who wrote those letters back in high school have long moved past the adolescent breaking of their hearts and are now pursuing various careers. I sometimes wonder if one of them could have written the most romantic letter in the world, only to keep it hidden in a drawer somewhere after a high school crush laughed at his first attempt.
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