This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the profiles of two women who have had a profound impact on me into two parts. In case you missed the first part, his is the second of the two ladies. The bitches were two of the female dogs I’ve owned, who were also influential in my life This is part two. Here is part one.
She wasn’t all that young when she taught me, so I’ll assume that she’s either dead now or very old, but I had a very interesting relationship with one of my two high school AP English teachers. She was Ms. Betty Bivins — well, she went by “Mrs.”
She was a wide, thick-set but not heavy older woman with red hair that may or may not have been henna. My overall impression of her was that she consisted of squares and cubes with Conan O’Brien’s hair-do before he became famous for it, and a penchant for textured pantsuits that resembled flocked wallpaper in tones of either orange, red, or green over white or cream.
The word formidable comes to mine in both talent and personality, and this is appropriate, because she was my first actual Grammar Nazi.
I hated her for it from the start. But by the end, everyone in the class and I knew all the rules backwards and forwards, and for the semester I wound up in a regular (not remedial) English class (the why explained below), the grammatical and technical abilities of those kids were clearly nowhere on our level.
What she did was this: She gave us a list of common grammar and spelling errors, like mixing up it’s and its, or confusing your/you’re or there/they’re/their, along with commonly misspelled words like, well, “misspelled,” or “privilege,” and whether to use “affect” or “effect.” (That one has a sneaky hidden triple point score, thank you psychology!)
I think there were something like fifty items on the list, and she had a master book with our names down the first column and the rule numbers at the top, with two check boxes under each rule all the way down.
When we turned in a paper, if we messed up a rule, she’d make a check in the book and mark it in red on our paper with the rule number. If we ever made the same error twice, that particular paper would fail no matter how good it otherwise was, and that would affect our overall grade.
I know that one because of her, by the way.
She was, in effect (see what I did there?) the kind of editor I became, and young me wasn’t happy about it at first, especially on that one day when I screwed up and “it’s’d” when I should have “its’d.”
Now, I kept a diary back in the day and I remember finding it as an adult and reading through it, very amused for two reasons. One was that I didn’t really write about any of the more… interesting stuff that happened in my life (Narrator voice: “Sex. He means sex. Mostly masturbation, but also sex.”)
The other is that in those first days of high school, I raved about most of my teachers, and then would just tersely note: “Xth Period. English. Hate it.” And no, I don’t remember what period it was. I do remember reading, as an adult, my entry on the day I got my first mark in the Big Book of Grammar sins, though. “Xth Period. English. Bitch, bitch, BITCH!”
But, of course, stubborn little bitch that I am thanks to Mom, I was determined to never fuck up anything in the Big Book again, and I didn’t. And I started to realize that Ms. Bivins really encouraged my writing. A lot. And eventually, we clicked, and during my second semester, she was my favorite teacher and AP English was my favorite class, second place a tie between AP History (Mr. Sholl) and Spanish (Ms. Navarro).
There is a point to mentioning AP, too, which is going to come up in a second. “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,” and this is a high school track that actually counts as college credit. In fact, because of all my high school AP classes, I actually started college as a second semester Freshman and could have technically graduated a semester early, but instead stupidly took on two minors. And an extra semester of debt.
So we get near the end of first year, I’d been telling Ms. Bivins about a science fiction novel I’d been working on. I think I may have even bravely given her some pages, and she suggests, “You know, you could write this next year as an independent study in lieu of your English class, with me as your advisor…”
Side note: although it was (cough) a few years before The Purge, that science fiction novel was basically that, but set in a distant dystopian future. And, ironically, I was given the idea by a fellow student who was already in the “regular” English class first semester and he explicitly pitched it as, “I think this is an interesting idea, but there’s no way in hell I could ever write it, but you could.”
I titled it Free for All, and I actually still have a printed manuscript of the damn thing around here somewhere.
Anyway, what reason was there to say “No?” to something that could become the next great YA novel? So we created the pitch for the independent study, she got it approved at the school level and, as far as I knew, it was good to go before summer break according to someone at LAUSD downtown.
I came back that fall for the new semester, and when I got to what was supposed to be my independent study class, Ms. Bivins welcomed me with a look on her face that made me think her entire family had just died in a fiery car crash.
She explained that only that week, during the student-free day before classes started (aka “yesterday”,) some ass-clown administrator downtown had said, “Wait. You can’t do a core class like English as an independent study!”
But here was the Catch-22. I couldn’t just go right back into the AP English class either because, reasons. So I found myself being escorted by a very sad Mrs. Bivins to a regular English class already in progress, where I spent a semester in hell because it was just so goddamn boring.
It felt like repeating the curriculum and reading level from back in middle school — Tom Sawyer and Lord of the Flies and the like. Been there, done that. And, like I mentioned, the level of English written in that class was, well… average, really. If you’re not sure what that is, go read the comment section for any online newspaper or media website, then count the number of times you cringe because of the writing. Yeah, that level.
Now, it wasn’t that these people were stupid. It’s just that not everyone is good at language arts in general, or their own native language in particular — never mind if they’re not a native speaker. I get that. I’ve known Medical Doctors and PhDs in other fields who couldn’t spell or string together a coherent written sentence to save their lives, but they are good at what they do.
And I cannot count on all my fingers, toes, and other parts (i.e. hair) the number of plumbers, handy-people, mechanics, cleaners, and so on who don’t speak much English at all, but who light up in Spanish when I tell them I understand — and who are ridiculously good at their jobs.
Seriously, if we ever have a disaster in space, all we need to do is send up a Mexican with some duct tape, PVC pipe, a tile knife, a couple of adjustable wrenches, a mallet, one black plastic trash bag, and a friend, and that shit is coming home safe and sound.
(Note to anyone taking issue with the last paragraph: It was a humorous way of saying that the ingenuity of people from Mexico or of Mexican descent never ceases to amaze me. White people whine and call a professional. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans look at the problem and solve it. Period. They could MacGyver their way out of anything. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between growing up with privilege and not. But I do digress…)
As for all those wypipo who never learn how to English… in a lot of cases, they do learn their own technical jargon very well, so you might be surprised to see that lawyers aren’t necessarily literate outside of their particular bailiwick. They can write briefs, arguments, and opinions all day, but ask for an essay, and it ain’t gonna happen.
Hint: this is why paralegals really exist. To fix the regular English screw-ups that sneak into their bosses’ stuff so that they don’t look stupid in front of the judges.
But here is the insidious thing: In Mrs. Bivins shooting for the Moon and missing so that I landed back with the muggles for a sad late summer and most of autumn, she actually did me a gigantic favor without ever having to explain a thing, because I don’t think she even realized it, either.
Let’s get back to that “AP” part. See, it also happened to be that most of the people in all my AP classes were also people I’d been in classes with all through school since about first grade, provided that we all went to the same three schools. So, minor cast changes along the way, but for the most part, we seemed to wind up on the same train from age 6 to 18.
Now, it made sense in elementary school when we all spent the entire day in one room, with one teacher. But once we popped up into middle school and the sudden wonder of six different classes, six different rooms, and six different teachers, it should have gotten more random.
It didn’t. So on day one in middle school, there I was in home room, with mostly all the same people I’d been in class with on the last day of elementary school — and that continued on through the days and the years.
The only place it seemed to break down was in P.E., but I can’t help but think that this was strictly engineered by the sadistic coaches, who wanted to toss a bunch of jocks and nerds all together in one locker room at the same time, and then tell them, “Shower time!”
Yeah, we had to nude up and do that back then. I didn’t mind at all, But it was the only class I could remember that seemed to mix all levels of students, from advanced on down. Then again, while any typical period might have dozens of different classes in dozens of different rooms at the same time (my school were huge), P.E. had all of them at one time, in one place.
But the exception proved the rule. The only time I had class with people I wasn’t always in class with from the beginning was in the only class that did not test intellect, only physical ability.
Oh yeah… we’d all gone through that one at about twelve years old. I remember failing miserably on all counts so, while those of us from many levels did P.E. together technically, I was still lumped with my fellow nerds in the same Coach’s group, and at least he was less of an asshole than the others.
That didn’t stop them from having us do things like play flag football against the group full of aggressive jocks. It was like The Hunger Games, except with less death.
Still… why all of this grouping?
Well, ultimately, it was because all of us, around the beginning of 1st grade, were given an IQ test in that wonderfully systemically racist way of perpetuating “white superiority,” seeing as how IQ tests were originally created by big fans of eugenics.
But we took those tests and, unbeknownst to us, we were sorted into groups. I happened to wind up among the top tiers — “Gifted” and “Profoundly Gifted,” although I never heard those words until years later. But the end result was that our cohort, who were tested as well above-above average on the alleged “IQ” test were fast-tracked to…
Well, honestly, privilege. Now, granted, it was Los Angeles, so at least our gifted group was not 100% white, and everyone in it earned it. But here was the problem. Well, two problems.
One is that the particular IQ test they were still using at the time was later determined to have an enormous cultural bias, which did tend to weed out people from lower socio-economic backgrounds of all kinds. The other is that, because of this test, the top group got more resources and attention than everyone else when, ironically, we were the ones who probably needed it the least.
Put Mrs. Bivins in a “regular” English class, and she could probably bring them up to “our” level in a semester. Meanwhile, give us the rule book and make it a challenge for us to catch each other’s errors and… same result, cheaper method.
But this forever opened my eyes to how our entire school system is not really interested in improving everyone. Rather, it’s only interested in dumping everyone in their proper box, from Alpha to Epsilon, and doing form a very early age.
Sound familiar? It should. That’s Huxley’s Brave New World right there. Which, come to think of it, Mrs. Bivins did have us read during our second semester. So… maybe she had always planned ahead, and was setting up an object lesson she knew that I’d get? I don’t know. All I do know is that she, more than anyone else, gave me the push onto the path of pursuing this crazy “be a writer” thing.
Image source, Mohamed Hassan via Pexels. Licensed for free use.