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Failing English

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There are recurring memes going around LJ. And one of the recurring directives seems to be: "Tell something about yourself that others may not have known."

Mine — I nearly failed English every year from Grade 9 to 11. And I'm not talking about my standard of "fail" which was "below 90%". I'm talking about the standard school failing grade of 50%.

They kept assigning me to the same teacher. Stupid me, didn't ask to transfer and, not knowing the language, my parents were completely helpless in the situation as well.

One year, I passed by special permission from the English Department Head (either Jim S. or Bryant K. at the time, it was confusing as to who exactly was the Head). I spoke to Bryant K. He basically had to review all my essays, assignments and tests. I remember being so relieved when he said he was confused as to why I was failed and that he would have graded me much higher than that.

Spelling and grammar were never a problem. To me, spelling tests were a question of how many tests I can score perfect in a row. And I've inherited my Dad's GrammarWhore-ness, except for English instead of Chinese.

I actually did every single assignment. I handed them in, on time, every time. I even went to her several times before to due date to show her what I had to make sure I was on track. And she would always say I was "on track". And yet, I always straddled the 50% passing mark.

I know English is fairly subjective. I know that "trying hard" doesn't necessarily equate to "doing well". Although, at a highschool level, the material isn't difficult so "trying hard" and "doing well" should go hand-in-hand. I know I didn't do as well as I did in say, Math or Physics. But if you have a second opinion and that second opinion says you should have gotten a much higher mark, then you have to wonder what the hell is going on.

Most of the kids that he had to review were the juvenile delinquents in the making who don't hand in their assignments or really do a craptacular job when they do. So, yeah, I was the biggest confusion of his life. Here's a kid who tried hard, wrote decent stuff, neatly, in full sentences, etc. But, he said he couldn't give me a grade that was too high because that would have raised all kinds of red flags about Margaret K. and they didn't want to have to re-grade all of her students. I passed with a low C instead of failing with a D. At that point, I was thrilled to pass at all.

I took a remedial English class that summer because it was recommended for students who failed or barely passed. I had never done so well in English in my life. In summer school, they only give you a "Pass" or a "Fail" grade. But I kept track of the score on all my assignments, quizzes and tests. By my calculations, I had a 97.3% average which was even a Pass by my standards.

Everyone and their dog was asking me just what the hell I was doing there. The program director. The teacher. And the big grunge/goth girl with thick eyeliner and black lipstick who was easily double my size in every dimension. Tara was cool, though. =)


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2004 06:04 pm (UTC)
I'm very shocked by this whole story. I always think that your journal is the only one on my friends list that consistently uses perfect and proper grammar. Hell, I'm an english major, and I don't even use proper grammar most of the time!
Oct. 3rd, 2004 07:37 pm (UTC)
The one thing that being ground through the Margaret School of English has taught me is that no one else seems to be as tough as her at marking anything I wrote.

She absolutely will not tolerate:
  • "weakness" in writing. Saying stuff like, "I think that..." would have lowered your marks significantly.
  • "This paper will show..." or "The purpose of this paper is...". The fact that you're writing a paper at all is evidence enough that you're trying to show something and there should be a purpose to it.
  • Avoid using negative forms. Period. Write everything from the positive perspective. That's not to say that everything had to be "nice", but you say "avoid doing x" instead of "do not do x"... that kinda thing.
  • Never say "should". It's either "do" or "must be" or some other verb like that. But "should" is weak and is never used.

Grammar, spelling, cohesiveness, concise wording and no awkward wording were basic things that just went without saying in her classes.

I've seen University research papers worse than the papers that I failed in 9th Grade.
Oct. 3rd, 2004 09:51 pm (UTC)
I've seen many University papers from Juniors that would have failed in my high school. I really do find myself wondering how they could come to this point and have no idea of how to actually write well.

Of course, I consider style in formal papers to be rather different from style in fiction or informal writing.
Oct. 3rd, 2004 10:00 pm (UTC)
Aside from coming from a foreign country, yes, I agree.

Of course, I consider style in formal papers to be rather different from style in fiction or informal writing.

Sure, but it's a little severe to be marking highschool students for having the word "should" in an essay when anything else would have been wrong and awkward.
Oct. 3rd, 2004 10:13 pm (UTC)
I forgive people whose native language is not English. What is funny is that their papers are often on par, if not better, with the native speakers'.

...I actually am still hitting my head with trying to come up with a good definition of the word "should" (or more accurately, the meaning of the use of that mood in English).

I don't know how severe it is. As a teacher, I would red it once, but not mark off. And there are some times I suppose "should" is the best choice--though I have found it rarely enough. Then again, I may be misjudging--I never really have gone and counted how many times I've used it, myself, in papers.

...I actually had to look around in a guide to English style to determine for sure that it's "different from" as opposed to "different than". I feel ashamed -.-

...yes, both are generally fine. But the former is considered more correct. Japanese is confusing me, although I like it better: "same with" and "different with". :)
Oct. 4th, 2004 10:29 am (UTC)
a good definition of the word "should"

It's an auxiliary that expresses obligation, but it's also non-committal to varying degrees because of its other definitions and depending on the voice of the speaker.

There were cases that I protested to Margaret all the time about using "should". There's a reason the verb exists in English, there's a time and place for it. No dice.

Sometimes, it's just clearer and more concise than beating around the bush with ugly crap like "in an ideal world, such&such will happen... blehblehbleh..." One of the comments that I'd get back were sections of sentences being "too wordy"... not as in "physical number of words", but succinctness of expression.
Oct. 4th, 2004 03:16 pm (UTC)
Well, I meant more of a philosophical description. That is, what do we mean by "obligation". For example, what does the phrase "We should endeavor to eliminate the word 'should' from our discourse" mean, without causing a nice recursive loop?

I think about linguistics often from a more math/philosophical perspective. How can I wrte it in symbols? What does it mean, fundamentally?

...of course, the usage in formal math and philosophy is different from the usage in English papers and such. So I might also be thinking of the problem differently.

...and I haven't even touched on trying to understand "may", "might", and so on...

Sometimes I think I should just take Philosophy of Language, and die from that, as opposed to independantly thinking about it. At least then I get a grade.

But I look on the bright (?,!!!) side: my Philosophy of Math paper is a justification of the infinite. I'm actually trying to figure out how to get LaTeX to let me use Chinese/Japanese characters, because I plan on using the Japanese(Chinese) Zodiac characters, so that I can avoid Arabic numerals.

......and I'm off on a tangent. But do you know how to get Japanese (or Chinese) in LaTeX? :)
Oct. 4th, 2004 03:32 pm (UTC)
Well, I meant more of a philosophical description. That is, what do we mean by "obligation". For example, what does the phrase "We should endeavor to eliminate the word 'should' from our discourse" mean, without causing a nice recursive loop?

Hmm, okay I'm not understanding this. To me, the first "should" in your sentence is the concept, whereas the second "should" (in single quotes) is just a string literal.

You can always eliminate the string literal. Replace it with something else, like with "ought to". But are you talking about eliminating the notion of "should" as in "obligation"?

Re: Chinese in LaTeX

See if this helps you: http://cjk.ffii.org/
Oct. 4th, 2004 03:46 pm (UTC)
Well, the reason we should avoid 'should' is because it's not well-defined. Yet, that means we do not know what it means when we "should not use". Anyways, what's an obligation? :)

It's more the fact that it's not conditional or indicative...so what is it?

...I've been there. Mind, I haven't played with it too much. Thing is, it didn't seem particularly geared to someone using MiXTeX and TeXnic Center on Windows :P
Oct. 4th, 2004 04:31 pm (UTC)
It's more the fact that it's not conditional or indicative...so what is it?

It's subjunctive. =)

Anyway, I didn't use LaTex much and when I did, it was on the HP-UX platform, so I have no idea...
Oct. 4th, 2004 04:44 pm (UTC)
I had to use LaTeX on Linux for one of my CS classes, and I liked it so much, I installed it on my own machine. Now I try to use it for as many classes as possible (that is, all the more techinical classes, such as Philosophy of Math).

..."should" isn't subjunctive...the subjunctive is for a situation contrary to reality, or one's desire, as opposed to obligation: "I wish he were kinder", "If I were you", "If the cat weren't so messy" et c...

Not unless that's something I missed with the subjunctive...of course, I still don't have a philosophical idea of the subjunctive. I'm a crazy foundationalist :)

...did you do CJK processing in LaTeX, or'd you simply just pull that link offa Google?
Oct. 4th, 2004 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: "should"

I thought it could be, just because I vaguely remember it as one of the subjunctive forms from French. But that was a long time ago. Merriam-Webster has this to say about it:
of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire)
Re: LaTeX

No, I've never used LaTeX with CJK at all.
Oct. 4th, 2004 06:34 pm (UTC)
Oooh, Contingent. That's a word I don't hear very often.

Hm, I will indeed have to think about that further. You have given me much to consider :)
Oct. 4th, 2004 07:21 pm (UTC)
Haaa-haa. Made'ja think! =D
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 3rd, 2004 07:25 pm (UTC)
He explained that my effort was nominal, though my technical skills should have merited the higher grade.

Yeah, like you say, WHAT?!?! >K{
Oct. 3rd, 2004 07:14 pm (UTC)
...sheesh. I hate teachers that pull stuff like that. I don't understand--did that teacher have a personal grudge against you or something, for some reason?
Oct. 3rd, 2004 07:21 pm (UTC)
No, she was actually a really nice lady. I talked to her a few years after I graduated and almost moved in with her to get away from my parents. By that time, her divorce proceedings were in full swing and she was looking for people to room with and share expenses with. I would have been rooming with another ex-student of hers.

I think she marked everyone extra tough to begin with but I'm still baffled to this day.
Oct. 3rd, 2004 08:43 pm (UTC)
wow! part of teh reason why i like reading your LJ is because it's well written.

that's just an odd way of grading.
Oct. 3rd, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC)
She was a bit bananas.
Oct. 3rd, 2004 08:44 pm (UTC)
And the big grunge/goth girl with thick eyeliner and black lipstick who was easily double my size in every dimension.

Awww, you just described me in high school. My long lost twin!

Um, anyway. Why am I completely not suprised that a fail for you is <90%? ;)
Oct. 3rd, 2004 10:01 pm (UTC)
Haha, yeah, I somehow lost touch with Tara after that summer =)
Oct. 4th, 2004 09:21 am (UTC)
Awwww .. so is this why your English is so good now? ;o)
Oct. 4th, 2004 10:30 am (UTC)
Heh, I still don't write well, but at least I'm not failing anymore =)
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )


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