I speak English, but another language embedded itself in my head first. My parents spoke Portuguese back in the days Canadian immigration didn’t mandate language benchmarks or fluency for newcomers. My parents did what others in their group did. They came to Canada, learned enough to understand their jobs and stuck with their tight group. The kids picking up English turned into interpreters on anything from business letters to making appointments. My family went from the schools near Victor Street, programming already in place for the influx of Italian, Portuguese, and Greek to Valley Gardens home of no ESL programming and clueless teachers.
The first 1st-grade teacher proved one of those teachers with no idea what to do with a chubby, brown-eyed girl, with a strange name and a set of parents not fluent in English. Mrs. K did what others did in her situation-recommend retention and let the next teacher deal with me. The story goes even with the retention, any expectations for success proved low for someone with my background. Bouncing from scholastic throughout my life setbacks provided this nice, Catholic girl with a way to give the middle finger without, you know, actually giving a teacher the middle finger.
Although the temptation did rear up from time to time.
I did receive formal grammar training with worksheets and drills. A practice best known as the most annoying things ever. The second 1st-grade teacher struck upon a great idea and said I needed to read more. I noticed the trips to the public library started to go with the formal library visits in school. I read, and then I wrote and read some more. I soaked words and stories. Grammar and writing proved a little tricky. Sometimes readers catch the flaws like an acne breakout.
A little while back, I told the story about my essay used by my professor as an example of something needing improvement. After I had crawled out of the hole of shame, I enlisted the help of a tutor. She read the paper and said, “This could have been an A paper, the grammar just needed some work.” Using my writing and not some abstract grammar sheet, she showed me a few things to watch for in her sensitive matter. The tutor, whose name I, unfortunately, forgot, first demonstrated how creative ideas get buried under verb tenses, comma splices, and sentence fragments. (My top three things to watch for to this day.) Spelling proved another difficulty. I had a vocabulary, the words tripping off my tongue, but spell them prove difficult. As a former teacher of English, people feel great writers have perfect grammar.
Great writers have ideas, fabulous world-building, characters built from the flesh of words, AND THEY HAVE FREAKING EDITORS. They are the fresh pair of eyes looking over pieces, and I luckily developed enough thick skin to know a snarky put down from honest critiques. To this day, even with the thick skin, I feel shame fluttering around like a bird squawking “You’re stupid. You want to be a writer!? What a load of bullshit!” I say a quiet hello and show it the door to the darker recesses of my mind.
Something sad happens if people fixate on sentence structure as a measure of character. People close up, remain silent, with the world losing a newspaper article, a good novel, or a fresh voice. I read those perfect grammatical pieces. The sentences follow the rules, the punctuation was flawless, but they have no soul. They worry about the sentence at the expense of idea it wants to flesh out. A writer’s voice feels flat and stale. In short the story, the writer, nothing shows up. I understand why it happens. I froze for years, too scared to write a word.
Last year I subscribed to Grammarly, a decision pays itself off in remarkable ways. Better than drills and worksheets, it used my writing to show me the right way to put a comma, snip need needless adjectives. I let the ideas flow, then click the lower, left-hand corner, to correct the punctuation and spelling. It’s not perfect. When I use the word ‘sentence’ in its proper context, it wants me to say ‘judgement’ or ‘penalty’. I remind myself it’s another tool in my toolbox, and to just write.