Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Real Talk With Rachel: Who Gets to Talk Back? (Part II)

by Rachel Kurzius

Thank you all for another week of engaging reader responses. I wanted to make sure I included some of the smart advice you all gave me about last week’s query. A young woman wrote in to ask whether she should correct students and coworkers about their style of speech at an afterschool
education nonprofit. While the writer wanted to respect the differences between her and her colleagues, she also wanted to make sure that her students were getting adequate preparation for college.

You all had a ton of insight on this issue. One reader works with low income middle and high schoolers. “A lot of our students use the same language your reader described and the way I handle it, is to explain to the students that the language of business (and of colleges) is standard English and they need to think of themselves as bilingual. They can use the language they're used to with their friends, but when speaking to college admissions people or people in business, they need to speak standard
English to be taken more seriously as a candidate, and I demonstrate with examples. That way there's no judgment on dialect and it's up to the student which way they want to speak and when.”

I love this approach. It is clever, respectful and, most importantly, educational. Whatever you think about the different ways people speak, there’s no question that some forms of English are more acceptable in businesses and college classrooms.

For those who fear that statement might lack political correctness, don’t take it from me. Take it from this reader. “I believe it's fine for you to want your young people to model the accepted dialect for entering college. I struggled as a child to articulate proper English and now I've a mid-Atlantic accent and use no slang, helping me to get into an Ivy League school. So now I'm an upper middle class woman, too. I am in gratitude to those who corrected me along the way.”

As always, I love hashing over these issues with you afterwards and welcome your comments and feedback, in addition to your questions.


Dear Rachel,

My son is 16 years old. He recently took the practice SATs and did not do very well. This is mainly because he did not care or concentrate, or that is what he told me, anyway. He is normally an average student. When I told him how important these tests are, he told me I was calling him stupid. I want him to study for the SATs so he will have a choice of different colleges, but I don't want him to think I think he is stupid.

A Teaching Moment

Dear A Teaching Moment,

Teenagers are quite manipulative, or so my parents have told me. Once, when I was a sophomore in high school, my parents gave me a hard time over a report card and admonished me for not trying harder. I responded with the drama dial turned up as high as it went -- they were calling me stupid,
they were too hard on me, they didn't understand anything and other histrionics my shame has since blocked from memory. In retrospect, they were right. I gave them hell for it anyway.

I can't remember anymore whether I actually believed they thought I was stupid at the time I threw a tantrum, or whether I used that attack as a way to score cheap points. It didn't matter. The reason that their comment about my report card had such a negligible effect on my self esteem is because I already knew my parents didn't think I was stupid.

Why? Because most of the time, they were telling me I was smart. Even when they gave me a hard time over schoolwork, it was because they expected better from me. It's the way people treat you over time, not in one conversation, that demonstrates how they really feel. Does your son know you don't think he's stupid? He's 16 now, so surely you've had opportunities over the years to impress upon him how smart you think he is.

More likely, he feels stupid himself, because he's disappointed by his score. He may have thought he could just skate by, and the low score shows that he's going to have to put some work into prepping for the SAT. You should emphasize to him that doing well on the SAT is a learned skill, and
it takes practice.

His apathetic attitude when it comes to the SAT might be more complicated than sheer disappointment. Maybe he's reticent or nervous about college and studying would mean facing the reality of the next big step. Make sure you talk to him about the whole process of applying to college, instead of just the SAT as this big, looming fright of a test.

For the record, you're right about the SAT being important when applying to college. While some colleges are moving away from the test in their admissions processes, the majority still rely on it. Your son's score will make a difference as he looks for a good college in the coming years.

But for him to do well, he's going to have to want to do well. Look over a book of colleges and see what kinds of schools he's looking at. When he sees what those schools require in scores, perhaps that will motivate him to get his head in the books.



Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel via at via advice @

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