I defy you to read the first three paragraphs of this Laura Berman column from the Detroit News and not read the rest:
The president of the Detroit school board, Otis Mathis, is waging a legal battle to steer the academic future of 90,000 children, in the nation’s lowest-achieving big city district.
He also acknowledges he has difficulty composing a coherent English sentence. Here’s a sample from an e-mail he sent to friends and supporters on Sunday night, uncorrected for errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage. It begins:
If you saw Sunday’s Free Press that shown Robert Bobb the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, move Mark Twain to Boynton which have three times the number seats then students and was one of the reason’s he gave for closing school to many empty seats.
The column goes on to describe Mathis’ epic battles with the written word, asking whether his ability to succeed in spite of it (he has a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State, but it took more than a decade to get, because he couldn’t pass the English proficiency exam) is good news or bad. There’s no clear answer, but it made me think about writing and what it takes to do it a) well and/or b) competently. You can imagine my feelings about it; looking back on my romantic history, I don’t think I ever had a serious relationship with a man who couldn’t turn a phrase. They varied widely in formal education, but they could all write a decent letter or inscribe a book with style. It’s not like I went looking for them; it just worked out that way. I doubt a math PhD would marry someone who couldn’t balance the family checkbook.
Over many years, I’ve managed to overcome my belief that bad spelling is a character flaw, and friends, that has taken some doing. I’ve known enough very smart people who could barely spell cat and dog that I’ve grown into the belief it’s a form of learning disorder. (First, I have to believe you actually tried to learn, however.) One of my college boyfriends handed me a grocery list once: chese, pasto (penny), letus. I still get an occasional e-mail from him — funny but atrociously spelled. I don’t think he even sees the mistakes, and has the sense to rely on proofreaders for his business correspondence.
Others would feel the same way about me, and my mathematic illiteracy. I can do the big four — add, subtract, multiply and divide — but Kate, in seventh grade, knows better than to ask me for help on her math homework; she outran me with numbers a year or two ago.
But at least I’m not in charge of anyone else’s money, or doing calculations of load-bearing pillars. Mathis is on a school board, its president. And he’s a living embodiment of that contemporary nightmare — the diploma-holding (degree-holding!) graduate who’s functionally illiterate.
Of course, Detroit is a special case:
“We picked him (to be president) because we thought he has the intelligence for it and the tolerance for disruptive behavior,” says Reverend David Murray. “He has that type of calm.”
This is a district where board meetings often feature “disruptive behavior” — a citizen’s group organized a grape-throwing incident on one memorable occasion — so maybe this is a special case. But I doubt it. Grosse Pointe’s most recent board president has a blog that he not only writes himself, it contains his own complex but understandable analyses of financial documents. You could hardly pick a better example of how far apart two adjacent districts can be in this strange land of southeast Michigan.
OK, folks. Back to the grind. I’m a word-churning machine for the next fortnight, and the warmup has lasted long enough.