Itika (photo unavailable) is by far my best student. Though native to Tanganyika, she spent a large chunk of her life living in
But it’s her mastery of the second person plural that has made Itika my unabashed teacher’s pet.
So with no real reason to get make-believe extra credit, Itika went ahead and did what “that kid” we all remember from our days as 7th graders would do: she got it anyway, padding her lead like Steve Spurrier in the 4th quarter of a 70-3 drubbing of Florida International during his days in Gainesville.
“Excuse me Teecha, but isn’t the plural form of “you” supposed to be ‘y’all’?”
A third generation Texan on both sides of the family tree, my heart skipped a beat. My immediate first thought was obviously, “Itika,” but it just hadn’t sounded like her. I had to root out the culprit.
“Who said’ y’all’?” I snapped, abruptly, but not in a way that was rude to the teacher who I had just interrupted, Bwana Oola. There was no response. “Who said y’all?” I repeated, a little more eagerly this time around, eyes scanning the room.
Itika, tucked away in the corner, outside my line of sight, raised her hand.
I can’t say I was surprised.
“You’re right about that,” I said, initially looking her right in the eyes. “‘Y’all’ is what you say in real conversation, but it’s not proper English. It’s more like …” – What was that thing my neighbor Biti had taught me to say for "street Swahili?" I looked down at my shoelaces as I searched for the phrase, – “…Kingereza cha mtaa.”
Every single student started laughing. My periodic Kiswahili cha mtaa phrase-dropping gives me big time street cred as a Mzungu teacher with machizi waaaangu (the euphemism Nako 2 Nako, an Arusha-based Kiswahili hip hop group, has turned into the hippest alternative to “my friends” out there).
I was using this opportunity to address the entire class; Itika had brought up an extremely important distinction between ‘textbook English’ and ‘the way English is meant to be spoken.’ Or in case you don't habla inglés, she’d highlighted one example in the difference between textbook English and Kingereza cha mtaa.
“I didn’t want to confuse y’all with it earlier,” I said to the 20-something pairs of temporarily-inquisitive eyes, enunciating you know which word, “but Itika is correct.” As I went to the board to write down my point, I prayed: “Please, Mungu, let one of the kids staring at me actually be absorbing this right now.”