The principal told her staff that all classes at the school would be conducted in proper, standard English, as had been the custom there for many years, and as a foreign teacher from an English-speaking country, I had no problem with that other than my speaking with what a few of my students called a ‘North American’ accent.

As it happened, my father had been from Arkansas and my mother from Pennsylvania. I had grown up in Florida, attended a 4-year liberal-arts school, and without any regional, U.S. accent, was considered very articulate. More than that, many thought I had a voice that sounded something like Dan Rather, the famous American news anchor.

There on the island, however, as I began teaching in a public Jamaican high school, my students had gotten the impression, as might be expected, that I wouldn’t understand the dialect, or ‘patois,’ of English that they commonly spoke with each other and in their homes.

One morning, only a few days into my first school year, two of the most popular, eleventh-grade girls, sitting in the front of my class, decided to show me indeed who was in charge by chatting up a storm for the first ten minutes or so, after I had given the class its instruction for the day. Many of the other students as well were largely ignoring my direction that they study and review silently a particular book chapter and problem and be ready to discuss it shortly. I confess I wanted to see what they would do when asked to work quietly by themselves.

The girls’ conversation had gone on about who had done what that past weekend, who had worn what dress, who was interested or not interested in what boy, how they had liked or not liked where the party they had gone to and so on – all of which, they assumed, I would not understand in the least.

Their error, however, was in making such an assumption. After having served in the Peace Corps, then making more than a dozen trips to the island over the past twenty years, and of course, reading countless books and listening to hours and hours of the patois, there wasn’t much that I hadn’t gotten from their extra-curricular discourse, as entertaining as it was in telling me things about their high school lives.

“OK, now that you’re finished chatting about your weekend, would you like to look at the problem I assigned in the text, or are yougoing to waste a little more time trying to fool your teacher?”

“Yuh handastand di patois?” one of them said, shocked at my comment.

“Why not? I answered. “It’s really much easier to learn than standard English.”

They looked at me in disbelief, and yet, somehow I knew that would be the end of patois conversations in class.

“Mi nah jook you now mon.” I added quietly and went on with the lesson.

Maurice McCoy worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country

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