Importance capitalized: teens choose what a proper noun is based on life experiences

I’ve noticed teenagers capitalize words that are important to them. Words that they have been brought up to know hold a lot of power, words like Money, Rich and Love. I’m an English teacher at an urban high school and to my grammatically correct-diseased mind, I cringe. But I have to step back and remember why these words are capitalized.

These words are silent goals for them. They capitalize it subconsciously because they aspire to have and be these things. They don’t just hit the ‘shift’ key and push a letter button, and think, “this is a deliberate breach of good writing.” They just capitalize because they were taught that important words deserve a special treatment on the page. In their minds, it’s a proper noun.

So as a teacher, I circle the letter to indicate to lowercase it, but as a human who is learning day by day what our urban youth think, it’s becoming clearer that I can edit their papers, but I won’t edit their mindset.

These capitalized words stand for the meaning of the things they write. Love. Money. Rich. And sadly, I see them in the kids who need these things the most. Those students whose parent isn’t around, whose parents need their 17-year-old’s help with the bills, and those kids who live on their own, emancipated.

“I want to be Rich and save the kids from not having houses,” one male student writes about his future goals of building houses for the less fortunate. I spoke to him about why he capitalized it and his reply was, “why not?” It’s absurd for him not to. I explained to him the rule of only capitalizing proper nouns and names of people and places, but he seemed not to care. He wasn’t being rude, he just understood that I wouldn’t understand his reasoning behind the importance to that word, Rich. And he’s right.

I didn’t know poverty growing up. Whenever I asked my parents about our financial situation for a business finance class or some other curious question, they always answered, “We are comfortable.” I believed them and moved on.

In my hometown community of 10,000, we all were about the same, although we had the rich neighborhood by the public high school and the older part of town across the railroad tracks, but no part of town was ever considered the “poor part” or the “wrong side of the tracks”. The urban district I work in has these generalizations and history to back up these allegations. My kids walk those streets that are reported on the evening news, and come to school the next day, no matter if their attitude wants an education or not. If they don’t show up, there are many reasons, not just the sick or fake sick call from Mom. (I had my fair share.)

They work full time. They worked 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. They are at home because their daughter is sick. I get emails from students saying they had to take their one-year-old to the doctor because he’s been coughing all night. Even though I didn’t go through these situations, I get it. I understand. I wish them well, let them know I’m here if they need anything, and will see them next class. I thank them for informing me and taking a good hold on their education regardless of their hardships at home, in life outside of school.

These kids are facing things that I never faced or even thought existed at the age of 14. Even now, no matter how many student loans I pay each month, I still don’t know poverty, or how much parenting exhausts. Sure, some are sassy, potty-mouthed, and confident in their questionable decisions. They challenge my patience, my ability to concentrate, and make me crazy with the amount of late work they think is okay. But they need me. They need people who consistently believe in them even on their hardest days.

“The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.”

That line is true and capitalizing words isn’t a crime (although I am a deputy of the Grammar Police). These kids aren’t yelling at me, but their writing is. Their writing is pleading for me, people, to take note that these words are important and particularly, they’re important to them. In a world where their voices are often silenced, ignored or stereotyped, they write their words and choose which ones are important.

As a creative writer, I applaud them. As an English teacher, I edit them. As a teacher in general, I reinforce the rules of proper English.

As a human, I get it.


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