Mr. Otis Mathis is the president of the Detroit school board, the nation's lowest achieving big city district of 90,000 school children. And like some of these children, Mathis struggles with writing and composing a coherent sentence.
Mathis readily admits that he's a "horrible writer," and that he struggled to get through school. Here is a sample of an e-mail he sent recently:
"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."
And another dated August 11, 2009:
"Do DPS control the Foundation or outside group? If an outside group control the foundation, then what is DPS Board row with selection of is director? Our we mixing DPS and None DPS row's, and who is the watch dog?"
But if these deficits have limited Mathis, as he admits they have, they have not stopped him from graduating from high school and college. In January, his peers elected him president by a 10-1 vote over Tyrone Winfrey, a University of Michigan academic officer. (How scary is that?)
His difficulties with language were spotted as early as fourth grade, when he was placed in special education classes. His college degree was held up for more than a decade, because he repeatedly failed an English proficiency exam that was required for graduation at Wayne State University.
But Mathis is liked and defended by many of his peers, who cite his collegiality, lack of defensiveness and leadership as more important than his writing skills.
Of course, I always give people leeway when it comes to e-mails (his e-mails are the only evidence given for his lack of writing skills) many of which are sent via Blackberry, Sidekicks, or generally on the run.
I don't consider e-mails formal communication, but the issue here doesn't have anything to do with typos, shorthand or anything that would be excusable for someone in charge of leading students -- many of whom are failing miserably.
The issue here is simple common sense. If you know you're a poor writer and you're leading a failing school system, wouldn't you have someone proofread your e-mails or minimally conduct a spell check yourself?
I teach writing courses at a local college and am often appalled at the writing skills (or lack thereof) of college students. But I also understand that many students struggle for a variety of reasons, from dyslexia to a host of other legitimate learning disabilities.
More often, though, I find their lack of writing skills are attributable to an increasingly alliterate society-people who can read, but don't. I find students who turn in papers with shorthand they would use in text messages: poor punctuation, grammar, Ebonics, you name it. I find it harder to be understanding in the Internet age with spell check, grammar check and various resources at one's disposal.
When I was growing up and we were unsure of how to spell a word, the direction you got back then was, "Look it up in the dictionary!" (Of course, if you didn't know how to spell it, where do you begin to look it up? But no one dared ask that question).
A columnist in the Detroit News asked:
"Is Mathis a success story? A man who beat the odds to win political success and career opportunities on the strength of his personality and judgment? Someone who struggled through school, but never gave up and graduated from college? Or is he an example of the system's worst failings -- a disinterested student who always found ways to graduate, even when he didn't meet the requirements -- likely to perpetuate lax academic standards? I would venture to say the latter-and a dangerous leader to a society that increasingly believes charisma is more important than intellect."
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