BOSTON. The neighborhood here known as the South End has historically been a transitional stop on the way up–or down–the social ladder. “We got the winos and junkies who lost their last best hope of realizing the American Dream,” says long-time bar owner Michael “Mickey” Flaherty, “and then we got the freshly-minted MBA’s who work long hours and can’t afford the suburbs yet, or ‘yuppie scum’ as I affectionately refer to them.”
The clash between those on the rise and those who have fallen off the treadmill of the American economy has been exacerbated of late by a different dimension of assessment besides education and income, however; younger residents who learned to read by the “whole language” method, which allows children to select their own reading matter and emphasizes recognition of words in everyday contexts so that teachers can have more and longer breaks, and older residents who learned to read through phonics, a form of corporal punishment inflicted by sadistic instructors that actually works.
“It’s sad to see what happened to my older brother,” says Nora Gilson, who at the age of 60 harkens back to the watershed point when elementary school teachers gave up on phonics and turned to whole language instruction because they were tired of drumming syllable sounds into impressionable young heads. “He learned to read, and now can’t watch television for thirty seconds without turning it off in disgust.”
The addictive power of phonics has led to an underground black market in “Hooked on Phonics” tapes, which phonics “junkies” use to “shoot up” in dark alleys so narrow that quotation marks are often scraped off of words that pass through them. “It’s a real shibboleth,” says Armand St. Gregoire, a professor of linguistics the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk campus, referring to the word used to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites in Biblical times. “A yuppie will walk into Starbucks and pronounce v-e-n-t-i as ‘VEN-tea’ because they know the culture while some homeless guy will say ‘ven-TIE’ and get thrown out of the place.”
The scars that phonics leaves on its victims are worn as badges of pride by some, who point out that whole language learners are more likely to watch “The Bachelorette” or think Marcel Proust is a goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Sure I coulda been successful and spend all my time in airports and lobbies watching drivel on TV screens,” says a man in a green “snorkel” coat who identifies himself only as “Marty.” “But then I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of making fun of the guys on SportsCenter.”