“They were second-hand citizens.”

“Oh, no!” my student cried yesterday when I whipped out my gradebook and added this sentence, straight from her paper draft, to my running Horrors list. “I’m going to be in your BLO – O – O – G?? I’m so embarrassed!” But, I responded, she had to admit it was a pretty funny mistake, even though I was sure she would have caught it in time for the final draft. “What mistake?” she asked. “Isn’t that the expression?”

I told her she wasn’t the only student who had trouble with the expression that IS “the” expression. Before I netted her specimen, I had already caught this one:

“These primitive people will always be second grade citizens.”

That student was writing an essay about a tribe who had been discovered deep in the rainforests of Brazil and, although they were not planning a move to São Paolo anytime soon, their culture had begun to “modernize” as soon as the first contact was made. My student was arguing that even if they did move to the city and attempt to live according to contemporary customs and mores, they would never fully become twentieth-century people. It was an interesting argument that sticking her characters into a grade school completely vaporized, for me.

Is it because we so successfully convince our youth that we live in a classless society that they seem incapable of saying “class” and “citizen” in a single phrase? “Second-hand” and “second-grade” do connote a certain inferiority or immaturity, but only “second-class” recognizes these conditions as integral (as most of my students mean when they write “intricate”) to the culture. Only “second-class” reflects an overall hierarchical concept of society, that condition we are so eager to disclaim for the U.S. while reinforcing it with virtually every breath we take.

I do like the idea of “second-hand citizens”—maybe we could use it instead of “immigrants,” eh? But on second thought, bad idea: we have already made “immigrant” a term of disparagement instead of a simple factual descriptor; no need to add another layer to the idea that they may not be as good as new.

Let’s stick with “the” expression, “second-class,” and then work toward a more perfect union where in fact it becomes meaningless.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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