When Yvonne Mason first opened the letter, she read it all the way through. It did, after all, have the president’s seal at the top and his signature at the bottom.
But sometime around the third read, something began to irk the retired teacher, who had spent 17 years of her life refining the English skills of middle and high school students:
Look at all these unnecessarily capitalized letters, she thought.
“Federal” and “Nation” and “State” and “States” — common nouns capitalized as if they were proper nouns. And too many of the sentences began with the ninth letter of the alphabet: “I signed into law” and “I also directed.”
The letter, with her name on it, was written on heavy, official-feeling paper. Some would see such a letter from the president as suitable for framing. But for Mason, there was an itch that could not go unscratched.
She took out a purple pen and did something she had done countless times with countless papers.
She started circling.
It began with those pesky capital letters. But by the end, she had scrawled several notes, crossed out a few punctuation marks, and asked whoever wrote the letter a question that may or may not have been rhetorical: “Have y’all tried grammar and style check?”
A scrawl at the end of the paper was aimed at one sentence but seemed to sum up Mason’s opinion of the whole thing: “OMG this is WRONG!”
“If I had received this from one of my students,” she told The Washington Post, “I would have handed it back without a grade on it and said, ‘I hope you left the real one at home.’ ”
She mailed the letter, now bleeding with purple ink, back to the White House. But first, she snapped a photo and posted it on her Facebook page, hoping to draw smiles from friends or former students who have been on the business end of her crusade to protect the English language.
Days later, a friend persuaded her to make the post public, and by the end of May, it had been shared more than 4,000 times, the latest piece of evidence for critics who believe the president and his administration play fast and loose with the English language.
As The Washington Post’s David Nakamura wrote in March: “The constant small mistakes — which have dogged the Trump White House since the president’s official Inauguration Day poster boasted that ‘no challenge is to great’ — have become, critics say, symbolic of the larger problems with Trump’s management style, in particular his lack of attention to detail and the carelessness with which he makes policy decisions.”
It’s a message Mason tried to drill into the minds of public school students for nearly two decades: How you speak, the words you choose and your mastery of the English language all convey something about you, whether you’re a high school sophomore or a junior senator.
Mason, 61, who taught English rhetoric and composition in Greenville, S.C., and recently relocated to Atlanta, regularly writes to her elected officials and has turned the practice into class assignments — a civics lesson and a writing lesson all wrapped up in one.
She frequently told students they weren’t allowed to simply spout opinions; their arguments had to be grounded in logic and backed up by facts. “They rewrote them until they were correct and they put forth a good argument,” she said.
To guide them, sometimes she would show copies of letters she had written, criticizing or praising a vote or urging a particular policy stance.
But her Feb. 15 letter to Trump was about saving lives. She wrote it a day after 17 people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“I wrote urging the president to meet with every single family of a victim individually,” she told The Post. “And to hear what they had to say and to assure them that something was going to be done about gun control in this country.”
But she knew that she was one of many voices on the topic. “I didn’t expect to hear back. … After I mailed it, it was over for me. I had expressed my opinion.”
Like many of the letters she has received from politicians, she figured Trump’s was written by someone at the White House trained to mimic the president’s writing style, such as a speechwriter. She insists that whoever wrote the letter doesn’t need a new job, maybe just a new stylebook. She hasn’t received any word from the White House about her suggested edits.
Mason told The Post that her catchphrase for students was “language is the currency of power.”
“If you can’t communicate what you want or what you need … you’re not going to get what you want,” Mason said. “Writing clearly and consistently gives you power.”
Mason said that the attention she’s received since her letter went viral has given her a new opportunity to share that message.
She gave up teaching English after her grandson was born. He’s 4 now, and while he’s been talking for some time, he’s reached the point where he’s forming complex sentences.
He hurt himself a few days ago while playing with the dog, Mason said.
“I said, ‘Well, do you think you need a Band-Aid,’ ” his grandmother recalled. “And he said ‘I need a Band-Aid quickly.’ With an ‘l’ and a ‘y.’ The child doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of having bad grammar.”