On Profanity

In the sixth grade I fell into the trappings of bad friendships. For the first year I knew them, more out of surprise than a conscious effort,  I avoided the problems that came with these friends of mine. By my second September with them I started adopting their behaviors. On account of them I learned to cuss up a storm. Me!

A lifetime of a pure tongue–so much so that I would spell out the words when they were necessary–violated with profanity in mere weeks. My wake up call came about five months later when I let a word slip in front of my mom who was too shocked to be mad. If she didn’t laugh I imagine she wanted to (because she didn’t know the seriousness of my foul mouth). I wanted to die.

It was the first time I set out to break a bad habit. Is there anything more humbling? Before I make progress on correcting bad habits, those habits become worse, and they are made unbearable by my keen awareness of my shortcoming.

Profanity, for me, is like a cigarette for an ex-smoker. If I let even one word cross my lips another one is soon to follow, and I have to experience the agony of self censorship all over again. Just as an ex-smoker is forever a smoker, I will forever have a sailor’s mouth.

Don’t tell my students this. They wouldn’t believe you anyway. Just yesterday my student scrutinized my face as two offenders spoke about females, and a stream of bad words escaped from another corner of the room. I just shook my head. He said, “you’re getting used to this, Miss, aren’t you? Last year you would always turn red.” Now I turn a pale shade of pink. I’ll never get used to it, I just try to be realistic.

At the beginning of the year a particularly testy student challenged, “You think all people who cuss are retarded, don’t you?” Interesting question. What did I think of people who swore? To me it isn’t a measure of their education or IQ; nor is it a reliable measure of character. One of the coolest, brightest, most upright people I know swears with such ease that you almost miss it. I thought about movies that drop the f-bomb every line. Are they stupid? Sometimes. But I’ve sat through some, reluctantly. They’re boring to me.

Remember the student who accused me of making her write about everything she tells me? There’s some truth to that accusation. It took me all semester to convince my belligerent student to write a persuasive essay about swearing. It wasn’t very good, but in the essay he explains that cuss words express anger which sure beat fisticuffs. Point taken, in his current setting. I pointed out, though, that I read a job application survey that asked if  the applicant swore when he/she got mad. Obviously the applicant should answer no; nor should the applicant advocate for breaking the nose of an obnoxious customer. My student rolled his eyes and stomped away from me.

Months later I still struggle with a concise answer for my student. Whether or not profanity communicates a lack of education, lack of moral development, or a lack of maturity, it isn’t acceptable behavior. I tell to my students that I don’t want to hear that kind of language in my room, but I can’t stop them elsewhere. What I’m teaching them, I explain, is how to adapt their language to their setting. For example my husband’s classmates are rough around the edges–to be polite, yet they are always welcome in my home. Outside I know they exchange bad jokes and mix strong drinks out of the liquor closet in their cars.  The jokes, vulgarities, and variety of crude behaviors all stop at my threshold. These rough characters say please and thank you, tell funny stories, and treat me with incredible courtesy. In short, they treat me and my girls like ladies. I wish all my students could see that.

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About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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