Thursday, March 31, 2011

Work: Strong Language

To walk down a crowded high school corridor is to visit a Babel of bad words.  The cacophony of curses that bounces off the cinder block walls during the morning locker rush shows more creativity and attention to word craft than any student-penned sonnet I've read in 10 years.

I should be offended, but the truth is I love bad words.

This wouldn't be a problem if I were a stand up comedian or long-haul trucker, but I am a high school teacher and so while I spend my days awash in profanity I am strictly forbidden from indulging myself. 

Earlier in my career the requisite restraint actually bled over into the rest of my life.  When Big E was born, I spent the final eight of my twenty-four hours of unmedicated labor at the birth center, and though by the end I was chanting over and again to the midwife, "I'm dying; you're killing me," I never once used a swear word in the birthing room.

Three years deeper into my career, I gave birth to Little E, again unmedicated.  This time, though, I did let the s-word slip just once as I tried to express to the labor nurse the intensity of one particularly effective contraction.

And now?  Well, I may indulge a little too frequently.  My husband, as if trying to reduce the profanity footprint of our household has gone all Ned Flanders on me.  Last spring, he injured his ankle playing soccer and told me that it "hurt like holy heck."  I took this to be about a two on a pain scale of one to ten and was only mildly sympathetic.  I felt bad when an x-ray a few weeks later showed that he'd chipped the bone but consoled myself by noting that I'd have been a better nurse if he'd communicated more effectively.  Free-floating bone fragments are more properly categorized as hurting "like goddamn f*@k." At minimum.

I try hard not to reveal my trashmouth side to the girls.   Yet when I was still sleep-deprived and hormonal from Little E's arrival, I must have let one slip because one day in a fit of pique Big E, then just over three, turned to me, glared and announced coldly, "You're a f*@king."  I gasped in horror and watched a deep satisfaction well up within her as she enjoyed my shock.

I mention all of this because I am starting The Catcher in the Rye with my two sophomore classes and thus nearing the day that comes in every school year in which literature compels me to unleash a string of profanity on my students, and by that I mean the infamous Chapter 25 and its five f-bombs. 

Where normally I dance euphemistically around swear words and adult content in class, in this case the wording is essential to the novel and the narrator's voice and because I love this book and want my students to as well, I often read it aloud to them. And so each year I find myself welling up with a little satisfaction of my own as I watch my students' shock at seeing their mild-mannered English teacher use such language without turning to dust.

Over the years, reactions have varied.  Some students blush.  Some want to analyze those particular pages in great depth so as to prolong the swearing.  Last year, when I read the chapter during a particularly frustrating time in my career, my sympathetic students responded with encouraging nods and a smattering of applause.

This year, though, I considered not reading it.  With my new part-time schedule, the frustration and anxiety that I used to feel about balancing everything has pretty much dried out and my new relaxed, satisfied outlook on work and life in general makes the thought of saying the f-word to a roomful of 16-year-olds feel irresponsible and a bit tawdry.

But, then I thought some more.  Life is short and swearing is fun.  So, why the f*@k not?


  1. Do you know about the Cursing Mommy? Sometimes I think that is me.

  2. Emily--
    I do, and I, too, find myself drifting into that territory at times.