Saturday, April 21, 2012

Taking a Stand

"Pig" was an offensive word, a swear, when I was a child. My sister, brother, and I weren't allowed to use it, and if we did, as in "You pig!" we were swiftly punished. We also weren't allowed to say, "I hate you," and the first time I heard another kid say this to her mother, while preparing breakfast on a Girl Scout camping weekend, I felt like retching. In fact, I retreated to my tent, wept uncontrollably, and still felt weird even after my mother explained to me that it was said as a joke, and that it was okay in that family. Of course, I turned into a curser-extraordinaire as an adult (but I never use the word "pig"). And I allowed my own children, even in their most vehement moments, to tell me that they hated me, which I never believed they meant.

But I also disallowed certain words as I raised my children (and still in my classroom), words that are used today rather loosely and that I find highly, highly offensive when not used in proper context (as they so rarely are, or, for some, if there even is a proper context). "Retarded" and "gay" come to mind. But there's also "nigger," "slut," "Nazi," "wifebeater," and "bitch," and now, more and more, "rape." Friends "rape" friends' Facebook walls. The Spurs "rape" the Lakers. A classmate who stands too close in the lunch line is admonished, "Don't rape me."

Today, as I was catching up on my teacher-related online reading, I came across this post on Motherlode, and then this subsequent re-visit. The quandary that a parent faces over if/when/how to address inappropriate remarks is one that teachers experience, these days nearly every day. Parents may question whether they should confront their own or other children or other children's parents (it's a no-brainer for me, though: of course), but teachers shouldn't. Teachers have the prerogative, the permission, and most of all, the responsibility to halt the inappropriate use of these words and their implications, all within the context of teachable moments.

I had one myself, just yesterday. I'd witnessed a student sort of subtly laugh in mockery and point his finger at another who, while portraying a character, asked his teacher if the character was gay. My colleague handled the question (and his answer) with finesse and aplomb. Later, I caught up with the student whose inappropriate behavior I'd witnessed. I explained to him what I saw, how it made me feel (offended, uncomfortable, disappointed), and the difference between intent and impact. The student was open to the conversation and appreciative of my insight.

Will that conversation, or any conversations we teachers have with our students about language, make a difference? It might; I can only hope. All I know is that if I hadn't had it, there would be no difference to be made.

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