Friday, September 30, 2011

Passing Notes

I realized at a very young age that words have power. I clearly remember the night that I was following along with my Rapunzel book-on-record and realized that I didn't need the record to read the book aloud to me anymore. The letters on the page had transformed into words, and I recognized those words. And the words made me see, hear, taste, and smell things. When Rapunzel's mother, great with child, craved the carrots, greens, and radishes from the witch's garden, I could see and smell them on my own dinner plate and I craved them, too. When Rapunzel let down her long, golden hair, I could see the sunlight hitting the strands and see them tighten under the tension as a handsome prince used them as a rope ladder. When said handsome prince was pushed from the tower and was blinded by thorns, my own eyes wanted to water and sting. The power of words to conjure images in a person's mind amazed me, and I was only 4 years old.

Which is why, I think, I began to love "dirty" words not too many years later.

I grew up in a house where I heard these words all the time, but knew that they were off limits. My mother was fluent in cursing; my father was not as fluent but went around damning things regularly. Especially from November through March during the years Eddie Sutton was UK's coach.

Before we had even moved from Knox County I had gotten in trouble for quoting my mom and complaining in front of my paternal grandmother about Dad "pissing" all over the toilet seat.

"That's not nice."

"But you say it."

My mother smiled sweetly and apologetically at Granny, then shot me a venomous look. "I shouldn't."

I didn't practice my 4-letter vocabulary in the house much after that, though there was a time after starting kindergarten when I liked to go around the house taking familiar words and switching out the beginning consonants with other consonants in alphabetical order.

"Duck! Buck, cuck, duck, f-"

"That's enough of that. There's a very bad word you're very close to saying."

I filed that interesting bit of information away for later use.

As I've heard is typical of kids that age, my little gang of neighborhood friends and I started exploring the power of profanity on the sly in 4th grade. The "f" word and taking the Lord's name in vain were still taboo, but when out of earshot of any adults, we tried out lesser vulgarities and found them pleasing. I am my mother's daughter, though, and I cuss in a country accent that makes everything two syllables. "Shee-it" loses a little of the real word's bite and cracked everybody up, which wasn't quite the effect I was going for.

In middle school, finding shocking and new terms for those most private parts of male and female anatomy were all the rage. Each term's various strengths and weaknesses were discussed at length. When we found a term we liked, we test-drove it by calling each other that name as the ultimate put-down. I swear, we were more charming and well-behaved than we sound.

I played the role of perfectionist, Good Girl, and straight-A student well. But those closest to me knew that I harbored a secret: I really had quite the filthy mouth, and the dirtier the joke, the more off-color the put-down, the more lewd the comment, the better. And the only adult who found out about it was my 7th-grade math teacher, who also, unfortunately, was the mother of one of my good friends.

In 7th-grade, I had a tremendous crush on a tall, dark, and slightly nerdy 8th-grade boy. He was in several classes with my friend Rosi, and I got her to talk to him on my behalf. One awkward phone conversation and several passed notes later, and I had secured a promise of a slow dance at the after-school party the following Friday. I became convinced he was "the one."

The day of the dance, word came that he was no longer interested. 8th-grade boys as a general rule are not interested in 7th-grade girls, especially those in such an aggressive group of pestering friends. One of these friends went up to him at the dance and stomped on his foot in my honor, and his shock and pain should have been enough. But I held a grudge.

In anticipation of a 7th- and 8th-grade Honor Society meeting later the next week, I passed my friend Denise a note during math class that expressed, in great detail and using words that conveyed lots of vivid imagery, what I would like to do during this meeting to the Honor Society president, aka the guy who had most recently broken my heart.

I left no stone of vulgarity unturned. I used the queen mother of all curse words in both its noun and verb forms. I called my former crush every name in the proverbial book. I hurled invectives that would have made George Carlin blush. And I ended my written tirade with a wish to emasculate my enemy using all my favorite terms for the male member.

And then I went and picked the worst person in the history of the world to pass a dirty note to. My friend Denise had the exact opposite of a poker face. I saw her shoulders shudder and shake, and I knew she was going to laugh. I coughed to get her attention to try to get her to simmer down, but when she turned to me I saw tears in her eyes and knew she was going to erupt any minute.

"Girls, what's so funny?"


"It doesn't look like nothing. Can I see that note?"

I heard a rushing in my ears and my stomach dropped into my shoes. Our math teacher was not only our math teacher, but also my friend Annie's mom and the National Honor Society sponsor. She had no tolerance for foolishness, and I was already wary of a woman I knew I was going to have to deal with for  years to come. And she had just busted me, and in a matter of seconds was going to learn what kind of girl I really was.

Denise walking to her desk was one of the longest 10 seconds of my life. We did not look at each other. I watched my math teacher's face for signs of horror, shock, and disgust. Unlike Denise, however, she had an excellent poker face.

"See me after class, girls." And she tucked the note inside her desk drawer and carried on with her lesson.

I sat wondering what was going to happen to me next. Expulsion seemed reasonable, and reform school after that if my parents let me live. Hell for certain if they didn't. I could kiss my friendship with both Annie and Denise goodbye after that, I reckoned, and possibly everyone in my entire class if word got out. And as for the guy I had so vividly written bodily harm to...well, I guessed a restraining order wouldn't be much worse than being denied publicly at a middle-school dance.

 The bell to begin my doom rang. My teacher did not move from her desk or stand when we approached. She looked at us steadily and evenly and for a long time did not speak.

"You're lucky you're both friends with Annie." And with that, she got out the note and ripped it up.She led the Honor Society meeting as usual, though we avoided eye contact with each other for some time after. I would learn later that she never shared our secret, not even with Annie, though Denise and I filled our friend in on it in the interest of full disclosure. The closest we ever came to discussing it again was at my high-school graduation when the teacher came up to me to shake my hand and say, with a wry smile,

"I guess you did okay once you got past 7th grade."

I toned it back a bit after that. But I still pepper my language with words I know I shouldn't love. But I do. I love the simplicity and directness of profane words. I watch what audience I use them in, sure. Sometimes, though, they just feel right. When a land-barge driving soccer mom with a cell phone glued to her ear cuts me off in traffic, when I slam my fingers in a dresser drawer, when my plate of scrambled eggs falls off the counter and scatters buttery yolks all over my feet. A socially-inappropriate interjection lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker. Though little ears are sometimes listening and learning.

"Do as I say and not as I, wait, don't do as I say...well, do as I say but don't say as I say...oh, for the love, just eat your eggs."

So every night, I pray the Swearer's Prayer.

"Please, Lord, let me never drop an errant F Bomb in front of a student, or when I drop the collection basket in Mass, or during my annual mammogram when the tech gets a little aggressive. And watch over my child while she learns the English language, and let her sponge brain not absorb every 4-letter word she hears slip out of my mouth, or the mouths of others. And finally, Lord, preserve the PG-13 rating, and keep it holy. Amen."

Over and out, motherlovers.

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