IMG_1221 2Last spring, I overheard a colleague at the high school at which I taught use some words I didn’t like. I heard the teacher proclaiming to struggling students that the material was easy and then when the students still didn’t grasp the material, I heard something frustratingly said along the line of “you should have learned this by now.”

Those degrading words made me think a lot about the words, the power of words, and how we judge the wrong words as “bad.”

Let me explain…

In my first months of teaching at a Catholic school, the acculturation was rough. Once, a student, who would become among my many favorites, timidly asked me a question as the rest of the class filed out to lunch.

“Mr. Rabbi, is there a thing in rabbi school where they told you not to cuss?”
“They didn’t tell me anything per-se and there isn’t any rule. I just choose not to.”
“But, you do.”
“I don’t.”
“You do, you cuss all the time.”
“I don’t believe I have. What did I say?”
“You won’t get me in trouble, right?”
“Of course.”
“You say the one worse than heck.”
“Hell?”
“Yes, you say that all the time.”
“I didn’t know that was a curse word. I’m sorry… that’s a curse word?”
“Yes.”
“Thank you for telling me. I’ll tell the principal.”
“Oh, I don’t mine. None of us mind. I was just curious”
“Still, I will tell him. It’s the right thing to do.”

I told my boss, verily, that I didn’t know that “aitch,” “ee,” “double hockey-sticks” was something to avoid saying.  My principal explained that when he was a classroom teacher, worse words had escaped his mouth on occasion. We agreed that it would be best for me to not use such language and appropriate for me to apologize to my classes. I did.

The experience brought me back to my childhood and my experience of words.

When I was 11 or so, my father gave me my first album, Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy. I used to fall asleep, every night listening to it. He bought me more comedy albums and my bedtime stories became the words, wisdom, and worldview of Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and more. By the time I went to college, I knew most of my hundred-plus cassette collection word for word. And, I can still quote long swatches of routines. (My thinking, not only about linguistics, was formed by these stand-up philosophers.)

I remember in 1982 my dad took me to see George Carlin at Carnegie Hall and GC espoused, “there are no such things as bad words – bad ideas, bad thoughts, maybe… but words? Words are just sounds. They aren’t bad.”

Words are important. Of course. I love words.

But, words are just sounds. Their power is in their use.

The degrading words of my colleague about student learning didn’t include any “bad” words. But, how horrible the words!

I would rather hear my son or daughter utter any “four letter word” than I would want to hear either belittle someone. I would rather you hear me curse than I would want you to hear me gossip, lie, or betray a confidence.

Let us be cautious in our words.

Let us do our best to not habitually complain, condemn, or criticize.

Let us be careful that we do not berate or degrade.

This week’s #wisdom_biscuit:
Curse like an MF, but make certain you are kind.

 

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