Alex, a student in one of my community college English classes, laughed when I told him I was taking obscenity lessons from my teenage daughter. Though I'd once apologized to a parent of another soccer player for my daughter's foul mouth ("I'm sorry" and "No, her father and I don't use that kind of language at home"), I've since reconsidered the benefits of cursing. A product of a Christian home where I'd been admonished repeatedly, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," I'd learned to censor myself, and not just censor vulgar language, but language I needed to say, thoughts I needed to express. I'd learned to censor myself to an unhealthy degree.
After all, vulgar language is commonplace in today's world. As an unemployed French/English teacher in a purgatory of substitute teaching, I found that whenever I introduced myself as a French teacher, the students would immediately ask me how to swear in French. Rather than give them that satisfaction (or teach them a French phrase that isn't a curse, but that they'd think is one), I'd smile and say, "I only teach my third-year French students to swear. C'est dommage." That's too bad.
Throughout my life, there've been a number of times when I was at a loss for words, when thoughts and feelings I needed to express froze in my throat, or when I'd clench my teeth so tightly my jaw and face would ache for hours. Maybe learning some obscenities could be useful in certain situations.
I considered what might be a good moment to swear: perhaps when irate? And at whom: a driver? Or maybe as the pedestrian? How about the driver and passengers in that car in Strasbourg soliciting me while when a twenty-year-old exchange student I'd waited alone at a bus stop? Then I'd wished for a few choice words to make myself feel less vulnerable.
Yet I soon discovered that old habits are hard to break. Unlike practicing French words and phrases out loud, I couldn't very well make myself go around the house repeating the "F" word in various intonations. I even found it difficult to seriously consider what swear words I wanted to use.
So how about gestures? When a college student, I hadn't known the bras d'honneur (the French version of giving someone the finger), but I'd long known its American equivalent. I thought back to an early experience with gestures and the risks involved. Once I'd been the front-seat passenger as my father-in-law sped down a congested Detroit freeway. When we nearly collided with another car shooting the gap, Dad had shot out his right arm to flip off the offending driver, punching me in the nose. His face had colored such a deep red that as I'd picked up my fallen glasses, I'd forgiven him immediately.
I realized eventually that such gestures take a degree of coordination that I might never achieve. One sweltering August morning after dropping off my teenager at school for marching band practice, a late band member in a red sedan cut the parking lot corner too sharply, almost colliding with me. Hornless and AC-less, I yelled, "Hey!" and clumsily gestured with my left-hand. I noticed as I finished my one-handed turn and pulled in my hand: I was holding up my threatening index finger. Hoping no one had noticed, I drove home with both hands on the wheel.
Perhaps I'm not meant to become fluent? Or maybe with more practice and the right circumstances I might yet master this new skill? I haven't given up, but I have become more patient with myself as a learner. And I'm proud to say that recently I've begun to show signs of progress.
Although Alex had laughed at my comment about obscenity lessons, during a later class he decided to test me. While the majority of the students peer-reviewed each other's writings, a small group of men who needed to catch up with the rest of the class worked with me in another corner of the large, computer lab classroom. As I went from one student to the next, I could see that they were easily distracted and chatting in colorful street talk. Finally, when I sat down next to Alex, who continued his conversation even more colorfully for my amusement, I looked him in the eyes and said, "Enough bullshit, guys. Let's get to work."
"Yes, Ma'am," he answered, smiling.
Jeanne Lesinski has published several books (including Bill Gates, Lerner, 2007), and hundreds of articles. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in the anthology Poem, Revised (Marion St. Press, 2008) and print journals, and at NewPages.com. She edits www.360MainStreet.com and blogs at www.heartinmygarden.blogspot.com.