Monday, September 27, 2010

The SH- Word

My daughter learns lots of interesting things at school.  While she is loath to respond to direct questioning, occasionally I'll get a glimmer of a glimpse into her daily adventures.   Last year, her best friend taught her the word 'vagina.'  Of course I have no problem with her learning the anatomically correct terms for body parts, but we had never found a need at home to get more specific than 'bottom.'  After all, while the penis has two functions, the vagina has only one, and we were really not ready to have 'the talk' at age four.      

Shortly thereafter, Kate came home and told me that one of her little friends had said the 'Sh word.'  I explained to her that this was not a word that we use in polite conversation.  I graphically described the literal meaning to drive my point home.  Only later did I realize that the offending phrase was "shut up."  While I issued an immediate (if awkward) retraction, my daughter probably still retains a notion that "shut up" has vaguely scatalogical connotations.  And, like the sixth graders my husband teaches, she apparently believes it to be one of the most offensive phrases a person can utter. 

On a very basic level, ordering someone to refrain from talking, from sharing, from doing, from BEING, to is a grievous offense.  On the other hand, there are rules of decorum and tenets of tact.  In the weeks following the great Koran-burning scandal, Banned Books Week seems particularly well-timed.  

If I may exercise my First Amendment rights to pontificate for a moment on the First Amendment... I am a news junkie, and the airwaves have been dominated in recent weeks by the Dr. Laura controversy, the "Ground Zero mosque" debate, and yes, the Florida pastor bent on destroying holy books for the world to see.  With freedom of speech comes, it should go without saying, the tremendous responsibility to use our words wisely.

As a parent, I am learning swiftly that when you release your children into the world, you relinquish all control over their influences.  When I asked my daughter what she learned in kindergarten the first week, she said that Hannah P. and Hannah M. and Kailyn all knew a particular Lady Gaga song.  I suggested that perhaps it was not appropriate for kindergarteners to be talking about Lady Gaga, and Kate apprised me the next day that she had brought up the subject on the playground, but, "It's okay, Mommy, because we whispered." 

As parents, as teachers, as writers, as grown-ups, we are the gatekeepers to the ever-widening world in which our children live.  And as I navigate the etiquette of play dates and disciplining others' children (aagh!), I discover that rules and norms are not as readily apparent as one might hope. 

Last year at this time, the fact that our President planned to speak to our nation's schoolchildren was the subject of national brouhaha (despite longstanding precedent).  As my teacher-husband pointed out, his sixth graders were on that same day listening to a presentation from a magazine salesperson for a school fundraiser.  Parents had not been required to give permission for their students to hear from this non-teacher about subject matter barely pertinent to the curriculum.  He made the point that if individual parents with their wide array of beliefs and mores had direct input into what is taught in the schools, mayhem would ensue. 

I support our public schools, I send my child to public school and, for better or worse, I trust the professional gatekeepers, the teachers and the librarians whose job is to ensure that materials presented are age-appropriate and accurately reflect the world around us.

In reading about the recent book-banning controversy regarding Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, I remembered a discussion of our neighborhood book club on the same subject.  Many parents of older elementary students and younger middle school students had difficulty with the notion that this might be a book appropriate for middle school readers.  Parents of older kids didn't find this notion controversial at all.  We talked a bit about the difference in maturity levels between sixth and eighth graders.  We agreed that this was an important book for kids to read, especially kids who might be dealing with similar issues in their own lives.  We decided that as parents, we have the right to decide that we think our children might not be mature enough to appreciate or understand a particular text.  However, it is not our place to say, "This book should not be in the school library." 

When I was revising Mind Games, my editor noted a sentence that had a sexual implication that, she felt, might make the book less inviting to younger readers.  I removed the sentence because it was not important enough to the story to justify including it.  On the other hand, my fellow Vermont College grad Lauren Myracle tops the list of most-banned books.  I applaud her decision to stand firm and portray a gay couple as parents of one of her main characters.    

As writers, as teachers, and as parents, we have to be open-minded, ever-vigilant, and firmly resolved to shush less and listen more. --Jeanne Marie


stacie said...

Well said Jeanne. I enjoy your writing so much, still think you should consider writing a novel for grown ups so I can read more of your writing!

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Thanks, Stacie. I did just start a "grown-up" mystery, which is why I need your awesome mystery novel earrings for inspiration. :)