Just the other day, I was walking with my two boys - Virgil, 7, and Wyatt, 4 – and my brother, their Uncle Chris. Chris was pushing his toddler son, Harry, in a stroller. Here’s what went down:
Uncle Chris says something like:”Can you believe that fucking shit?" We were chatting about the writer’s strike. He’s a newly unionized screenwriter. His first paycheck depends on the strike being resolved. It isn’t the topic of the strike that interests Virgil. It’s the curse word. His face lights up when he hears the “Ef-in’” word, as he calls it. He turns to me and pleads, "Can I say it, Mama?!"
We have a rule. If a parent says a curse word one time, they each can say it one time. My husband and I figure it takes the mystery out of the whole affair. And lets face it, it isn’t like they’re going to grow up and NOT curse. What’s the big deal really? We send our kids to public school. We are liberal parents who encourage independent thought. We reason that we’re de-mystifying language. Un-taboo-izing. Or some such thing. He asks permission because it’s Uncle Chris that says it and not me.
I nod, stretching the rules a bit, and Virgil jumps at the opportunity. "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck!"
Yes, he says it more than once. He hasn’t quite grasped the game. Then, of course, Wyatt chimes in with multiple high-pitched, high decibel “Ef-in’” words. I've never seen my sad little guy look happier than when he's saying that “Ef-in’” word. My brother eggs them on, not fully appreciating how embarrassing it is for me as the parent of children that can actually speak, when the decked out, fully hatted, sixty-year-old black women stare as they leave church on this Sunday morning. Filled with the spirit, they tsk tsk me, as I defile these mulatto children by allowing such sordid language; I am a white woman ruining the future generation of black men. It’s bad enough I reproduced with one of their sons, now I’m turning their grandchildren, their future, into pride-less degenerates. (My husband is too, but they don’t know this.) Chris asks, by way of encouragement: "Do you guys know any other bad words?" Virgil bares a jack-o-lantern grin, his eyes atwinkle; Wyatt glows with pure happiness. They are charmed by Uncle Chris and this illicit game.
"Asshole?" says Virgil, eyes wild with triumph. He’s found a way around the family rule. Bring Uncle Chris along.
"Yes ASSHOLE!!" says Wyatt. And the ASSHOLE song begins. It’s a simple song. It goes like this: “ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE!! ASSHOLE!!!”
I feign embarrassment for the sake of the church women. I apologize with a palms-to-the-sky shrug and an exaggerated wince. In reality, I’m proud. They are funny little comedians with a firm grasp on irony. They aren’t supposed to say these words, it shocks and dismays the general population; but they are allowed to say them one time; so they go a step beyond, disobeying with repetition; they are intentionally humiliating me with their utterances. But it’s not the words that embarrass. It’s the redundancy and volume. And the fact that others are present that believe I should mind that they are saying these words, when I don’t. Irony is a complicated concept for children so young to understand, multi-layered and multi-faceted. How could I not be proud? Such complexity to their humor. Little geniuses, I think.
"Wait, wait, wait! Do you know any others?" says Chris. He’s really enjoying this now. The boys are quiet. “C’mon! That’s all you got!” He urges them onward but their range is limited. They appear puzzled. Has he stumped them?
“Shit?” Virgil offers. They are resourceful, potty-mouthed city kids, not to be halted.
"Oh yeah, shit!" squawks Wyatt. In unison, they sing the Shit song.
"Whoa...any others?" Uncle Chris is unstoppable. Kids who can talk are fun.
A long pause ensues. We walk at least half a block before Virgil recovers. (Wyatt is singing “Shit” all the while, delighted with the taste of the word on his lips.) And then, Virgil stops dead in his tracks. He thinks he has something, but isn’t sure. "Hooker?" He whispers hesitantly. He’s heard the word and knows it seems vaguely untoward. But he’s not confident he grasps its meaning. Chris and I turn to each other, brows furrowed. Without actually speaking, we admit it seems odd that he’s heard this one. In what context, one wonders?
"Not really a curse word, but OK," I concede. I’m in on the game now. There’s no turning back. We’ve already offended the god-fearing, purple suited ladies. How much worse can it get?
"Do you know what that even means?" I kind of hope he does. That would make him truly precocious.
“I don’t mama!” screams Wyatt. “I don’t know what hooker means!”
Virgil thinks long and hard, the way he does when he’s carrying the one in a complicated math problem. And then it hits him. He smiles and Chris and I practically hear the light bulb moment ‘ding!’
"A woman who entertains a man!" Virgil’s index finger is skyward with a-ha discovery. I didn't expect that. I didn’t expect him to pull that one out and neither did Uncle Chris who is presently speechless. Finally.
"Yes. I guess it is," I say in my best mommy-teaching-curse-words voice. But truly, I don't know what to say to Virgil as he leads his brother stomping through a pile of dog crap, the actual thing always more exciting than the word. The game seems to have wound down, with the adults both finally shocked, the kids’ feet slick with poo.
The clincher of the game was that he recited the meaning of this word, in non-obscene language. And he was right, but didn’t understand its true implications. Who offered this definition? What was the conversation? Chris and I walk in silence pondering these questions. All I can think to offer next is: “Public school! Those kids are fucking asshole shit hookers.”
© 2008 Jennifer Sey