Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Cuss in 12 Different Languages or How Much Should a Teacher Teach Her Students?

(Original art by the author, age 7, inside cover, "Rose Colored Glasses")

When I was seven, my mother found a list I’d made of every cuss word I knew. It was a very creative and exhaustive list. It should have been---I’d learned from a pro — her. Later, when I was a teenager, she would lend me her copy of a book about how to cuss in 12 different languages--- but in elementary school I’d have to settle for basic English. Even though my mother was comfortable using her remarkably descriptive tongue around me, she threatened to show the list she’d found to my grandmother— not her own mother, but my dad’s---the woman who dressed me like a girl in new clothes from the department store and taught me how to fold hospital bed corners when I visited her each summer.

I guess my mother had it in mind to teach me the difference between what you did at home and what you did in what she called polite company. In polite company, no elbows on the table. At home,eat on a blanket on your belly on the floor. Etcetera. My list, were it to get out, blurred the line between the two.

I was horrified at the idea of my grandmother being given this intimate bird's eye view into the part of my mind I’d tried to keep hidden from her. She thought I was an angel- albeit a slightly rumpled, dirt-streaked one—and I wanted to keep it that way. I liked being pampered in an immaculate house with the promise of polka-dotted skirts and chocolate chip cookies. Everything about Grandma was perfect— from her homemade biscuits to her aprons to her curls--- except those occasions when she was away in a mental institution for depression and hysteria, of course. But I didn’t know that, then. I just thought if you weren’t a wild and out there artist with a mouth like a sailor- mom, you were a perfect, saintly stay at home nurse-grandma.

Now I realize there are more gradations within the mind and the life of each woman than two. Reading my grandma’s diaries, given to me by my father after her death, helped me understand that. I adored her when I was little, but even more as a young woman when I came to understand the complex emotional life she’d hadn’t let me in on.

As a nonfiction writer with a past— and a present— I no longer have a list of cuss words to show or to hide, but I do have a seemingly endless expanse of colorful, complicated stories that I’m trying to figure out how— and to whom- to tell. Already much has been written about memoirists facing the music after their children learn to read. In fact, on my birthday this year a bookstore friend sent me the link to Dani Shapiro’s NY Times article: “The Me My Child Mustn’t Know.”

But it’s not my own child I’m worried about.

I teach kids. I love teaching kids. I feel called to do it. But it would be more convenient if, on the side I liked to knit or write about home décor rather than grittier topics like loss of innocence and addiction or whatever else I'm drawn to at the time. It would also be helpful if I were a little more perfect, a little less blemished rather than the messy memoirist turning her insides out for scrutiny that I've found myself to be.

But the things I want to write about- the things I feel driven to write about-- extend beyond the reach of what I was able to see sitting on a stool drinking milk in my grandma’s kitchen. They go behind the smile, revealing what I'd sometimes rather hide, what I sometimes wish wasn't there. But it is there and I can't seem to write a true line without it coming out.

I do my best to keep my most personal writing and my teaching separate, but maybe if I ever accidentally let it slip exactly how human I am, my humanity will give them permission to be a little bit more human, too. I could reassure them that it's possible to make a million mistakes when they're young and still turn out OK in the end. I could let them know that what goes on beneath the surface is even more important than the appearance from above. I could show, by example, that flaws, imperfections and mistakes can actually be our greatest assets, our most brilliant teachers and that we don't have to be perfect to be loved, or even to be good. Or, I could just tell them what to do with certain body parts attached to the twelve apostles of Jesus, in Spanish.


  1. Hi Valley!
    I worry about that too as I am going to teach preschoolers this year. Fortunately, three year olds can't read - well at least most of them - but I worry about what their parents will think. Trying to make myself not concerned about it before the school year starts!
    Miss seeing you!

  2. I adore your transparency! There is so much that we can learn from each other when it's there.

  3. "I could let them know that what goes on beneath the surface is even more important than the appearance from above." If you can pass this on to even 1/10th of your students, you will help form better writers and better humans.

  4. Thanks all! Your words are reassuring. And Julie, you are going to be a FABULOUS preschool teacher--- those kids are lucky to have you in any tense-- past/present or future!

  5. I had a high school teacher who told us that f##k was a powerful word that could be used as long as we were able to discern a good context.