Sparked by Words


The first year I taught high school art, I wasn’t a newbie. I’d been a commercial artist for years, and for years before and after that stint, I’d taught art through a city recreation program and in elementary schools.

Late in the last century, I was hired as the middle and high school art teacher in an elite, brand new K through 12 private school. The first year opened with inspiring fanfare but the founders weren’t as ready as they should have been. There weren’t enough classrooms to accommodate all the students, an itchy fact that would take several years to correct. Sharing space meant every classroom was in use full time. Accommodation for the art program became even more inventive. Not ideal but necessary.

That first year my high school students shared an art studio with the elementary art teacher and her students, a very bad marriage as you can imagine. There are the little ones, 6 or 7-year-olds, wiggly kids happily smearing paint all over the place, sometimes on their papers. There am I at the opposite end of the studio, trying to convince my 14 and 15-year-olds that art creation must be preceded by contemplation, inquiry, and attention to process. All they wanted to do was smear paint all over each other, and sometimes they did.

If you listen to children, you know their vernacular is different every week as they turn the meaning of language on its head, always with the provocative intent of making us, their parents and teachers, as miserably uncomfortable as they can. They steal words imaginatively used in songs and videos and apply them to their lives. Fat becomes “phat” and means something entirely different from its homophone. I hate being reminded I’m fat, but tell me I’m phat, and I’m pleased to be excellent.

As soon as we adults catch on, they’re off, leaving us in a language vacuum, using some other word or phrase in another secret code, enjoying the anonymity of their activity until we figure it out. They call me fat again and mean it as the insult. They chortle as we let the door slam on our way out. It always hits us in the butt. The proverbial butt, of course.

The freshman class remained the high school pioneers for four years. They were the freshmen when there were no sophomores, then the sophomores but not yet any juniors, etc. No one to temper them with the pranks that older high school kids play on younger ones, helping to keep them in check – a bit.

Four years in which indulged children demanded glory just for being present and rarely agreed to do anything we wanted them to do. Rarely agreed even to do what was fun and creative. I suffered as much testing in my art class as the beleaguered teachers who taught history and advanced math. Tripping teachers was much fun for them. We finally graduated the inaugural bunch of them and sent them off to college campuses where they discovered the world didn’t spin on the orbits they thought they created.

I have a thing with language. An English major, I speak and write a bit more formally than most.  Friends who read early drafts of my books tell me that no one talks like my characters. I revise to write contractions, choose ordinary words, and make common dialogue mistakes. “She and I went shopping,” becomes “Her and I went shopping.” Ugh, but fair enough if I want my stories to sound like they’re not peopled by English scholars of the 19th century. Even if my hand hurts writing such language indignities.

You would think someone who’d worked with kids for so many years wouldn’t make so many errors with language. You may know that a teen who “throws shade” just insulted someone. That one who says, “I’m weak,” is falling on the floor laughing. I only mention all this to set up what happened in my first high school art class.

The class was top loaded with gangly, energetic boys and flirty, imperious girls. Inquisitive, talented students I loved working with. Rich children who vacationed in Paris and Israel, skied at Aspen, surfed in Hawaii, sailed past icebergs in Alaska, and drove brand new cars at sixteen. (More expensive cars than mine.) After too many long moments where I tried to get them to stop talking and start their projects, I would finally say, “Get busy.” Which brought a round of hoots and promises to do exactly that. Sadly, it took me far too long to realize my mistake.

“Get busy” meant to have sex. And “being busy” meant the act was already in play – thankfully not in my class.

I taught art well. Our graduates came back from their first semester of college to tell me they finally understood why I taught the demanding art curriculum they’d mastered. In college art classes they were the stars. Talented, yes, and prepared to think, inquire, and apply skills.

They also taught me a thing or two. I may have majored in English, but I didn’t know everything about language until I taught my first high school students.



Photo courtesy


Comments on: "Learning a Thing or Two about Language" (33)

  1. Dialogue is probably the hardest thing to get right on our work. At times we have to throw out our grammar books and break every rule we were taught. My wife complains I talk to myself, but it is necessary to hear the dialogue. (Also talk to myself when I do my taxes, but that is a story for another day).

    I am lucky, living in New York I have the chance to listen to dialogue on the buses and trains. And believe me, I take advantage of it everyday.


  2. If I use a word that’s hip with the teen crowd, my high school son just shakes his head at me and simply says, “Don’t.” 😄

    My hat’s off to all the teachers out there. It’s a tough job, and although the rewards are there, the headaches are too.


    • I always felt the kids were well worth the headaches. Now the administration and the school boards – I was always in trouble with them. Your son is letting you know that however hip you may be you are no longer part of the teen crowd. You just gotta laugh at it, Carrie, because they won’t let you win.


  3. Jenna Barwin said:

    Thank you for sharing this – a good reminder that language is ever evolving. Some of that change happens in the laboratory known as high school.

    I feel the same way about technology, too. The moment I master one form of social media, the younger generation has abandoned it and jumped two platforms ahead, leaving me behind.


  4. I do not miss the middle schoolers I used to teach. Youngers–absolutely. Good thoughts about language. ‘Throwing shade’ to me means offering cover. Who knew it was an insult?


    • The very first kids I ever taught were middle schoolers, and they were such a challenge. But I grew to love them and they grew to trust me. It was the administration that always got my dander up and got me in trouble.


  5. Insightful, Sharon. I’ve taught in private and public high schools … environments are different, and the youth are the same. I do love teaching, yet the demands cause burnout. Too bad.


    • Unfortunately the turnover rate for teachers is very high, as you know, because of the demands of parents and administrators. I agree with you, Bonnie, that private schools may be prettier but kids are kids.


  6. Phantasically Phun read. You are soooooo Phat. Gotta Go now because I’m getting busy and at my age that’s more than phat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m very sensitive to being called “fat,” but “phat” I’ll take. Unfortunately I have to learn to read the facial expressions of those talking to me to see if they’re actually “throwing shade.” Thanks, Judy.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. In Whit Stillman’s movies all of his characters speak perfect English. I love it. I understand that no one really speaks like his characters but it makes his movies so distinctive.

    I cringe when I hear some of us older adults try to sound hip with kids. LOL. Sometimes it just comes out. i remember one particular class of kids who I felt really comfortable talking with. They were so bright and interested in politics and art. We were discussing something and I forgot who I was talking to. I said the word s**t. It’s a word I hate and rarely use. F**k is my go-to curse. The kids were stunned for a second as was I. Then they burst out laughing.

    I didn’t get fired. 🙂


    • What a great story, Adrienne.

      I learned to say something my dad always said, “For crying out loud.” Also, “Sugar plum fairies.” If the kids wanted to substitute other f and s words in their understanding of what I meant, that was their business. At least I got their attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Teachers are the backbone of a city, and the crux of a society. Thank you!


  9. Yeah, keeping up with slang is tough. I don’t even try anymore. And besides, it’ll date my writing, unless I’m already setting the thing in a different period. Even then, it’s fraught with difficulties, since I only knew the slang in my region. Even California colloquialisms can trip up beta readers from other English-speaking countries. (Ex–we have “turn pockets;” apparently everyone else only has lanes.)

    Loved your example about getting busy. One comment on the writer’s forum where I post my work for critique is that I really shouldn’t have my character ask another to pass the honey pot. How was I supposed to know that was synonymous with vagina? However, I immediately did a Word search and replaced all instances with honey jar, so it was time well spent. 🙂


    • My blog friends in Australia, England, and other parts of Europe have had me running to Google more than once, with a question at one end of a word I didn’t understand, and laughter at the other end once I knew. Language is much fun to explore but keeping the most current slang out of a book will probably make it more enduring.

      Very funny story about the honey pot, Cathleen, just don’t tell Christopher Robin and Pooh. A honey bucket, BTW, has long been associated with toilets, but you may already know that one. Then there’s honeydew, the fruit, and honey-do, the household job you want your spouse to take care of, and honey buns, what you’re going to call your spouse when the task is complete. Whew!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sharon, I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve never been a teacher but can still relate to the language “codes” and slang changes by remembering how it was with my two sons back when they and their friends were teens in the 80’s. Of course things have changed completely since then. It’s an ever evolving process, language. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.


  11. Shari, a tough but ultimately rewarding group of youngsters to teach … it must have felt good to know how they thrived at art in college and recognised your teaching had helped them there! Oh, I love listening in to people when out and about and also to my son and his friends. It’s a wonderful sing-song and miss-mash of the everyday language where old words have gained new meaning! Like Carrie, I’ve learnt the last thing you do as a parent is to try and adopt any of their speech!!


  12. They say you have to listen to get dialogue right but I know I’ll never get a teenagers dialogue down pat. They scare the ….. out of me so I don’t think I’d ever sit long enough to listen to one speak. I can see they gave you as much of an education as you gave them and I bet you remain a teacher of value to them, one that set them on the path to success.


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