Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘language riddles’

Learning a Thing or Two about Language


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.



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