By Scarlette Quille
When I was in third grade, I started riding the bus to school. This was was a critical point in my development. It was on this bus ride that I learned that language is a multifaceted and dangerous tool. Those 20 minutes opened up a world to me that I didn’t know existed.
I had always known that some words were “bad,” and no matter how often Mom and Dad uttered them, never under any circumstances was a kid to use that “type of language.” I had often asked what these words meant, and was often told that I didn’t need to know. If my parents refused to give me the definition, I consulted my older cousins who were experts.
On the bus, however, the big kids who sat in the back cussed fluently. The words rolled off their tongues as if they were speaking some foreign language. Their leader was a magnificent brute with a large platinum afro. Everything he said was met with applause and cheers from his followers. His throne was the very last seat on the bus, the one that is smaller than all the others. No one dared to even look at it, let alone sit with him. He spoke a language so colorful, so energetic, so hilarious, that I felt I would surely perish if I didn’t learn its intricacies.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be one of his anointed followers. Even the babies that sat in the very front of the bus knew they didn’t have the guts to sit back there. There was no way you could even look at the last four rows on the bus unless you had been suspended at least once. The part that irritated me the most was that I couldn’t understand the jokes. There were no encyclopedia entries to enlighten me, and the dictionary only provided answers for words like “fart.” The only way to truly find answers was through an older kid that “had an obligation” to educate you. That usually meant family.
There was no way I could remember all of the words in time to ask my cousins, so I decided to use a few common ones around the house. After all, there were several that were definitely not on the forbidden list. Perhaps my parents didn’t even know these words—otherwise they would clearly be using them to communicate. Ashamed of the small vocabulary I used to insult my brother, I imagined the satisfaction of wielding words so insulting he didn’t even know what they meant. He had not been fully exposed to this new environment, as he had to sit in the very front with the other little kids.
I decided to allow myself the use of one of the overheard words, “mofo.” It sounded rather harmless and was typically used in combination with something else. In my 8-year-old mind, this word was probably a harmless stepping stone into social acceptance. I began practicing the word in private. My cat became a mofo when he scratched me. My bike was a mofo when the chain broke. It was strangely satisfying, and I was becoming more confident.
It was time to hone my skill on less passive targets.
I remember my first voyage into trying uncharted vocabulary like it was yesterday. I was watching TV after school, and my mother was making dinner. My brother wanted me to drop everything and play with him. I was in third grade, so I’m not sure what made him think I had time for his nonsense. I was completely ignoring him, as a big sister is entitled to do. Fully ensconced in the role of annoying little brother, he decided to up the ante by launching his Millennium Falcon toy out of his hand and into the back of my skull. My brain accessed the word immediately. I flipped around and called my 6-year-old brother a “mofo pussy.” I wasn’t really sure of the combo, or the meaning of either word. But my rage had silenced any restraint.
The room became silent, and suddenly my mother materialized in the room. She had an expression only enraged predatory animals and human mothers can achieve. “What did you say?” she hissed.
I looked up innocently and repeated my newly acquired terminology. As a child your best defense is always wide-eyed innocence. Her face twisted, as though her mind was overriding her body’s basic desire to rip out my vocal cords. She took on a new tone: “Do you know what that means?”
I answered no and maintained the illusion of complete ignorance.
She then unleashed on my brother and me the most unbearable punishment we had ever experienced. She explained the complete meaning of the term mofo and the definition of the new “P word.” It was a word that was apparently so completely off-limits, so horrible and so offensive that even adults weren’t allowed to say it. Hearing your mother discuss such things was a discomfort that I was not willing to endure ever again. She even critiqued my brilliant combination, dissecting my usage in matter-of-fact fashion and then delivered a final blow: “It didn’t even make sense.”
I was ashamed but exhilarated. These were specific meanings to at least three words that previously had no meaning. I would definitely be a wealth of information on the next bus ride while I gave a full recap to my friends. We would all move a little closer to the back of the bus for sure. Realistically, the torture I had endured from my mother would pay off in the knowledge to confidently assess a variety of insults. Lesson learned.
Today’s children do not have to experience such things. They can simply Google whatever it is that they want to know. Their parents will never know. Who knows what kind of imagery would have popped up if I had Googled my terminology as a child? I would have never experienced my mother’s face or seen the look of admiration and horror in my brother’s eyes. When you have a real person teaching you how to grow up, you learn valuable survival skills. You learn that words can be damaging, scary and most of all cause emotional reactions in others. A kid on the bus today might never even speak to another child as they type furiously away on their phone. A kid today can call anyone anything on any social media site and never have to look into the eyes of the person they insulted.
You can read about heart surgery, but does that mean you are qualified to perform it? We have a whole generation of socially unqualified people, practicing things that they learned from a box. Smartphones have become the teacher, the friend and the soul of our teens. Don’t believe me? Try grounding a teen from their phone and see how long you can tolerate the crying and gnashing of teeth like you cut their heart away from their chest.
I am glad my mother taught me how to cuss. She did a phenomenal job. I am pretty sure there is no app for the lessons she taught me about not being an asshole and what it means to cross the verbal line.
Smart phones are making us all dumb. Maybe it’s about time we put the mofos away.