Monday, October 11, 2010

Swearing at students

The other day (note: I use “the other day” to refer to any day in the previous 3+ years that is not today. This particular “other day” was about three weeks ago) I was booktalking for a 9th grade English class. I had several booktalks that I’d written, and a handful of books from which I’d selected passages to read; one of those books was K.L. Going’s fantastic Fat Kid Rules the World.

I’d read over and over the booktalks and passages in preparation; I’d tweaked my booktalks, selected passages carefully so they started and ended at just the right spots. I’d practiced reading everything several times. And yet, somehow, I didn’t notice in until I was in the middle of reading the passage and saw it lurking on the line below.


Not a “damn” or a “hell.” Not even a “shit.” A full-fledged “fuck,” just sitting there, waiting to be read aloud to a class of 9th graders.

Time slowed down. And as I continued to read the sentence that I was already in the middle of, heading full steam ahead towards that fuck, my internal monologue went into overdrive:

Do I skip it?
Do I replace it with a more innoccuous choice? Frickin’? Flippin’? Eff’n? Doesn’t that just make it more obvious that I’m not saying it?
Who am I to make that choice? This isn’t my book. The word is there. Do I say it? Why would I *not* say it?
What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s just a word.
No, it’s not. I mean, yes, it is “just” a word. But it’s not a word I use with students. It’s a word I actively discourage students from using in front of me. Is it hypocritical if I use it?
Well, it’s not really me using it, it’s the character using it.
That’s a cop-out.
No, it’s not. I selected this book because I love the characters. And Troy says “fuck.” And he uses it for a reason. Who am I decide that he really should have said “frickin’”?
It’s two words away. . . make a decision.
It’s not my role to decide what something “should” be; I can only share what something is.

“. . . I’m a fucking 300-pound teenager. . . “

And then it was done. A couple students giggled nervously, but then we all moved on. And that was the experience in every class. Yes, I read it again. Same passage, same word. Because I’d selected that passage for a reason; to switch passages because of one word (a word that I’ve, *ahem*, used once or twice before) felt. . . wrong. The language--in the entire passage, not just that one word--was true to the characters and true to the story; to not read an entire passage because of one word seemed as ridiculous to me as challenging John Green’s Looking for Alaska over one scene about a blowjob (which is not, when it comes right down to it, *about* a blowjob), or challenging Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because of “profanity” and mentions of masturbation.

It’s one passage, one word. And if it fits with the book, fits with the story, fits with the character--authentically and in such a way that when you see it in context you think, “Yes, that makes sense. That feels true”--none of us have any business trying to take it out. Least of all me, even if I am standing in front of a group of 9th graders. *

I’m always bothered a little bit by the argument that swearing/sex/violence etc. are okay in books because “kids hear a lot worse in movies/in the hallways/from their friends.” The arguments seems to be that it’s okay only because it’s “too late” to protect kids from these images and words (it bothers me, too, that the natural extension of this logic leads to people challenging The Hunger Games; if they don’t read/hear/view violence then everything will be just fine). But what if I want to work with students to be more civil AND suggest a book with the word “fuck” in it? Am I allowed to do that?

If students don’t watch those shows/live those lives, is it not okay for them to read these books? Are we only allowed to see our own experiences mirrored in what we read? Or do we read to experience lives that are often completely unlike our own--in ways both good and bad? You can probably figure out my answer on that one.

And so I recommend fantasy and science fiction and horror and realistic fiction where characters live difficult lives and bad things happen and sometimes people swear. And I recommend humorous books and adventure stories, and light-hearted books where the conflict has less than life-or-death stakes. I make recommendations based on what the student is looking to read; not based on whether or not I think the student has existing first-hand knowledge of all the plot points and themes in the book.

And for all the talk of “sex/violence/profanity” sells. . . no one checked out Fat Kid Rules the World. But someday one of them probably will. And I bet they’ll be too wrapped up in the story and the characters to notice one little word.


This was one of the many things that bothered me about The Boxer and the Spy; there’s a scene in which an adult apologizes for using the word “crap” in front of a 15-year-old girl. Really? Crap? I’m all for being more civil with our language and how we talk to each other, but in the context of conspiracies about murdering teenagers to cover up crimes, apologizing for the word crap seemed a little forced. Of course, he did use it in front of a girl, and you know what delicate lavender-lined paper using creatures we are.


  1. I'm all for expletives in books!
    ....IF they are there for a reason. If they add to the story. It's harder cause I teach middle school so I don't know what I woulda done...prolly started and stopped and said "Oh yeah...I can't say that but you know what I mean" I so admire your fortitude, thoughtfulness, and erudition! I wish I could write like you!

  2. I hadn't thought of this aspect, but I think if I'd known this group of students better, it might have affected my decision making. This was my first time meeting this group of students, and one of the most important things I try to establish is that I take them seriously as readers (which most of them aren't really used to); skipping a word would have, I think, undermined that goal.

  3. God, I miss you, Super Librarian.