I haven’t a clue how she kept her job…
I was a junior and in love with writing and with science and, along with every other testosterone-sick guy in school, with Ms. Haft. She was freshly graduated from college and giddy. She wore her hair long and her skirts short. It’s still weird to me, but rather than standing or sitting, she taught while kneeling on her desk. We eschewed rows and columns in those days of experimenting and circled our desks around the perimeter of the room. One day – it’s one of the few clear memories I have of high-school – Ms. Haft walked into the room, climbed up on her desk, knelt down, and in the most droning, flat, and unemotional voice said “fuck”. Pencils, papers, jaws – everything dropped.
I’d said the word plenty of times, but she said it like it was written on her lesson plan. Every set of eyes shot up from whatever they were looking at and turned to their neighbor first and then to the teacher. The air left the room. After a very long and very pregnant pause, she said it again. Fuck. And then again. Fuck you. Fuck me. Well, fuck it all.
All of a sudden, school got interesting.
She explained that today’s lesson had two parts. Part one was that we would circle the room and everyone would say Fuck out loud in turn. Just utter the word. Just push air out of your lungs to make the sound. Touch your upper teeth to your lower lip and say it. Fuck. What harm can come from expelling air from your lungs to form a sound?
We went ’round our circle one-by-one. A couple students, pale and panting at the very idea of letting such an abomination squeeze through their lips, shook their head No. I think one person gathered up and left. Some, given permission to swear for probably the first time, said the word over and over until told to stop. In the end, I think everyone in the room except for two or three, completed the lesson.
Do Words Have Meaning?
Lesson two, she explained, is that words are meaningless and only carry whatever meaning we give to them. Do you imagine that ‘Fuck’ has any real meaning, she asked? Do you imagine that lovers would say such a word to each other? If we never bat an eye when the word is spoken, would people continue to use it? Words only have meaning when we agree to their meaning.
I agree with her and don’t agree. I agree that no harm comes from pushing air out of our lungs. Explained like that, the whole exercise sounds silly. I remember once, in Russian class, when I was asked to say “the girl is writing on the chalkboard.” I said what I thought was correct but I knew I wasn’t when the prof laughed his head off. “The girl ‘pissed’ on the chalkboard?” Obviously, the word for write and pissed are similar, bringing me to my second point: fuck or anything is fine and meaningless when you are just breathing out air. But we live in a collective and our society agrees on the meaning of these breathy sounds, these words. Only in the most remote way do we agree that fuck means to make love. Usually, it connotates something akin to messing with people, to dehumanize them. It’s I don’t care squared.
Here’s another story. Years ago, my boy and I were bugging each other going through the check-out line at the grocers. He was probably fifteen and being annoying so I said something like ‘that’s why you had to ride the short bus to school.’ Without missing a beat, the checker gave me a look that shrunk me to an inch. “My son rides the short bus to school,” she said, pulling tomatoes over the scanner. What’s that about words having no meaning? What’s that about words not hurting? Stupid.
The very purpose of words is to convey meaning. No word is meaningless. Words move us to great joy or to great pain. Words can elevate a nation. Words can change your life in an instant. “I’m leaving.” “I Have a Dream!” “Math is hard.” How many girls have never forgotten when their dad hugged them and told them that he loves them even though they are chubby? What lasts? The hug or the words? How many adults have never imagined what wonderful things they can do only because three or four decades ago someone told them that “you’re not good at that.” My own father remembered me at four-years-old, reaching for his hand to cross the street. He slapped my hand away and said “Big boys don’t hold hands.” I have no memory of the words but the sentiment still resounds in me. And it was meaningful enough for him to remember it fifty years later.
I disagree with Ms. Haft about the meaning of words but she alludes to something I do agree with: dark things lose power when exposed to light. When we put something on the table; when we put it on full display, that thing wilts, flaccid now, like a balloon without air. This exposure in one of the basic tenets of free speech.
I don’t know what happened to Ms. Haft. I don’t remember if she was there for my senior year. The last thing I remember about her was when she caught on that my buddy and I were the sole members of our high-school Maoist club. We dropped pamphlets and commie art in teacher’s mail each morning and beamed for days after Ms. Haft told us that the school board had called a special meeting to discuss the ‘communist infestation’ at the school. Again: the power of words!
Be careful with your words. We never, ever know the effects we have on people around us. Even an offhand remark to your son in the checkout line at the grocery store can make or break someone’s day.