“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin looks at profanity and censorship in the classroom.
I discovered rap when I was nine years old. My friend, Patrick, gave me a dubbed copy of Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It. I was immediately hooked. I had never heard anything like that before. At least, nothing that crass and open.
I learned how to cuss—like many other people—from listening to my father do the bills when I was probably five or six. I might not have understood the words when I was that young, but I knew they were important and dangerous. Swear words were still a whispered joke amongst friends or something that you yelled out loud and waited for the gasps and threatening glances of any adults who might have heard you.
I was so afraid to have that Eazy-E tape in my house that I hid it underneath my mattress, only bringing it out in the mornings before school to listen to on the bus. I was a rebel. Sort of. I went to a North Portland elementary school where I was one of very few white kids in my class. My friends all listened to rap music and talked about their siblings drinking at parties and giving girls a “funky cold medina” and having sex. We didn’t know what any of it meant, but we knew it was dirty and fun to talk about. By the time I was eleven and had moved to the white suburbia of Southwest Portland, I made new friends and started to introduce them to all my “street” knowledge.
My friends and I, not even ten years old and far from knowing what any of it actually meant, had memorized every word of that Eazy-E tape and we used to throw verses in makeshift ciphers when parents weren’t around—music blaring from the stereos we weren’t supposed to touch. A million times we rapped the line, “Easily I approach / the microphone because I ain’t no joke / tell your mama to get off of my tip / I have no time to give her my dick,” until my dad caught me mid-sentence. To this day, it’s the only tape he’s ever broken in front of me. In fact, it’s the only music he’s ever censored around me.
My parents, who used to take me to R-rated movies because they taught me the difference between real life and cinema, did not want me to hear Eazy-E rap about giving the “time” to someone’s mother. They weren’t mad that I was listening to it, they just truly thought I was too young to really hear those types of things. Again, R-rated movies were okay, but Eazy-E was a big no-no. I had my friend make me another copy of the tape; I labeled it with something way less offensive like the Eagles or Fraggle Rock Theme Songs and went on my merry way, simply rapping with a bit more discretion.
Censorship is a very tricky subject. My students often ask me how far they can go when it comes to writing about sex or drug use or violence and I’ve given the same speech each year where I tell them that the best writers talk about those things inside “shadows and metaphors.” I tell them that William Burroughs doesn’t necessarily write about the process of shooting heroin, but rather that his typewriter is walking outside his window. I use the example from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus where Lavinia is brutally raped, but it’s done offstage. The audience can hear the screams, and when she is brought back to the front of the stage, she is left without hands, eyes, or a tongue. There is no question what has happened to her, but Shakespeare didn’t feel the need to portray the act on stage. It was more powerful to have it done while the stage was empty. Even when characters fought in Shakespearean plays, it was only given in script as “they fight.” To be honest, writing a good fight scene is near impossible. It’s like writing a sex scene—it’s awkward and rarely gives the impact of what it actually feels like.
I’ve always known the George Carlin “Seven Dirty Words” skit, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally got to watch the 1974 HBO special in which it was first aired—not with my students, though I’m sure they would have enjoyed it; their parents, however, would have probably called my principal. The lead into the special is interesting because the woman—I can’t remember her name—who is giving the brief explanation of the show, is letting the home viewer know that there will be offensive language and that we are getting a true glimpse at Carlin’s unedited stage show. It’s an incredible hour, and it’s not that it’s crass or even offensive, it’s simply Carlin telling it like it is. He’s letting his crowd in on the honesty of life and the fact that we hear coarse language on a very regular basis and that, as adults, or people who are becoming adults, we need to learn how to deal with what we hear all the time.
I tell my students I don’t want to hear them swear in my classroom; that I want them to be a bit more creative when it comes to their use of language. There are always better ways to say things. However, as a professor once told me, “sometimes there is no replacement for a good what the fuck.” It’s true. While I don’t tell my highschoolers that, I do understand that when they swear, they’re not doing anything wrong. I just remind them that they could probably be more creative or say something more significant. In the hallways or outside of school or around their friends or in their homes, they are going to hear that language and they need to begin to understand that, in the right context, it’s not the end of the world.
People swear and talk about sex and drug use and violence and everything else that happens in the real world, because, well, it happens in the real world. I do not begrudge my parents taking away my Eazy-E tape; in fact, I commend them for it. They had every right to not want me exposed to that language used in that forum, especially when they hadn’t had a chance to truly teach me about it yet. We hadn’t had those talks because there hadn’t been a need.
It’s okay to have the same conversations with students. It’s okay to be honest with them. So, easily approach those seven dirty words, or whatever words you use, just remember to use them wisely.