Every year, I overhear a student casually talking about a wife-beater. And every time, I cringe with the image that contrasts with the ones my students are talking about.
Most recently, the conversation sounded a little like this, “I can’t believe he was skiing with only a wife-beater beneath his jacket. What a jackass.” The irony is lost on the speaker, a young man who clearly cares deeply about his friend not being warm enough.
So, I ask the class what they mean by “wife-beater” as I feel I have done each year for an eternity, yet still the term remains.
I know what they are talking about, but it’s fun to pretend and watch the reality of what they are saying sink in. “Really, Krill, you don’t know what a beater is? They are only the best t-shirts ever, well, more like a tank top, and they are white.”
“Why are they called wife-beaters then?”
And that’s when the uncomfortable laughter starts for some kids who have picked up on where I’m headed.
“Well, I guess they were named after the stereotypical macho men who hit their wives.”
I want to make him squirm to understand and respond, “Well, then they would be called wife-hitters, right? Let’s talk nuances of words. Understanding the differences with denotative and connotative meanings of words is completely appropriate for English class. What is the difference between hit and beat?”
And so we discuss this for a while, how “hit” isn’t nearly as violent as “beat”, and beat sounds like it happens regularly, not just like a once in a while kind of thing, still unacceptable.
Again, I ask them to think about why words are what they are– to think about the words they use before they eject from their mouths. I realize maybe two thirds have listened, understood, and will try harder to educate their friends when they casually toss around such horrific terms, which technically is not swearing. I tell them how amazing it would be if we could eradicate the word and all its meanings from society because they no longer existed. We discuss what it would be like if women’s tank tops were even called man-haters. “Well, that would be ridiculous,” they say. Of course it would. Point made.
But confronting people can be hard for teenagers and adults alike. I had to talk myself down as a mother in the Dunkin Donuts drive through recently.
I ordered and then pulled ahead to sit behind a vehicle with its entire back windshield covered by a large sticker which read, “SHUT UP” on the top line and “I’ve FUCKING got this” on the lower line. So, I rolled my eyes at the twenty somethings in the car, imagining what would possess someone to put that sticker on her car. The driver was a woman. But they had a very complicated order, so the more I sat there staring at the words, the closer I got to getting out of my car and knocking on their window to ask why they felt their freedom of speech was more important than my freedom from offensive language at the local DD.
The only thing that stopped me from getting out of my car was the little emerging reader sitting in his booster seat behind me sounding out the “SHHHHH-uuuu-TTTTT, UP. Hey, Mom, that says ‘Shut up’.” Then more excitedly, “I just read that, and it says SHUUUUUTTTTT UP.” His sister even high fives him. So now, I want to share my enthusiasm for him reading signs in public, yet I’m also so overcome with sadness that the word is SHUT UP and not STOP or PIZZA or SCHOOL or LOON MOUNTAIN.
And what is taking so long because now he is onto “FUUUUUU” but he is going more with the long u sound so it rhymes with puking and not pucking, and I’m relieved and trying to distract him with a chocolate munchkin and what trails we’ll ski down today before he is able to go through every phonics rule he’s learned with Mrs. Pamplin and Ms. Bartlett or remembers that if duck rhymes with luck then if you put an F in front of UCK it will say FUCK. And, well, that would really make me sad. As it is, both kids are wondering why this young woman’s mom let her put a swear word like “Shut Up” on the back of her car.
I like that they think I will still have power over their choices when they are grown up. Now, I’m not proud of the fact that he repeats “Sweet Jesus” because that is what I say to keep myself from saying something worse in those situations which warrant an exclamation of some kind. But god help me if he ever refers to a tank top as a wife beater…