Fall fires are the best– warm enough so we can remain outdoors under a clear night sky in early November when our mountain tops begin to collect snow. I needed this bonfire tonight, to be surrounded by a lot of really good people, to watch big kids looking after little kids with the random adult snagging anyone who sprinted too close to the big burn pile, to chat with local friends and watch my dad, the “Bonfire King” from our old neighborhood growing up, reveling in the stoke of sometimes 30 foot flames and 300 pallets of wood. Fire is beautiful and powerful and transformative, tiny yoga spirit flames with hypnotic strength. Watching the warmth dance under the night sky surrounded by friends and family helped to diminish some of the week’s stress stemming from a bad storm, Halloween, and full moon behavior of the world’s children, namely our own.
Our 7.5 year old son learned the word “faggot” somewhere on the school playground this week. So after the initial horror of being told by the After School Program director that he had been chanting the word on the walk from school to the community center but that he didn’t believe our boy understood what he was saying, that it was just a “fun” word to hear himself chant, I pulled myself together. A year ago, he had been desperate to know what the “actual F word” was, and now we are here with “faggot.” The word “faggot” is so far worse in my own vocabulary rating scale, that I would actually prefer him to use the F bomb over it.
So, we arrive home from school and we sit at the kitchen table.
“Carver, we need to talk about the word ‘faggot’ you were chanting on your way to ASP.”
The thing about this lad is that he can’t lie yet, and he is pretty earnest in his explanation to share what he has learned over the course of the day, bad words included. “Yes, Mom, it is spelled F-A-G-G-O-T,” and I stop him, “Do you know what the word means?”
“Yes, Mom, it means ‘fat people.'”
Interesting and, well, completely inaccurate. So I breathe deeply, channeling the little yoga spirit voices in my heart, knowing his soul does not contain the hatred of a two thousand year history of inhumanity. “This is not what ‘faggot’ means but even if it was, would calling someone ‘fat’ be acceptable behavior?”
“No, Mom, that is mean.”
“Then, why would you say it?”
“I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, honest.” And then I explain who, words like “faggot,” are meant to insult, and his face crumbles under my words, ones meant only to arm with information.
“You know how Auntie Cathy and Auntie Jill are married and love each other like Mommy and Daddy do? Remember the bakery boys from North Woodstock who made our favorite cinnamon buns? Remember how when we talk about love and marriage, Mommy says we always have a choice– how you don’t have to get married, but if you decide to one day when you are really in love, you know that boys and girls can marry or boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls.”
“Yes, Mom,” he is irritated, “I already know all of this. I love Auntie Cathy and Auntie Jill. I miss those cinnamon boys,” which is funny because I know he really means cinnamon buns.
“The word ‘faggot’ is a very old insult which is meant to hurt people like Auntie Cathy and Auntie Jill, people who fall in love with other people who happen to be the same gender. Do you think they would want to know that you used this word?”
“Noooo! Mom, please don’t tell them,” he is crying hard now, “I just didn’t know. I just didn’t know that’s what it meant,” hiccuping and sobbing and now sitting in my lap, a little boy almost 8 and 80 pounds, who desperately wants to understand the power of language and bad words and big kids.
“Which is just one of the reasons why we don’t use words until we are pretty sure we have an idea of what they mean. You can always ask me or Daddy or other big friends you trust, and by trust, there are going to be people who try to get you to do things because they will think it’s funny.” And so while I do not want to destroy his love of an audience, I’d like him to think a little longer about the consequences of his actions. This is beyond screaming, “Shit” on the playground last year just to hear himself yell it. This is hurtful language even if he thought it was a description for fat people, even if he didn’t know what it meant.
There will always be teenagers in my classroom who will argue that the word means bundle of sticks, so use it that way or even the British reference to a cigarette. But to say, “You are a faggot” or “Don’t be a faggot, or fag” or any variation of the denigrating usage, is to contribute to our world’s inhumanity. So, please don’t. Just. Please. Don’t. And if my kid happens to use an F bomb in his swearing future, please let it be: F-U-C-K and not F-A-G-G-O-T.