“You’re so gay.”
Too much of my day as a 5th grade teacher is spent in the role of language police. If I had a dollar for every time I repeated, “That’s not classroom language,” I’d be able to afford to buy a whole new classroom library. Circulating through the room overhearing student conversations, I correct them and move on. On the playground, especially on the soccer field where swear words abound, it becomes a barked warning, “Hey! Language!”
Most often, I’m patrolling against tiny acts of meanness, but occasionally, I’m called to issue a more specific prohibition of comments directed at race, gender, or intellectual capacity. Students learn quickly that pretending to speak Chinese by mumbling gibberish is not acceptable. “That’s like pretending you speak Spanish by saying ‘Taco, burrito,’ I admonish them, and they become adept at calling out racist humor with a quickly uttered,
“That’s retarded,” and “That’s gay” are shut down quickly and definitively.
Because so many of my students are English learners, they often don’t understand the weight of the words they use. They repeat what they hear on the playground, and I explain why “Where the hell is my pencil?” is not appropriate for school, even if their older brothers use it at home. Once they learn swear words in English, they stress over accidentally mispronouncing “beach” or “sheet,” fearing they might say a bad word.
I get a few students each year who’ve spent more of their life in the street than school, and their language reflects it. They come to me and say, “Teacher, he called me a….” followed by a string of clearly articulated expletives.
“Sweetheart, next time just tell me he called you a bad name. You don’t have to quote him exactly.”
“But he did! He called me a….”
“Shhhh. Stop right there.”
I urgently want my classroom to be a place where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where I can model appropriate use of language for those who have picked up too much vernacular from television or songs. I don’t punish students for swearing or even unkindness, but I certainly redirect or quell their comments throughout the day.
“You can’t call someone stupid, even if you disagree with him.”
And then we study the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”
I secretly enjoy the moment during the lesson when the metaphorical light bulb goes on over the heads of my more astute students, and they realize they’re legally allowed to say anything they want. That is to say, I enjoy it on an intellectual level. I also brace myself for the onslaught of “But the First Amendment says…” in defense of what is clearly not classroom language.
I’m torn. I want students to behave and be respectful. I want them to choose kind language. Frankly, on some level, like everyone’s mom, I want them to obey me “because
I said so; that’s why!”
And yet, I hope they learn to push back in defense of their rights. Free speech means exactly that: they are legally allowed to say whatever they want. I can scold them, stop them, and even send them to the office. I can call parents, or restrict privileges. However,
I can’t really stop them from expressing themselves.
I’m kind of excited when kids look for loopholes in my rules. At the very least, it means they’re listening instead of daydreaming about who will share Hot Cheetos with them at recess. At its best, it’s a chance to break down the distinction between “can” and “should.”
“Yes, you CAN say I’m the size of a Christmas elf, but should you? Is it wise, kind, and necessary? Will there be any negative consequences from it? You CAN criticize the principal, librarian, yard duty supervisors, in that you are legally allowed to do so. Will the outcome benefit you?”
My students might be new to English or to their understanding of the First Amendment, but they aren’t new to news. They hear the way the adults in power or positions of fame speak, about people of their race, religion, or social class. They worry that incendiary comments will lead to violence, or to policies which directly affect their families, especially those with relatives who are undocumented immigrants. This is when it pains me to remind them that even hateful speech is legally protected, as long as doesn’t involves threats against someone’s safety, and that the freedom they want extended to their own speech must be extended to even those with whom they disagree.
Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, because I also remind them that as the benevolent dictator of room 30, I get the final call: “That’s not classroom language.”