Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Yeah? Well.....you're a whole pack of smokes!

First, an approximation of a conversation between me and two of my teen patrons as we got ready for our second Teen Game Night.

Teen 1: "He's a …. oh, except I'm not supposed to say that here. (pause) "[something to the effect of that's stupid because] fag actually means cigarrette in some countries."

Me: "Yes, but we aren't in those other countries, we are here…."

Teen 2: "[jumps in with more about the various meanings of faggot]"

Me: "…Besides, you obviously didn't mean to use that definition. That doesn't make any sense. Why would you call someone a cigarette?…"

Teens 1 and 2: "[more stuff about the various definitions of fag and faggot]"

Me: "And in either case, you meant it as an insult. You shouldn't be mean like that. So stop it."

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure Teen 1 will use "fag" as an insult many times over in the near and far future, but at least they both shut up fairly quickly after that.


Unlike preschoolers, teenagers respond fairly well to logic. They also still see a lot of black and white and respond really badly to the total absence of logic that a lot of people in charge of their education, safety, what have you, use. (Most often when they want teens to act responsibly but they don't want the headache of actually giving them the responsibility of making their own decisions.)

Take, for example, the teens that got suspended for saying "vagina" over the school loudspeaker. I have no doubt that these girls are fierce feminists, but they are also teens. Teens who are active and engaged enough to try to make an honest to goodness (and possibly unpopular) political statement in front of the whole school, during school hours, as part of something as geeky as a poetry reading...er slam.

I'm going to take a huge leap and hypothesize that these girls are not considered to be juvenile delinquents by their teachers or peers. Which means that while they may not always be obedient, or gracious when they are obedient, they do tend to follow school rules. So why choose this one to break, especially having been forwarned by their principal?

Is it because they believe in the cause that much?

They suddenly decided that being good was no fun?

Or did their principal manage to piss them off that much?

I suspect the first and the last.

I think that we probably never would have heard about this if the principal had simply said "Discussions about sexuality are not appropriate in a high school setting outside of health class (or extracurricular clubs that are formed for that explicit purpose) and so you need to find another passage."

Instead he said "Discussions about sexuality are appropriate in a high school setting - even to the point of being allowed during school performances.

But you can't actually say the technically correct words....you have to use juvenile euphemisms."

or something to the same effect anyway.

Which misses both the point of the poem and one of the main reasons one would allow discussions about sexuality to occur in high schools in the first place. The principal not only told them that they couldn't discuss what they wanted to discuss - he also showed them that he didn't even have enough of a backbone to just come right out and say so in the first place. Plus, he insulted their intelligence by acting as if the meaning of the poem was incidental to their decision to perform it in public . He also acted as if his censorship of the most important word in the whole poem did not have the same effect as censoring the meaning of the poem.

In other words, he did that wishy-washy, hair-splitting, la-la-la I've lost all sense of reason and logic thing that adults often do with teens. Which, understandably, drives teens bat-shit crazy.

It's made clear in all the articles about this that these girls thought about what they were doing. This wasn't a stupid prank. This was a deliberate "screw you, your illogical rules, and your belief that I'm too stupid to catch on."

Rock on.

Or, as Dar Williams says: "Teenagers, kick our butts."


Which brings us back to "faggot".

Forget "how do we teach our children to act responsibly when the president gets blow jobs in the Oval Office and pundits call other public figures faggots."

How about, "How the hell am I supposed to get these teens to treat each other with respect when we act as if it's the word that's taboo and not the act of insulting other people that's wrong?"

How do I teach them about context and intent when we'll all get in trouble for simply saying the word, irregardless of context?

How do I teach them to respect themselves and each other when I'm forced to implicitly support the idea that their bodies and new desires are shameful ?

I understand why I shouldn't use many of these words or bring up certain topics, even when I think it would be helpful rather than rude. My position of power means that I keep my opinions to myself for a variety of obvious reasons. And so, there are certain words that I will never use with them, even though I personally think that they shouldn't be so taboo.

I'm also sure as hell not going to let them get away with saying such crap in the library. We're supposed to be a safe space for everyone, and that means no slurs like "faggot."

But the whole knee jerk "shush!" reaction that I see a lot of other adults do is annoying the crap out of me.

All that teaches them is to wait somewhere else to say it.

It also teaches them that a lot of really broad topics are off limits around me. Which really clashes with the whole "I'm a trusted resource" mission statement among librarians - YA librarians in particular.

(sigh) I get the feeling this isn't going to be easy.

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