What I Do With Discomforting Words, Scrotum Not Being One of Them

When reading aloud The Kidnapped Prince, one of my former fourth grade colleagues told me that her students always giggled when she came to the name Dick. Yet when I read the same book aloud there wasn’t a smirk to be seen.My guess is that it was my colleague who had the problem, not her students. I grew up with the name Dick being as standard as standard (Dick and Jane anyone?), but she had not. For her the word was not a shortened version of Richard, but something else entirely, something that was private, grown-up, and not a word she’d normally say in polite company, much less read aloud to her class of fourth graders. That discomfort must have come through when she read resulting in the giggles she expected (as she figured she’d have reacted if she was their age). And since I had no such feelings, my neutrality as I read allowed my students to focus on the the story rather than a name that now may mean something else to some.

A different sort of word in a book did make me uncomfortable some years ago. I was reading aloud Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me. Harris, an isolated farm boy around the time of WWII, loves to play war games and there is one chapter where he manages to get the book’s narrator to battle “commie japs” — aka the pigs, with predictably hilarious results. That year I had M, a young Japanese boy, in my class who had already been in one difficult situation involving an assembly where excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado were presented. And so when I came to the “commie japs” I stopped. It wasn’t planned, it was a gut reaction. With M in my class, knowing what he’d already experienced in the assembly, I simply could not read that word aloud. And so (as I’d done after the assembly) I explained the situation to the kids. Named the word, explained how it was used in the book, why it was offensive, why it was funny (Harris having no real clue what “commie japs” were either), and why I wasn’t comfortable reading it. And then I went on with the story, skipping the word when I came to it.

Would I do the same with scrotum in Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky? Nope. Voicing words about our bodies, words like Dick and scrotum are no problem for me whatsoever. Cultural epithets, when one from the culture being maligned is among the listeners, can be for me. And either way, I’d still read aloud the book (as did my colleague redfaced as she was at points) and I’d still want the book in my school’s library. The idea that a word would keep a book out of a library — I don’t have any words to describe my response to that.

How very, very sad that it wasn’t winning the Newbery that propelled Susan Patron to the front page of the New York Times, but a bunch of jittery librarians.

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5 Comments

Filed under Reading, Teaching

5 responses to “What I Do With Discomforting Words, Scrotum Not Being One of Them

  1. I totally agree. TOTALLY. My thoughts on The Great Scrotum Debate of 2007, also from a teacher’s point of view, are up at A Year of Reading.

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  2. Oh, I feel your pain. It gets better in high school. In Romeo & Juliet, there is a character named “Peter”. I will never ofrget my first year of teaching, when I was assigning reading parts for my ninth graders, I actually said out loud “Ok, next I need a Peter. Who wants to be our Peter?”. And then in the novel The Time Machine, one of the main characters is named Weena. WEENA!! I I wonder if children’s and YA lit authors plot against us (probably not, the ones I have met are actually wonderful people). I have heard this is also bad for biology teachers, who deal with constant mispronunciations of “organism.” I guess it’s just part of life — kids need to be exposed to “uncomfortable words” when in the presence of a nurturing adult who can help them understand how it is and is not appropriate to react to them.

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  3. Your comparison of different types of potentially offensive words is very appropriate and I would like to recommend your wise approach to all my students who are future teachers. I feel very lucky that I grew up without knowing that Peter and Dick meant anything besides names in Dick and Jane books and people I knew. Even with my sheltered childhood and squeamish inclincations, I can’t imagine making such a fuss in 2007 over the use of plain old anatomical words in a book, especially considering that the genitalia of dogs are in plain view to everyone.

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  4. Phillis Gershator

    Well put!
    Thanks.
    I can’t believe those “jittery librarians” mentioned in the NY Times are representative. The librarians I know would be aghast. But the jl’s sure are getting more than their share of exposure. Reminds me of those one or two scientists who claimed global warming wasn’t real and got all the media attention….

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  5. http://www.randomhouse.com/teens/firstamendment/ This is a great resource on First Ammendment “First Aid”

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