Teaching the baby to swear . . .

by Donna Hébert
October 2014

Now you must understand that my French-Canadian Nana used Fels Naptha bar soap (with lye in it) to wash out our mouths if we said a bad word. How was I to know what “taber . . .” meant? So I tried not to use bad words around adults, a few of whom used them pretty liberally themselves. It was the fifties, though, and these second-generation immigrant adults were, for the most part, self-conscious about their accents, so they tried to bury them and gain admittance to the American middle class.


My own speech and world view had loosened up some when I finally began raising a daughter in my forties. Values were re-examined. Schools had changed as well. At no time during any of my schooling had we sat down on the floor, or taken our naps next to each other on the floor. Indeed, we sat at our desks and put our heads down on same (we stayed in one room all day), and pretended to rest. Nor were our school floors carpeted. Do you get where I’m going?

When my own lovely daughter entered public school, her blonde ringlet curls hung more than halfway down her back. She loved them and so did I. Perfect hair. I had, somehow, in spite of genetic improbability, produced a child with utterly perfect hair. My own stringy hair echoed that of my soap-wielding Nana, whose life-long dissatisfaction with her hair was well-known, leading to her affectation of polyester wigs when they became fashionable in the ‘70s. All her bingo biddies knew about her hair, to the point that, when she died, they took Polaroid pictures of her in the undertaker’s hair and makeup and put them in the coffin so she could see how good her hair finally looked!

So in she walks to kindergarten, my innocent, long-haired girl. Within two weeks, her scalp is itching and we’re sitting in the bright sun on the front stoop with a lice comb. Indeed, her head (and my skin) are crawling. Multiple applications of lice-killing shampoo to all family members ensue, along with the purchase of a new vacuum cleaner after we use the old one to clean every surface in the house and then toss it in the trash lest it re-infest the premises. But we did everything, including keeping her out of school until she passed the school nurse’s high-magnification head exam.

So, back in class she goes. This time it was maybe three weeks before her scalp began itching. Somebody else’s mom hadn’t thrown their damn vacuum out, I fumed. Then I realized. The kids sit next to each other, clothing hanging together, lying on the carpeted floor together. This was a losing battle. So I took my heart and scissors in hand and cut her beautiful long hair to about shoulder length. This gave the little bastards half as much territory to infest and cut my nit-picking time considerably. By now the poor kid felt like she should carry a placard decrying “UNCLEAN” so no one would touch her. And she mourned her hair. So did I. For that matter, Nana probably did too, from her French-Canadian heaven. It was at this point that I briefly entertained the thought of getting the instruments out of the house, the books, and of course, the humans, and just tossing in a lit Molotov cocktail.

Finally it looked as if we were clean again. I had been lucky to avoid them in my hair, but we always de-loused everyone’s hair just to be safe. My car was not running well, so I rented a car to take the band (and daughter) to Canada for the weekend for a gig. We’d just crossed into Quebec, the guitarist was driving and my daughter started crying in the back seat. We stopped, took a good look, and indeed, she was re-infested. I went into overdrive, the next stop the drugstore, then our hotel, all the time having a conversation with myself that boiled down to: ”Jesus God how do we keep from infesting the hotel, never mind this damn car?”

So we register, get into our room, and daughter and I strip down to underwear, piling the goo on our head. The bathroom in our hotel room is huge, mirrored on all sides, creating surreal images as my daughter stomps around the room, fizzing with frustration.

“Mummy, can I say a bad word?” she finally sputters.

“Oh, honey, this is exACTly why people say bad words! You go right ahead.”

She tore around the bathroom oozing goo down her neck, stamping out her rage, rolling out a very impressive collection of curses for an almost-six year old. I finally joined her in mid-stomp, letting out my own frustration at having to deal with this aGAIN, and in the middle of a performance weekend, just for laughs. Our impromptu ‘curse-you-lice’ dance continued until we were both laughing so hard we could no longer breathe. Then we washed the goo off and prayed we’d gotten them all (this time we had, but we didn’t know that yet!), and put on a smile for the nice people all weekend. Ask me where she became the road warrior she is today. In a bathroom, in Valleyfield, Quebec, cursing like a longshoreman, when she was five.

As we toweled off, I reminded her that “This was a special time to use those words. If you say those words in front of your little friends, their mommies won’t like it and they won’t let you play with them, so be very careful. When you are an adult, you can decide how to talk, but for now, adults will judge you if you curse.”

She never seemed to have a problem with that injunction, and with an inborn sense of drama, grew up knowing how and when to color her language. She's played many Shakespeare roles, and has a honed and literate collection of curses. However, when she works as a nanny, she stows that gab and even corrects MY language if I’m sloppy around her charges. She takes her job seriously. But, hanging out after hours with her housemates and boyfriend at a bar, she un-censors herself. She’s an adult, and she can speak as she chooses when she chooses.

She has a strong sense of who she is in the world, and isn't shy. At age eight, she declared to a friend at a house party, “Oh, we’re not poor. We’re boHEMian!” I backed out of the room, shaking with laughter. She got it, even then, that the artist’s life is a choice that would look like different things to different people, depending on their own world view. And she grew up talking to academics, actors, musicians, scientists, and thinkers, so she had no doubt of her own worth in the world from early on.

But, while she has no trouble taking her own space, there are those who would deny her that freedom based on her gender. Apparently there are language police everywhere, and they aren’t afraid to police and shame total strangers, particularly female strangers, even in public places like restaurants. She recently posted the following status on her Facebook profile:

"I just got told by a man at a restaurant that my language was "atrocious for a woman and you shouldn't speak like that." I was speaking no differently than my male friends. I told him to fuck off and that he had no right to tell me or any other woman how to speak. Because I'm a fucking lady, dickwad. #‎yesallwomen"

Yes, my dear, you presented your best efforts, with a full flourish, to the most deserving douchebag of the day. He had absolutely no right to chastise you and you shamed him properly for his bad behavior, rather than accepting his blaming and shaming you.

He, of course, walked away thinking he was absolutely right and that you were a barbarian bitch. [Ooo- BAND NAME!] Still, you weren’t ever going to be anything other than an example to him, anyway. But, let's follow this experience to it’s proper conclusion. The mere existence of guys like him is why women need to VOTE. That's the take-away here.


And here’s a little gem - another curse you might want to add to your colorful list:

“May lightning strike your ZIPPER!”

© October 2014, Donna Hébert. All rights reserved.

Donna Hébert
Fiddle instructor: Smith & Amherst Colleges
413-658-4276 • Email • Website: Teaching, Fiddling Demystified publishing, blog
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