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[Janis Butler Holm]
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['Angel Dust' by Jaime Altieri]
"Angel Dust" by Jaime Altieri

I remember when, in elementary school, in Mrs. Carr's class, there was an epidemic of naughty words--when a whole new system of linguistic possibilities, some of them with synonymic hand signals, suddenly presented itself to the fifth grade. They were tremendously exciting, these words that were supposed to mean things utterly adult and wicked. Their forbidden nature was underlined by the fact that most of us were quite ignorant as to what they actually meant, for all our knowing innuendo. (In the 50s, fifth-graders were generally lacking in sexual sophistication.) Mostly, the excitement rippled through the little boys in the class, although a few of us girls picked up on the new language and began to incorporate it, somewhat clumsily, into our linguistic battles with the boys.

When the proportions of the epidemic were noted by the school authorities, all the fifth-grade boys were summoned to the principal's office, where they were lectured and interrogated as to the extent of this evil. A little later, Mrs. Carr called three girls out of the classroom, took us to the end of the hall, and said that we had been named by some of the boys as co-speakers of this shocking dialect. Quite sternly, she let us know that such behavior was offensive and vulgar and not to be tolerated in young ladies--and that, as she proceeded to specify, it was particularly unacceptable in me, an otherwise well-behaved and model student: "I might have expected as much from Jan and Roxanne, but you, Janis?" I remember the humiliation that spread over me as she scolded us, the red-hot burning of my face and the rest of my body, the sense of deep transgression and shame.

But I also remember a number of other sensations, many of them not at all what Mrs. Carr intended to evoke. With the intense shame, I also felt a tinge of pleasure at being so clearly identified as a surprise member of the fifth-grade demimonde, a realm to which, in my roles of good student and middle-class sweetie pie, I had previously had little access. Though I felt horror at being associated with two girls who were, after all, already and hopelessly marked as "bad," I was also pleased at having publicly crossed some heretofore uncrossable boundary. And, although I did not actually like Jan and Roxanne, I felt an acute sense of embarrassment at having been distinguished from them in so crude a fashion, and a fledgling sense of affiliation with my sisters in crime--Mrs. Carr was being unfair, somehow, to all of us.

Not least of the sensations flooding through me, as I stood there burning in the hall, was anger at the cowardice and treachery of my male classmates. We--Roxanne and Jan and I--had been duped by the boys. Their performance had lacked true courage. Despite the bravado and apparent derring-do, they were, under pressure, chicken-hearted squealers who had betrayed a kind of unspoken trust among those of us who shared a common language.

This experience, more than any other early experience I can remember, suggests the glimmerings of a kind of social awareness. And it demonstrates why popular characterizations of the 50s as a time of oblivious acceptance and "Leave It to Beaver" complacency have never rung true for me. The 1950s dialects of sex, class, and gender (and their inherent tensions and oppositions) were problematic even in the 50s, even for children, even for privileged little girls like the ten-year-old me.

Though, as children, we couldn't articulate our trouble, those of us who experienced painful contradiction wanted it to end. And, by the late 1960s, we were old enough to know that what troubled us were failing ideologies, that it was time to do what we could to find new languages, that what we wanted were dialects of liberation.

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Janis Butler Holm writes, teaches, and thinks about language in Athens, Ohio.

E-mail Janis Butler Holm at
comments@moondance.org


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