“Ms. C?” one boy asks me while I’m erasing the board and preparing to write down the day’s agenda.
I drop the eraser. “Um,” I think for a second, “it means ‘cat.'”
“‘Pussy’ means ‘cat’? Why does that boy always call me a ‘pussy’ if it means ‘cat’?”
“Well,” I responded, face red and growing more panicky, “um, it’s also a bad word. So you shouldn’t say it. Ever. And that boy shouldn’t say it. Ever.”
“What does the ‘pussy’ mean?” he asked again. (A common thing for English language learners is to place an article “the” or “a/an” before almost each and every noun, because that’s how Portuguese works.)
“It’s a very bad word and you shouldn’t say it,” I told him, not able to bring myself to explain the more common meaning.
He grabbed a dictionary. “Can I just look the ‘pussy’ up?”
“It probably won’t be in the dictionary,” I said. “It’s slang.”
“But what does it mean?” Man this kid is persistent. “Is it like ‘b-i-t-‘”
“Worse!” I interrupted him. “Just don’t say it!”
Thankfully, more students entered the room and both of us were quickly distracted from our conversation, and now that I think back on it I wished I’d handled the whole thing more casually. But if there’s one word I hate, it’s that one. So I kind of reacted a little more seriously than I should have. For a second I forgot I have a right to explain things, and that I should be explaining things, to my kids. But some words are so foul–and so out of place in a school–that I forget.
I did, on the other hand, manage to throw the word “booby” into classroom conversation three times when my kids were snickering at the words “booby trap” that someone snuck into the room under his breath. Before I knew it, in the middle of a conversation about the Holocaust, kids’ faces were lighting up red and they were doing their best to keep their laughter in. So when one kid asked, “Ms. C? What’s a booby trap,” and after I’d begun to explain, I realized every time I said “booby trap,” the kids’ faces got even more hysterical with pent up laughter.
“Okay,” I announced. “Ha ha ha, Ms. Coggio just said ‘booby’.” It’s very funny. Go ahead and laugh.” My god, if there were ever an eruption to rival that of Mt. Vesuvius, it would have been the one in my classroom after I gave my students permission to laugh at the word “booby.”
My mother was a health teacher in her day. I grew up using the technical terms for everything and shunning the use of slang for the various body parts. In fact, my mother was so serious about me using the real terms (for the sake of being comfortable with the language later on) to this day I’m still not sure what a “pie hole” is, or if it is indeed “pie hole” or “cake hole.” Could be both; they are very similar desserts. In any case, today’s throwing around of random body parts slang would have been like a giant pay day for my mother. I can just hear her now: “It’s not ‘booby,’ kids. It’s ‘breast.’ It’s made of fatty tissue that both men and women have. The darkened area surrounding the nipple is is called an areola and…”
Each of my students would have a brain aneurism from trying to contain uproarious laughter. I would give anything to see that. (Not the aneurisms, of course, but my kids’ faces.) The closest thing I have to being able to teach like my mother is to not tell my kids what “pussy” means, and then saying “booby” out loud until they’re all rolling with tears streaming down their faces. I think this is why parents don’t talk to their own kids about sex. Because I am all in favor of not explaining awkward terminology and laughing at funny sounding words in the middle of class.
(Why am I a teacher again?)