We weren’t very far into Grade School (1-6) when we heard new words; and our first opportunity to use them in our parents’ presence became their opportunity to quietly inform us why we would never use them again: “Gee” was the abbreviation for Jesus; “darn” was just a substitute word for damn (as everyone but us knew, apparently); and, finally, “golly” or “gosh” being vain references to God Himself. We knew good and well we were not to take His name in vain but sure hadn’t connected that to this. So with the loss of these words from our conversation we paid attention to all the words that we could use, and flamboyantly used the English language in the very best ways with which we could come up. And we were always careful not to end a sentence with a preposition.
I loved reading from the day I entered first grade, so words were happy business for me. My most flamboyantly public error in the pursuit of words came in fifth grade when our teacher put a new and lovely looking word on the blackboard. She asked for a volunteer to pronounce the word. Well. This one was a no-brainer: “You-nee-que!” I announced.
I still think I should have gotten points for sounding it out but my Unique pronunciation was just kindly passed over by her as she went on to explain heretofore unknown mysteries of the English language. (Have you ever considered what ESL folks are up against when they must distinguish between cough, tough, through, though and bough? Not to mention Unique?)
I learned some painful words in the fifties. One day in sixth grade as we ran for the school buses which would distribute us to the dryland farms scattered over 40 square miles of prairie, we saw the county sheriff with a pretty local lady and her new husband. They looked tense. It didn’t make sense to me. They were not the type to be in trouble. Then as my fifth grade friend started to get on our bus, the sheriff and the man stepped forward to talk with her. Just for a moment she looked confused, and then quietly went with the newlyweds to their car.
Until that day, I had thought that our neighbors were her parents, but now I learned they were her grandparents and had cared for her since she was about two years old after her mother (their daughter) had died in a car accident. The couple waiting by the bus was her father (a local businessman) and new stepmother, a very nice lady.
Her grandparents had also pulled up to the bus at the last moment to tearfully try to stop the unstoppable transaction. So in the little town with lots of cottonwood trees and side streets that never were paved there were two happy hearts taking his daughter to her new home, and two hearts flailing in renewed grief and loss as they returned to an even more painfully quiet small farm house, now missing not only the voice of their daughter but their granddaughter’s as well. So that day when I got home, I learned about Guardians and Court Orders.
I learned some really bad words. I asked Dad what Taxes were. He explained, “Well, every year I have to send money to the tax people because I own land and sell wheat.” But, Daddy, it’s your land! Do you have to buy it every year? “No. I have to pay something because it is my land.” That didn’t seem right.
I figured out what Murder was. Normal summertime reading fare included The Bobbsey Twins, Little House on the Prairie, Carolyn Keene and Nancy Drew. And I was beginning to read the subscription magazines that came: The Saturday Evening Post, The Reader’s Digest, The Farmer, The Farm Journal and The National Geographic. It may have been in a Reader’s Digest article that I first saw and understood the word Murder. And then I went out and sat on the south step just thinking about the word. Murder. Someone could decide to kill someone else. Murder. Just because they wanted to~~they could Murder someone. That really is a very bad word.
I learned what Divorce was in a more roundabout way.
We did lots of singing at school…patriotic songs, the state song, “Montana, Montana, where skies are always bluuuuuue! M-O-N-T-A-N-A! Montana! I love you!” Sometimes we learned what passed for folk tunes at the time. Thus it was that we sang about the plight of Barney Google. The song was first written in 1923 by Billy Rose and later had some attachment to the comic strip but in 1953, all I knew was what I learned from the chorus that day:
Barney Google! With the goo-goo-googly eyes!
Barney Google had a wife three times his size.
She sued Barney for divorce~~now Barney’s living with his horse.
Barney Google! With the goo-goo-googly eyes!
That thing had a lilting melody that fourth graders could sort of yell and it’s a fact that our teacher weighed at least 300 pounds. I thought that she might even be Mrs. Google, but I didn’t discern the more serious matter mentioned in the song.
The words aren’t written out. We learn them from listening to the teacher sing. Because I enjoy reading and spelling I know what the words look like, so as we sing, I’m well aware that I don’t know what “forty force” means, but…that’s what the song says…so I’m cheerfully singing, “She sued Barney forty force! Now Barney’s living with his horse!”
When I get home, I sing my funny song for Mom as soon as I get in the house, and it’s obvious that she’s not familiar with the term “forty force” either and, furthermore, isn’t amused with the song. She’s not amused at all. She’s actually quite upset, finally just saying, “Divorce is a terrible thing.” I’m still clueless, ’cause I’m not singing about divorce (whatever that is). I’m singing about forty force (whatever that is). Then she explains, “The words are not ‘forty force.’ They are ‘for divorce.’ Divorce is when two people who are married decide they don’t like each other any more and stop living together.”
And right there, standing in front of her in the big kitchen, time seems to slow and blur for me and life becomes uncertain. I’m the youngest of seven. I’m only in fourth grade. I’ve already been far more trouble than I’m worth more times than I can count because I run too fast, talk too much, often fall up the stairs because I don’t take my roller skates off when I come in from outside and I make too much noise…and now you tell me Dads and Moms can just change their minds about being Dad and Mom??
I’m assuming that summer always has the scent of lilacs and peonies with ants on them; I’m planning on more warm spring days when we can finally play marbles with a poison pot; I still believe in hollyhocks that can be turned upside down to look like a bunch of dancing dolls….and now you tell me Dads and Moms can just change their minds about being Dad and Mom??
I suddenly feel very sorry for Barney Google, living out there somewhere with his horse.
Childhood is a colorful container
which can hold lots of flowers.
But sometimes those flowers wilt suddenly.
In that moment, the child really doesn’t know
if the fault lies with the flowers or the container.