We#!*@dge: Profanity on Campus
By Olivia Q.
February 26, 2019
Do you ever stub your toe on a nearby object, maybe a table leg, a rock, or a school desk, and a glorious stream of profanities rushes out of your mouth? Have you ever done that in front of one of your teachers?
Profanity at Westridge might not take center stage as a topic in school discussions, but it certainly deserves the spotlight once in a while. Yes, Westridge, a school known for its composition of stellar students and teachers, has a culture of profanity. Most students, in their excitement or frustration, are known to let profanities slip out inside the classroom. Though this day-to-day profanity may seem innocuous to others, some teachers take a different stance.
But how do teachers handle profanity in literature, and even slurs like the N-word in class? Are students allowed to use profanity in their writing? Are they allowed to say slurs out loud during class readings?
Oona L., ’19, finds that teachers, for the most part, handle profanity appropriately. “In the English department, my experience has always been—especially if it is a word that has some type of hateful connotation—[that] it is brought up before the word is used, and then there is a conversation about what the word means, and why it is used in this context,” Oona concluded.
Perspectives in Literature: Signs, Systems, and Codes, an annual class that examines a new theme every year, is currently exploring a new study: “Slave Narratives to Lemonade — Listening to the Voices of Black Women in America.” With this new study, Perspectives often deals with the usage of words historically based in prejudice (such as the N-word) in literature and other modes of artistic expression. “The subject of race is one of the subjects, maybe the subject that most quiets my students,” said Molly Yurchak, the Perspectives teacher, as well as an Upper School English teacher. So how do students deal with historically oppressive and stigmatized words such as the n-word? Are they allowed to say it in class?
Ms. Yurchak says that “it's not a matter of ‘allow or don't allow’, but rather a matter of the class talk[ing] about it as a community, listen[ing] to each other, and realiz[ing] what the needs are of the people in the class.” According to her, students “did a longer, more drawn-out, and [more] detailed approach to this kind of language in Perspectives this year,” in which they unpacked the meaning and the history of the N-word over the course of a week and a half. They then, as a community, came up with a rule to not say the N-word and to substitute it with the euphemism instead. “If a student did choose to say it out loud and that was impacting another student, I'd be willing to arbitrate that conversation, and I'd be willing to keep trying to work with the student who chose to say it,” said Molly Yurchak, “to help them just make sure they're listening, [to ask the question] ‘why are you choosing this?’ But I won't police it. I won't say, ‘No you can't.’”
Most English teachers, like Katie Wei, have a similar approach to the usage of the N-word in literature—they usually choose to not say the N-word out loud during readings or discussions. “While it goes class by class, my general approach specific to the ’N-word’ is not to say it aloud, but also not to ignore it, for to do so would be to not address the text in all its authenticity,” said Wei. “Therefore, we will use a substitute that everyone is comfortable with, typically saying ‘the N-word’ in its place, but neither the students nor I say it aloud in discussion.”
“[The N-word] is jarring to read, but I also think that it’s there for a reason” said Annie L., ’19, one of the heads of the Black Student Union and a student in the Perspectives class.
Offering a different outlook to the usage of the N-word as one of the only three Black students in her senior class, Annie finds that the usage of the N-word should be avoided by non-Black students. She expressed this not because of the word’s history of oppression, but because of cultural appropriation. “I just don’t feel like it’s the place of a white person or a person who isn’t Black to say the word because it’s not a part of their culture. There are words in other cultures that I would not say because I am not a part of that culture. I think if I could have conversation with them and see their point of view, then maybe I would be able to wrap my head around it, but I don’t think I would be comfortable with them saying it,” described Annie.
Dealing with controversial and offensive slurs, like the N-word, in literature and in class readings is one thing, but how do teachers deal with simple and less offensive obscenities, like the F- word, in writing? In general, teachers at Westridge, such as Middle School English teacher John Cross, tend to be more lenient with profanity—to a certain extent. “I’m ok with them using it in [their] writing as long it is within … boundaries,” he said. “There are words I will not accept. But slightly salty words, if a character merits it, if it makes sense, if they’re writing a story, then I’m okay with that. But generally speaking, in discussions I discourage it,” said Cross.
Although some teachers, like Mr. Cross, may be fine with the usage of profanity in writing, other teachers, like Mr. Harrison, are certainly not. “There’s a time and a place for everything” he said. “[When they curse,] I just kind of stare at them, and then they sense my moral indignation, and they apologize, and we move on.”
Nica K., ‘21, a student now notorious for having dropped the F-bomb more than once during a Town Meeting, feels differently. “I had a story that I thought made sense to the topic, which was being in California, and I thought it was funny, but also kind of … disturbing, because [homophobia is] not cool … but also … [the story] was kind of funny. So then I just went up there and at first I was just gonna quote it, because he said, like, ‘eff you.’ So at first I quoted it and then more swear words came out. [...] I didn’t mean to do it, but it happened,” she admitted.
Understandably, students buzzed with curiosity after the meeting. Students anticipated action on the part of the administration, but it turned out to be nothing. “The administration didn’t talk to me,” said Nica K., ‘21. “Later, someone from Student Life was just like, ‘Hey, cool story, don’t swear anymore,’ and that was end of story.”
It seems that Westridge does not forbid the rough nomenclature that is profanity, nor explicit language in literature, but rather gently discourages the usage of both. The school’s approach to offensive language, like the N-word, remains to be seen as cautious and contemplative so as to foster respectful conversation within the classroom.
Though the future of profanity at Westridge remains generally uncertain amongst various teachers, one thing is for sure. Casual profanity is in itself a universal language, and even the young and astute students at Westridge don’t give a #$%@.