Jill McCorkle, The American Scholar, Cuss Time

“Potential” is a powerful word. I remember feeling so sad when my children turned a year old and I knew, from reading about human development, that they had forever lost the potential they were born with to emulate the languages of other cultures, clicks and hums and throat sounds foreign to me… But beyond this linguistic loss, we are at risk of losing something far greater each and every time we’re confronted with censorship. Perfectly good words are taken from our vocabulary, limiting the expression of a thought or opinion. I recently read about high schoolers who are not allowed to use the word “vagina.” And what should they say instead? When you read about something like this… you really have to stop and wonder. Is this restriction because someone in charge thinks vaginas are BAD? I once had a story editor ask me not to use the word “placenta.” I wanted to say: “Now tell me again how you got here?” Oh, right, an angel of God placed you into the bill of the stork.

Word by single word, our history will be rewritten if we don’t guard and protect it, truth lost to some individual’s idea about what is right or wrong. These speech monitors – the Word Gestapo (speaking of words some would have us deny and forget) – attempt to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not.

Lenny Bruce, while pushing the First Amendment as far as it can go, famously said, “Take away the right to say ‘fuck'” and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’ ” And maybe that’s really what all the rules are about – power and control – someone else’s over you. Though I felt the impulse to tell my son cuss time was a secret of sorts, “our own little game,” I stifled the urge, knowing what a dangerous and manipulative thing the use of a “secret” can be. Besides, any suggestion of denial of the act would have worked against everything I was trying to give him. Of course, it wasn’t any time at all before several little boys started asking to ride the bus home with him. “Can I do cuss time?” they pleaded. I sadly had to tell them the truth: they were not of legal age and so cuss time was something only their own parents could give them.

I have often thought what a better, more confident person I would have been if only I had grown up with cuss time instead of soap licking.

My first public reading from my work was when I was twenty-five years old. At the end, as I stood at the podium speaking to people, I noticed an elderly woman slowly making her way down the aisle. I waited for her to reach me only to have her shake a finger in my face and say, “And you look like such a nice girl!” Unfortunately, I was still conditioned to want her to believe that I WAS a nice girl, conditioned to care more about what other people thought of me than what I thought of myself. It was only after the fact that I felt angry, that I wanted to go back and ask if she was even paying attention to what I was reading about – a situation of hurt humans expressing their feelings. I wanted to say, “You have every right to your opinions and thoughts, but that doesn’t make you RIGHT.” I wanted to say, “Fuck you,” and even knowing it would have been completely out of character for me to do so, I like knowing that I COULD have.

By limiting or denying freedom of speech and expression, we take away a lot of potential. We take away thoughts and ideas before they even have the opportunity to hatch. We build a world around negatives – you can’t say, think, or do this or that. We teach that if you are safely camouflaged in what is acceptable and walk that narrow road – benign or neutral words, membership in institutions where we are told what to think and believe – then you can get away with a lot of things. You can deny who you are and all that came before you and still be thought of as a GOOD person. And what can be positive in that? In fact, what is more positive than a child with an individual mind full of thoughts and sounds and the need to express them who has the freedom to discover under safe and accommodating conditions the best way to communicate something? In other words, you old son of a bitch, I say LET FREEDOM RING!

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