Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Damon Young: A story about some words I can’t say

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The very first thing I realized about my new White classmates at St. Bartholomew Catholic School was much less a “new thing learned” and extra a rejection of an previous factor thought.

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Months earlier (this was within the early ’90s), my dad and mom determined to drag me out of Pittsburgh public faculties and enroll me there to begin sixth grade. If you’d requested Dad why they made that call, he’d most likely discuss about “pre-AP courses” or “the benefits of didactic parochial instruction” — precisely what Black dad and mom who ship their children to predominantly White suburban faculties are alleged to say. But if you happen to knew my dad, and also you requested that very same query, he may inform you the reality: I was a proficient basketball participant, and their ball program was the very best in western Pennsylvania. Getting me there was one step towards his (later profitable) grasp plan of getting me a full journey to varsity.

Anyway, I assumed the White boys there can be mushy. And it’s not like I was arduous. But I was hood. And I thought that meant I was inherently harder than anybody not from a spot like the place I was from. Especially suburban Catholic White boys. But my new classmates and teammates had been the sons of plumbers and deli house owners, faculty nurses and development employees. They ripped and roasted and fought simply as rapidly — and simply as properly — as anybody from my neighborhood did. Months later, once we outfought the remainder of the diocese to cap an undefeated hoop season, I by no means felt so good to be so flawed.

The second factor I realized about my new White classmates occurred my third day there. It was recess, which meant every of the 50 sixth-graders completed whichever mixture of carbs and veggies had been served at lunch that day after which rushed to the rectory-adjacent car parking zone for our 16 minutes of freedom earlier than the fifth interval bell rang. Most of the boys took half in a football-like substance the place the soccer was a Koosh ball and we performed “stop-grab” as a substitute of two-hand contact.

Read extra from Damon Young:

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If you’ve ever witnessed a bunch of 11-year-old boys doing, properly, something, you understand that discovering what they suppose are the latest methods to conjugate and weaponize the English language’s oldest four-letter words is their favourite pastime. Koosh ball was principally simply an environment friendly supply system for chaotic swearing. We seemed like the primary 16 minutes of “Reservoir Dogs.” It was enjoyable. Familiar. But then one thing unfamiliar occurred.

One of the boys unintentionally tripped and fell. Another one of many boys laughed and referred to as him a careless d-word. (Rhymes with Lego.) Everyone laughed. He shot again, “Shut up, you stupid m-word.” (Rhymes with hick.) Everyone laughed once more. By the tip of the week, I additionally heard a w-word (rhymes with “pop”), a p-word (rhymes with “mole lock”), and … lamb chop (which simply made me hungry).

The Italian children, the Irish children, the Polish children and the Greek children communicated to one another on this secret-to-me low frequency, and it was fascinating.

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At first, I thought I’d misheard them. But after attending to know everybody higher — significantly, attending to know everybody’s final names — I realized that my ears had been wonderful. I already knew, in fact, of common slurs for White individuals. I didn’t know that White individuals had ethnically particular slurs for each other too. The Italian children, the Irish children, the Polish children and the Greek children communicated to one another on this secret-to-me low frequency, and it was fascinating. I was already a veteran person of the n-word. My first reminiscences of it mentioned in a straightforward and loving method had been from eavesdropping on Dad and his brothers and cousins telling lies on my nice aunt’s porch in New Castle. And though it ain’t an ideal analogy — the variations, culturally and traditionally, between the n-word and people White slurs are huge — I noticed some of that very same familiarity with how my new classmates used their language too.

And that’s what it was: their language. I was at St. Barts for 3 years, and some of them White boys grew to become my boys, too. We spent nights at one another’s homes. Changed in the identical locker rooms. Crushed on the identical cheerleaders. Cheated on the identical Spanish checks. And not as soon as did I imagine that our closeness, or their frequent and informal use of these words, gave me permission to say them too. I by no means needed it both. Why would I want to wield one thing so advanced, so thorny, so contextually particular — a weight I’d developed no muscle to hold — when I had my very own particular words?

That query is rhetorical. Just keep in mind that I understood this. And that regardless of listening to the n-word in films and in rap songs and on basketball courts and from me, they understood to not use, or ask to make use of, my particular phrase both.

And we had been 11 years previous.

Damon Young is writer of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays.” He is a author in Pittsburgh.

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