Our free hours were spent outside, in the neighborhood, on the streets of our block, where our mother could easily spot us from the second floor window where she clipped the laundry on a clothesline to dry, the squeak of the wheel that made it possible to rotate the rope nearly as loud as Stewy’s magnificently courageous curses.
From the moment we were old enough to venture out onto the street, Stewy was swearing. He was the the kid across the street, the kinetic, energized quintessential bad boy who threw rocks as well as footballs, whose mouth might have been home to millions of soapy bubbles over the years. Anytime Stewy was out, it was his street. He had the loudest voice and the most outrageous vocabulary. Yet his language belied his jovial personality and sweet nature. It made absolutely no sense. In retrospect, it is easy to see how he wore his bad language like armor. It protected him from the real dangerous characters out there. And it never poisoned his friendships with the rest of us — all under the age of 10 — on our modest triple-decker block.
Stewy’s bold bad boy banter became part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It gave us the impression that he knew more about life than he probably did. So we were in awe. We were sworn to protect him from the disapproval of the eavesdropping adults, and we valued his friendship.
So when I mistakenly mentioned to my mom that a fancy dress looked like ‘maternity clothes’ — a term Stewy tossed out there on one of his milder days — I refused to buckle under my mother’s questioning. I shrugged and shrugged until she gave up. Who taught you that word? Children don’t use these phrases. It is disrespectful. Did one of your friends teach you that? Don’t ever say it again.
I don’t know if parents regulate their children’s language so strictly anymore. But I do believe that language creates realities and attitudes. It creates and reflects culture as well.
It was not that difficult to adhere to our parents’ rules of conduct and language. But each of us made unfortunate language choices occasionally, and it was probably due to our colorful exposure to people in the neighborhood. Though none of those indiscretions were as egregious as Stewy’s adult-rated poetry, we were promptly scolded and punished. We were sanctioned for using words like: lousy (forbidden!), stupid (duh), pregnant (uh-oh), and jackass (incredibly not as problematic as the others, as it is an actual animal). We giggled every time someone mentioned any of these words. Prohibited words were entertaining enough at this level. So we never considered crossing the line into cursing territory.
Throughout our childhood and into adulthood, our adherence to the family rules of censorship (read as ‘respectful behavior’) remained intact. That is not to say that once out in the world, any of us maintained a pristine glossary of everyday terms, particularly in times of intense frustration, fear or anger. I am the first to admit I’ve failed (and continue to fail) while behind the wheel of my automobile. I am the first to laugh at stand-up comedy that is smart and edgy and intuitive, regardless of the cursing. And while I firmly and staunchly believe in our rights of speech and expression, I am bored and tired of today’s Stewy-speak, especially in the political arena.
Isn’t it time we became more creative communicators, and more respectful of the beautiful languages our world has given us? There is no doubt that it would help us become more thoughtful people while helping us rebuild a mode of communication that’s growing shabby and predictable. Let’s start by choosing to use the language of poetry and art whenever possible, consciously leaving the street language out there on the street, where it belongs. With sweet Stewy.