If only nice words were as much fun

17th February 2006 at 00:00

Bitch," calls Richard, by way of greeting me as we pass in the corridor.

Richard has a repertoire of around six words, and none is one you'd like to hear repeated in front of the vicar. It's amazing how some children pick up the most loathsome swearwords before they learn to say anything else. Where do they hear them from? "Not from home," Mrs Wilson assures us when she comes in to school to complain that Amelia called her Sunday school teacher a motherfucker. "Well it's not from school," we retort. "So few of our children are verbal and, anyway, it's against the school rules." It must be from the television, video games, the bus driver or escort.

Children with special needs come into contact with many more people than their mainstream counterparts: they get into taxis with drivers they've never met before; have a range of escorts and helpers; are examined by therapists and health staff; and meet with various social workers, sessional workers, care staff and babysitters. It's no wonder children with learning difficulties can be more vulnerable to abuse, and more vulnerable to picking up bad language.

I suppose when people swear, it's done with passion, clarity and volume, which makes that word easier to copy. No one says "triangle" or any other word we'd like our children to learn with as much force as "bollocks" when someone treads on their toe. And once children have said that first swearword, the outrage and attention it produces makes them want to repeat it. It's positive reinforcement in action. I'm sure we're all the same. Do you remember the words that you first looked up when you got a new dictionary, learned to speak a new language or looked up a sign-language symbol?

I once worked with a young man who had profound learning difficulties, was physically disabled and blind, but who would sit in a corner of the classroom shouting obscenities. Over the years he grew to love the reactions ("You mustn't say that!" "Stop it!" "No!") that he got from a succession of teachers and teaching assistants. To solve the problem the class team got together and hatched a plot: we would use "gasworks" as a swearword among ourselves. For example, "Gasworks! I've got a paper cut from this downloaded government circular" or "Gasworks! Ofsted are coming".

Sure enough, a few days later, Sean shouted "gasworks", I suppose to see what reaction he'd get.

"Ahh, Sean said gasworks," we said to each other. "What a naughty thing to say. That's a really bad word Sean, you mustn't say that." Sean lapped it up. And although he kept all of his vile swearwords too, "gasworks" was successfully introduced into his vocabulary. So how should I answer Richard? Probably by looking him in the eye and bellowing "good morning"

with as much venom, volume and expression as I can muster.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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