The profane is profound

8th November 2013 at 00:00

A couple of years ago, my eldest son initiated his younger brother into the art of teenage drinking. He handed him a bottle of Belgian beer, pronouncing it the "ideal starter drink" with the smug air of someone who has moved on to more advanced levels of inebriation. Despite my misgivings, I can see that he helped his kid brother through an awkward rite of passage. Without a mentor, my youngest might have ended up ordering a round of white wine spritzers for his rugby teammates, or a bottle of Babycham to go with his cheesy chips.

Teachers, too, have a duty to model correct social etiquette. Just as younger children look to their older siblings for acceptable routes into drinking, students look to teachers for guidance on using bad language. They often single out English teachers, because swearing has an impressive literary provenance: Chaucer is unashamedly bawdy, and you can't get through a Shakespeare play without bumping into profanities, lewd puns or young men's unsheathed weapons.

Swearing comes naturally to us, so it's natural that our students want to try it out, too. Often they make their boldest attempts during drama lessons. Tasked with playing the part of Curley from Of Mice and Men, they gingerly ask if they are allowed to swear. They've twigged that playing an angry man without the aid of expletives is like playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame without the aid of a hump. Aware that they are skating over thin social ice, they cautiously spell out the risque words they want their characters to say. "Miss, is it OK for Curley to refer to his wife as a B-I-T-C-H?" Or, "Can George say that Curley's wife is a B-L-O-O-D-Y tramp?" These first baby steps into cursing rarely cause offence. But we teachers have to be careful. Give in to the wrong bunch of students and their improvised "Please Sir, can I have some more" scene from Oliver Twist will turn into The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker demanding seconds from chef Gordon Ramsay.

The challenge is knowing how much freedom to give. Swearing, when it's done well, can be a powerful rhetorical tool. Swear words are incisive weapons - they mirror our greatest anxieties and cluster around our deep- rooted fears. "Bastard" reflects society's terror of sexual profligacy; "motherfucker" our Oedipal anxieties. Such words are dangerous, iconoclastic and best kept out of schools.

But there is a middle ground: milder words, the bire blonde of profanation, in which older students happily trade. Last week, in response to an incomprehensibly pretentious PowerPoint, one of my sixth-formers scribbled "WTF?" on his whiteboard. As a moral guardian I needed to condemn his action; as a literary critic I admired his wit. In the end I gave him a warning and told him never to do it again. This left me feeling like a hypocrite. If they'd had whiteboards in the 1300s, I'm sure young Chaucer would have written the same.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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