Ms. Haft was wrong. Words do have meaning. The Story of Me.

Let's say the F word

I was a high school junior and in love with writing and with science and, along with every other testosterone-sick guy in school, with Ms. Haft. She was newly graduated from college and wore her hair long and her skirts short. There was a hippie aura about her but inside was a rebellious fire.  I haven’t a clue how she kept her job.

All together now – the F word

It’s still odd to me, but rather than standing or sitting, she would teach while kneeling on her desk. She eschewed rows and columns and circled our desks around the perimeter of the room. One day – it’s one of the few clear memories I have of high-school – Ms. Haft walked into the room, climbed onto her desk, knelt down, and in the most droning, flat, and unemotional voice, said it. The F word. “Fuck”. Pencils, papers, jaws – everything dropped. Every set of eyes shot up from whatever they were looking at and turned to Ms. Haft. The air left the room. After a very long and very pregnant pause, she said it again. Fuck. And then again. Fuck you. Fuck me. Well, fuck it all.

All of a sudden, school got interesting.

Today’s lesson, she explained, had two parts. Part One was that we would circle the room and everyone would say Fuck out loud, in turn. Just utter the word. Just form the sounds pushing air from your lungs and out your mouth. Touch your upper teeth to your lower lip and say it. Fuck. Good gawd. What harm can come from expelling air and forming a sound?

The F WordWe went ’round our circle one-by-one. A couple of students, pale and panting at the idea of letting such an abomination squeeze through their lips, shook their head No. I think one person gathered up and left. Some, given permission to swear for probably the first time, said the word over and over until told to stop. In the end, I think everyone in the room except for two or three, completed the odd lesson.

Words do have meaning

Lesson Two was much less interesting: Ms. Haft explained that words are meaningless in and of themselves. Do you imagine that ‘Fuck’ has any real meaning? Do you imagine that lovers would say such a word to each other? If we never bat an eye when the word is spoken would people continue to use it? Words only have meaning when we agree to their meaning. We confer importance by our actions and reactions.

But isn’t that exactly what culture is? An agreement that words and gestures and swimming pools and a dozen wives mean something?

Words are symbols that tie our experiences to the world. The very purpose of a word is to convey meaning and no word is meaningless. Even a ‘meaningless’ word is representative of ”meaninglessness.’ Words move us to great joy or to great pain. Words can elevate a nation. Words can change your life in an instant. “I’m leaving.” “I Have a Dream!” “Math is hard.” How many girls have never forgotten when their dad told them that he loves them even though they are chubby? How many adults have never imagined what wonderful things they can do only because someone told them, three or four decades ago, that “you’re not good at that.” My own father remembered me at four-years-old reaching for his hand once to walk across the street. He said that he slapped my hand away and said “Big boys don’t hold hands”. It was meaningful enough for him to remember it fifty years later.

I disagree with Ms. Haft about the meaning of words but she alluded to something that I do agree with: dark things lose their power when exposed to light. Exposure reveals the right or wrong of a thing.

I don’t know what happened to Ms. Haft. I don’t remember if she was there for my senior year. The last thing I remember of her was when she caught on that my buddy and I were the sole members of our high-school Maoist club. We dropped pamphlets and commie art in teacher’s mail each morning and beamed for days after Ms. Haft told us that the school board had called a special meeting to discuss ‘communist infestation’ at the school.


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