Last week I taught my darling daughter something new. That in itself is not unusual; she’s 15, and I like to think she’s learning from me all the time. But this was slightly different. I taught her – and some of her deaf friends – to swear.
To be more precise, I taught them how to swear correctly.
Let me explain. I didn’t wake up one morning and think: ‘Right, it’s time to add some colour to Dolly’s vocabulary. I’m going to teach her to swear like a sailor.’
It was a Friday afternoon, and my turn to pick Dolly up from the well-known boarding school for deaf kids that she attends. As usual, I had arrived early and was eager to get back on the road and miss the worst of the rush-hour traffic. And, as usual, Dolly was up in her room saying a long, drawn-out goodbye to her buddies.
Tired of waiting, I wandered up to the dorm to fetch her and found Dolly and three of her friends sitting on her bed, signing furiously and screaming with laughter. They looked up guiltily as I walked in but, knowing I can’t sign, they gleefully carried on their conversation.
Now I might not know much BSL, but there are some signs that almost everyone can recognise, and the infamous sign for ‘bull****’ is one of them.
I must have raised an eyebrow in recognition when I saw it, because the girls soon realised that I was on to them. Four pairs of eyes, all ringed with regulation black eyeliner, looked over at me nervously, wondering how I would react. Dolly eventually broke the silence by blurting out: “Let’s ask my Mum. She’s good at explaining things. And she knows a LOT of swear words!”
Great. Remind me never to ask my daughter for a character reference.
I cleared my throat. “How can I help, Ladies?” I asked.
“Well Mum, we need to know; what’s the difference between ‘****’ and ‘bull****’?”
“Right. Ahem. Okay…”
“Is there a difference, Mum?”
“Yes. Yes, there is.”
“Well, can you explain it to us?”
“Because it wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“But, Mum! You have to! You’re always telling me how important the right vocabulary is…”
And there she had me.
All her life we’ve taken time to make sure that she really understands the words she uses. Like most deaf people she has little or no incidental hearing, so she can’t rely on overhearing conversations which might give her some much-needed context.
Her Dad and I have always filled in those gaps for her, and given her the words. So how could I say no now, just because the words she wanted were a little more outlandish than usual?
So I took a deep breath and broke it down for them, like some sort of Bad Teacher, putting each word into sample sentences that I hope they will never, ever repeat in front of their parents.
I watched as they absorbed this valuable life lesson and then started signing again with gusto, this time – I presume – using the correct words.
Okay, I thought, that wasn’t too bad. I might just escape this with my dignity intact.
But it wasn’t over. The girls had more requests. They fired a few more distinctly Anglo Saxon words at me to see how I would respond.
I bit back the desire to tell them to wash their mouths out with soap and gave them my best attempt at an explanation. (If they ever do an x-rated edition of Countdown, I’m a shoo-in for a guest slot in Dictionary Corner).
Before anyone gets too alarmed and starts screaming for a censor, I should point out that none of the words in my impromptu lesson was particularly ‘hardcore’. It was just entry-level cussing; a beginners course, at best.
And it wasn’t my intention to offend, only to enlighten. I’m glad I did. I hope there never comes a time when Dolly asks me to explain something and I find myself refusing. Because as far as I’m concerned, she deserves to have the same capacity to express (and potentially embarrass) herself as her hearing peers. And sometimes only a well-placed swear word will do.
Whether she chooses to use the vocabulary I’ve given her is up to her. I’m only making sure she has the words at her fingertips; I’m not putting them into her mouth.
As the mum of a teenage girl, I know that there will be many more embarrassing conversations ahead. Like the one last weekend when Dolly told us all about her sex education class, in the sort of eye-watering detail that makes ’50 Shades of Grey’ look like a Pixar production.
But please don’t ask me to tell you about that. I really don’t have the words.
Leigh is a hearing mum of two children, one of whom is deaf. Her swear jar at home has paid for at least one summer holiday since the kids came along.
The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.
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