May 24

Give Some Thought About the Way We Talk

Recently, Abe Jeffers, principal of Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield brought my attention to an article he prepared for staff and colleagues regarding students and the content of  their conversations.  Either by electronic means or in conversations or comments as they walk through your hallways, the types of comments and the unacceptable terms used by students should be a concern for all adults, both school staff and parents.  Abe brings this to focus in his commentary listed below.


Have you picked up your son’s or daughter’s cell phone and read through their text messages? Have you read through their Facebook page and all of the posts there? Have you read their Tweets (by the way, this is swiftly becoming a more popular tool for teen communication than Facebook)? Have you listened as your son or daughter talked to their friends – and they didn’t know you were listening? Have you ever stood in line near a group of teenagers close enough to hear what they are saying to each other? Have you listened to the music they listen to? Have you ever…I could go on with the scenarios. Every day, I am around our students and hear their conversations. Casual conversations between students from all backgrounds, from great students, from average students, from poor students, all with smiles on their faces and laughs filling the air, too often give me pause. The words that come out of students’ mouths or the words they text/write to each other are laced with some of the crudest vulgarities, most racist words, and the most profane language that you can imagine. Students are inundated with crude, profane, racist, and vulgar language in their music, the shows they watch, the movies they see, and, increasingly, the conversations with peers. This seems to be the way we as a society, collectively, talk.  While I am sure your son or daughter does not use such profane, vulgar, or racist language, it is possible that they, or you, may hear this type of language frequently. It is also possible that you or your student may be greatly offended by what is said in person or in text when the person making the statement did not dream of offending, it is simply the way they communicate. Simple phrases, like ‘good morning, how are you today’ are changed into a stream of racist and vulgar words. It was always hard to say ‘I like you’ as a teenager, but now that meaning may be conveyed using very crude words.  I would use examples, but I don’t even want to write the words using asterisks!  You may overhear a profanity laced, filth filled, racist worded sentence and have no idea what was meant – you actually need someone to translate it for you – but it is actually a friend greeting another friend. We see situations all too frequently where the parents of a student come in because their student received a profane, vulgar, or crude message via social media that made them upset. Such vile language is common in cyber bullying. In some cases, parents go to our SRO to see if there was a crime committed but that is rarely the case. This language that is so common is generally not illegal, regardless of how foul, vulgar, crude, or even racist it is.
The principals of the Lee Pyramid meet at least once a month, and yesterday afternoon some of us were talking. Our conversation led us to the way students talk, even elementary students. While I have heard it all in high school, I didn’t think it extended to the young children. Sadly, the principals reported they are increasingly hearing the worst language in early grades and with greater frequency. It is also clear, to both the elementary principals and me, that the students know what they should and shouldn’t say. We know they know better because they don’t use the crude, vulgar, profane, or racist words with teachers or their parents. Students use these words with each other – a lot. The challenge we have is that students seem to feel a need to use these words with each other. Words are powerful and may convey different meanings to different people, depending on environment and background, but there is no place for such language in our homes or schools – or even in society as a whole.  How do we deal with this? As I walk our halls and overhear what students are saying, I assert myself in the conversation, usually with a simple ‘come on, we don’t talk like that here’. Sometimes I will repeat their sentence without the explicative. Sometimes I’ll ask the student what they meant to say. The student often looks a bit sheepish and says ‘sorry’.  Is this, really, the way we collectively talk? We need parents to think about what they say, how do your children hear you talk? We need parents to listen to their students and talk to them about language and the power of words. We need parents to be closely involved in their student’s lives – not to catch them, but to guide them through these formative years.  Schools should reflect the community they serve but should also help prepare our students for the community of post high school. A recent survey cited by WTOP from the marketing firm Marchex talked about which states used the most profane language, an interesting read. One thing I took from the article is that it is clear even to adults that profanity is not appropriate in civil conversations.  Schools cannot change this practice do this alone, but, as a community, we can address this. Every parent, every teacher, and every student should think about the words they use and hear and help us to collectively clean up this language. We need to talk about the words we use, the power of those words, and ensure that our language conveys the respect, dignity, and civility that we all desire. Free speech, of course, is fundamental to our society, and I am not an advocate for limiting speech. I simply want to urge us to think about the speech, the words, that we use at home, at school, and in civil society and see if we can find agreement on whether or not we are comfortable with where things stand and the way we talk. 

Abe Jeffers is a member of the VASSP Board of Directors and serves as the Director for Region 4.  You may reach Abe at: aejeffers@fcps.edu