The Red Crayon

There are a lot of great things about being at a boys school. The spirit, the camaraderie, and the sense of brotherhood make us very proud about being at a place like UCC.

At the same time, there are, of course, some downsides to boys’ schools, and we’re no exception in this regard. Often our young alumni tell us they weren’t quite ready for the social complexities of co-ed universities, and sometimes they will quietly admit that they found themselves a bit disadvantaged in their readiness to work with women. (That’s one of the reasons we offer the Theory of Knowledge class with Branksome Hall and why we’d like to continue to develop our co-ed music, drama, and service programs.)

I think we owe it to you to address this issue from time to time, and this morning I’d like to focus on word choice. At Friday’s assembly you heard a couple of terms that were offensive, and one of them was the word “chick.”

I don’t think ill of the student who used it, and I know he did not do so with malicious intent. But, as they say in the commercial, “People judge you by the words you use.” And words like that are demeaning. You wouldn’t want someone to use “chick” when introducing your sister or your mother. An erudite colleague told me that words like “chick” and “babe” infantilize women, in that it makes them sound small and weak.

We often use different vocabulary in formal settings, and let’s be honest, words such as “babe” or “chick” are certainly not the most demeaning ones ever used. But that doesn’t mean that they are harmless or neutral.  You will discover, though, that they are completely unacceptable at university and beyond, and what’s more, sensitivity to language goes far beyond gender issues. In any public setting, such as an assembly, you need to think about what you want to say in order to ensure that all members of our community are respected.

So two quick suggestions for you: 1) Whenever you speak in a public setting, you might not want to ad lib. It is a lot harder than it looks. And 2) never use a word that you can’t defend. Thank for your help with this.

We all make mistakes, of course, and last week, when I read about the new Helen Keller statue that was unveiled in Washington, DC, I was reminded of an event from my own somewhat sordid past. I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell you about my last fistfight. It took place when I was in grade 9. It took place in school of all places, and it happened during art class. We had a progressive if somewhat flighty teacher, new to the school, and she would furiously flick the overhead lights on and off on a regular basis. I think this was her way of “igniting curiosity, imagination, and passion” in her students.

My erstwhile opponent was a guy known to me only as “Wawa.” (A quick aside: I have to explain that nickname. Those of you familiar with the language of Native Americans, or for the less erudite — if you are remotely fluent with the quicki-Marts that abound in Southeastern Pennsylvania  — know that “Wawa” means “wild goose,” but that’s not how young Tony Waters earned his moniker. During the first month of school that year, we were shown “The Miracle Worker,” a wonderful and inspiring black and white film about Annie Sullivan, the woman who figures out how to communicate with and eventually teach Helen Keller, a girl who had been born without the ability to hear, see, or speak.

Annie Sullivan has her breakthrough moment when she uses her fingers to spell the word “water” into Helen’s hand. As Annie pumps water from a well, Helen makes the transformative connection; she grasps that the letters w-a-t-e-r have meaning, and because she is deaf, she can only blurt out the sound “Wawa.” At that moment, in front of 200 boys in a darkened assembly hall, a somewhat sullen Tony Waters instantly became “Wawa.” We meant no disrespect to Helen, Annie, or even Tony for that matter. (Ok, perhaps there was a smidgeon of disrespect involved for Tony.) But it was just meant to be, and because Tony took an instant dislike to it, the name stuck.  At the risk of sounding like a bad sociologist, it seems to me that there were a lot more nicknames walking the earth a generation ago, and I’m not quite sure what this change means. Just don’t ask me to tell you what mine was. Would you believe me if I said it was “Supreme Leader?” I didn’t think so…)

I don’t want to embellish or glamorize things, and I won’t tell you if I won my last fight. I will only admit that I ended up being thrown through the art room’s second floor window, thus gaining instant access to a view of scenic North Philadelphia.  But my lack of pugnacious success is not what I want to dwell on today. (I will leave that for Wawa!) No, what I remember much more vividly was the dry-mouth dread I experienced as I walked into the Dean of Students’ office – along with Wawa – to have a face to face with Fr. Kearney, the disciplinarian, a man known as “the shadow” at our all boys Catholic school.

Fr. Kearney would not be nominated for any sort of peer counselling award. I’m not sure he could spell Carl Rogers’ name, and I don’t recall his ever starting a sentence with, “I think I hear you saying that…” Had “Oprah” or “Dr. Phil” been around during the less enlightened 70’s, I’m betting Fr. Kearney would not have tuned in on a regular basis. He was a bit like the neighbourhood cop who had spent too much time on the beat. A thousand boys a day can do that to you. And as a result, I shouldn’t have been surprised that a somewhat jaded Fr. Kearney was not at all interested in hearing my side of the story. He didn’t care that Wawa had stolen my red Crayola crayon. He didn’t understand that I would have lost face in front of my peers, if I had let such a transgression pass. And he wasn’t even minutely interested in the racial overtones that lurked, I was sure, deep in the background of this conflict.

Instead, Fr. Kearney made 3 points:

First, he made Wawa and me split the cost of the window — a double window I might add — despite my vain protestations that it was hardly my intention to break two panes of glass with my cranium. “I am not interested in what your intentions were, Power. I am interested only in the result of your poor decision.”

Second, when I apologized for fighting (and even now, I’m not sure if going air-born after a discreet and somewhat gentlemanly push back actually qualifies as a heavyweight event), he said, “I don’t care that you were fighting. You and Waters (Fr. Kearney had evidently missed “The Miracle Worker”) can pound the stuffing (I’m not exactly sure  “stuffing” was his word of choice on this occasion) out of one another up and down Broad Street for all I care. I am punishing you only for disturbing the peace at my school.”

And third, Fr. Kearney gave us “jug.” I’m not sure if j-u-g comes from “justice under God” or if it is from some Latin derivative “jugo-jugari – to punish” but whatever the source, jug entailed standing perfectly silent and still in a hallway for an hour. When I modestly suggested that perhaps this time might be better used if devoted to study, Fr. Kearney cut me off in mid-sentence. “The purpose of this exercise is not academic in nature, Power. It is designed to make you never want to return to my office again.”

Like a hardened criminal, I can say that I did my time. And perhaps in a way you could say that Fr. Kearney was my Annie Sullivan. It may not have been a miracle, but after serving my sentence, I patched things up with Wawa. Group suffering can be good for the soul, even when one party is almost completely and utterly innocent and never should have had to pay for that window or served that jug in the first place. But I digress… Who knows? Had this event happened years later, Wawa and I could have auditioned for “Prison Break” together? All I know is that I never did get another jug. I never got in another fight. And I never had to give back that precious red Crayola crayon.

So my 3 takeaways for this morning:

1.We all make mistakes. What’s important is that we learn from them.

2.Never use words like “chick” or terms that are deliberately offensive and

3. Never ever mess with a man with a bad nickname, especially if that name is “Wawa.”


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