Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TTFN, middle school: a linguistic retrospective

I never really got to say goodbye to the last era of my life. Which, I’m sure, was in part due to the fact that I was actually uninvited to my own goodbye party. (That makes it sound like I did something terrible, but in reality, I just didn’t donate my five dollars at the appropriate time.)

So here is my goodbye, in the form of a short sociolinguistic dictionary. But first, let me just say: I spent five years of my life in middle school (seven, if you count when I actually went to middle school). Not by choice. Who would ever choose to do such a thing?

Just a short slice of life from my own middle school experience: I am walking down the hallway at Carl Sandburg Middle School, violin case clanking against my side, backpack with multiple textbooks weighing me down. I am wearing my favorite outfit: overall capris inspired by a Keiko from Zoom, and a yellow shirt--the only one that doesn’t show my ever-present pit stains. All of a sudden, one of the white girls from the trailer park (one who slicks her hair tight to her head with gel and wears copious amounts of dark lipliner) shakes my shoulder.

“What the fuck are you wearing?”

“Um...pardon me?”

“Yeah. You in the highwaters. What the fuck do you think you’re wearing?” She starts laughing with her friends, scary-looking dudes.

My mind begins racing. I’d heard stories about this middle school, but I never believed them. But here was my current reality: this girl was probably about to beat me up in some sort of fashion hate crime. I did what made the most sense at the time. I ran down the hallway, all the way out to the bus.

My second middle school experience was quite different. No one openly ridiculed my outfits to the point of intimidation--they weren’t allowed to! No, this time around, my students stroked my ego in hopes of a higher grade. Every year, we had the conversation where they asked, “Ms. D, what were you like in middle school?” And every year, I told them the same thing: I was a total friendless nerd. You wouldn’t have talked to me. And somehow they never believed it, when really, between my YouTube YA book trailers that I made for them and my long-winded speeches about UVA, I had obviously been a nerd the whole time.

Mistakenly presuming I was cool, the kids shared their language with me. Here are some of my favorite/least favorite words and phrases from the past five years:

Turn-up- Turn-up basically means cool, not lame, fun party, etc. I mainly remember hearing it in the context of the sentence “I hope Woodson is turn-up next year.” If the people I’ve met over the years who went to Woodson are any indication, it won’t be.

What are the odds... This is one of the strangest, dumbest games I have seen since Zap. One student asks something like, “What are the odds I hit Ms. D with a trash can after class?” And then the other kid says a number. Not a percent ratio, not one in a higher number, just a number. “Six.” Then both students count to three and say a number between one and six. “Five.” “Five.” Uh-oh! Now student one has to hit me with a trash can!

YOLO- I wish I didn’t have to discuss this word, but this sociological study would be incomplete if I neglected to mention it. This word is something you say as an excuse for doing with possible major consequences. Some say Drake coined this phrase, but I say that is giving him way too much credit. Anyway, I think the most accurate usage of this term was evident when I told my students the story about how I dove into a coat closet at age 3, accidentally hitting a sharp edge and requiring stitches. “Why’d you do it?!” one of them asked me. Another student shook his head, fed up with such a stupid question. “Because YOLO,” he said.

Lax flow/bro flow- Here is a throwback to when I taught at a private school in Maryland. I had just gotten my Real Adult Teacher haircut, one of those short wispy ones that sort of made me look like a fun mom. What I had not anticipated was that Maryland was the most enthusiastic high school lacrosse state in the country, and I had unintentionally gotten the same haircut as all of the popular boys on the lacrosse team. “Ms. D has mad lax flow!” I heard again and again.

Swag- Swag is interesting because it comes from a real word, swagger, that students have no idea is a real word ever since it was appropriated to mean basically nothing. Swag can mean cool, desirable, skilled, but it has also come to be something that people say for no reason at all, almost like “Um.” Other word parts include “swagged out,” and “swaggalicious,” but let’s just be honest, these kids don’t really know about parts of speech, so all of these words are interchangeable.

Corners- Fairfax Corner Shopping Center.

Troo, troo- This is mainly said in response to criticism or highlighted hypocrisy. For example, a student may say that working on his essay for an hour is “too hard,” and then I might point out, “Well, you play Call of Duty for about 6 hours each night, and I’m only asking you to spend 1/6th of that time on your essay.” “Aw, troo, troo.” The problem with this statement, though, is its rampant overuse. In my most challenging team taught class this year, nearly everything we said aloud was pointing out a problem or correcting behavior. One day, after about twelve students had said “Troo, troo,” my team teacher said, “That’s it! The next person who says ‘troo’ is going to be kicked out of the room!” To which we got the most predictable of responses: “Aw, false, false...”

___ is life- This grammatically confusing statement is used to identify with something that one truly likes, or to mock something, intimating that no one should like it. The most common “is life” statement I heard was, “Ball is life,” roughly meaning, “I enjoy playing basketball.” What are nouns, anyway? Verbs? Why do I even try?? Conversely, students could make fun of something, for example: “One Direction is life.” It’s all in the tone.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

a little less Black Beauty, a little more Seabiscuit

Steer clear of that Katy Perry girl. She’s into some dark stuff.

In her latest love song, “Dark Horse,” Katy Perry’s message is honest: sure, you can fall for her. But just know up-front that she’s a life ruiner. She ruins people’s lives.

The beat is dark. The key is minor. The message is threatening.

So you wanna play with magic?” she opens her chorus with, equating her vagina to preferred Friday night activity of nerds everywhere. Too much credit? I think so.

“Baby do you dare to do this?” she continues. “Cause I’m coming at you like a dark horse/ Are you ready for (ready for)/ A perfect storm (perfect storm)”

How is it that Katy’s short chorus is able to reference two different 3-star movies? She must have confused her favorite online metaphor-generator with movies tagged on IMDB as “meh.”

Ultimately, she equates a relationship with her to gang membership: “Cuz once you’re mine/ There’s no going back.”

Not only are these words holy-Jesus inducing, the delivery is frightening as well: “There’s no going back” is said in that foreboding, gangster, slowed-down manner that you’d use to hold up your local Wendy’s.

Of course, Katy Perry is not alone in this endeavor. Juicy J, three-time winner of the White People’s Choice award, comes in with some...enlightened...lyrics. He starts off strong with “She’s a beast/ I call her karma/ She’ll eat your heart out/ Like Jeffrey Dahmer.”

That was a cannibalism joke.

It only gets better: “She’s sweet as pie but if you break her heart/ She’ll turn cold as a freezer.” As a middle school teacher, I would not give credit to those similes.

But wait, there’s more: “She can be my sleeping beauty/ I’m gon put her in a coma.”

What’s a love song without a little domestic abuse? Clearly Juicy J was reading the Grimm Brothers’ version of that one.

There is no video to put all of these magical words to yet, but it’s coming soon (as in next week), and it’s apparently going to be big. Juicy J stated at the Grammy’s that it will be a “major motion picture,” which leads me to believe that he doesn't know what that means.

Monday, February 3, 2014

on conformity

Scattergories is a great game. Why? Because it rewards players only when they don’t have the exact same thoughts as each other. 

Many things in life, I’m afraid, are not like that.

And now with Facebook’s new trending feature, as if it weren’t happening enough: people are only going to think to talk about what everyone is already talking about.

I have always been a black sheep. And not the kind of person who tries really hard to be one. No, it was something I never could have escaped. I mean, I got tormented mercilessly on my bus on the way to middle school for wearing things like silver pleather pants, which I didn’t really give two thoughts about not wearing, because I liked them and in my mind, they were cool. The bullying and the pity party aside, I will pass on this really great pun that a dumbass on my bus said to me: “I can see myself in your pants. In two ways!”

Now that I teach middle school, even my honors students wouldn’t be able to come up with that one.

I think the moment that my unconventional way of thinking really sank in was in second grade. We were in Waynewood Elementary, sitting in the “pod.” Probably sitting on a lot of dried pee. Some police officers came in to talk to us, and I guess we were still just a tiny bit too young for a scared straight talk, so we were getting the “strangers are dangerous” talk instead.

The police officer posed the following question: “What does a criminal look like?”

Now, if I were in his shoes, I think I would have been careful not to ask so loaded of a question. Especially to a very homogeneous group of kids at a school that was nicknamed “Whitewood.” That question had the potential for a lot of really awkward responses. But at the time, closing my eyes, this was how I pictured the criminal:

She was a light-skinned lady with black hair. The hair was cut into a severe bob. She was wearing a trenchcoat and bright red lipstick. She had high heels on. Honestly, she looked pretty fucking stylish in my imagination, but I knew she was a criminal.

I raised my hand, really wanting to use my words to paint a picture to my classmates. I thought everyone would be impressed with the thoroughness of my description.

But I wasn’t one of those fucking kids who waved their hand around, screaming “OOH! OOOH!” like they were about to pee or explode or something. I hated those kids. And those policemen weren’t used to standing in front of a crowd of 7 year olds, so they mistook their obnoxiousness for enthusiasm.

Every kid who got called on said basically the same thing: covered in rags, really dirty man, bearded, mustachioed, scary. They kept saying this, one kid parroting the other, just changing the words around and maybe adding a synonym, the same way they’d paraphrase from Wikipedia eight years later. I still had my hand up, but I held it with less and less confidence as they went on. After six or seven kids went, I decided that I would change my answer to: ”looks like a mummy.”

But I never got the chance, because the policeman quickly cut us short to basically say: “You’re all wrong. A criminal can look like anyone!!”

At which point I felt vindicated. And really fucking annoyed that these idiotic snot-faces had ever tricked me into changing my answer that I felt in my heart of hearts to be true. (If I’m being honest here, I guess this would be the time to share that the lady in my head was actually Lisa from Sister Sister. Something about the icy way she said “Go home, Roger” convinced me she could be a cold-blooded murderer if she wanted to.)

So it was at this point in my pretentious young life that I decided, Marissa, sometimes you’re going to think differently than other people. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that they’re all fucking dumber than you. 

But sometimes it got hard. I remember in 6th or 7th grade playing this game at the pool called “Categories,” where we would have to think of our favorite something-rather and a messenger would call out to whoever was “it” all of our anonymous favorites. The person who was “it” would pick someone’s favorite thing and call it out, and then the two of them would have to race to the opposite sides of the pool. This was how it usually went:

“Limp Bizkit One, Limp Bizkit Two, Limp Bizkit Three, Limp Bizkit Four...The Beatles?”

Thank god I wasn’t a boy. Someone would have beaten the shit out of me. as the adult who supervises and grades these little humans struggling to fit in, I see it every day. And it bores me to tears. It scares me. It makes me sure that no one is going to find a cure for cancer, because everyone is just going to try to do the same thing as whatever all of their Facebook friends are doing. Even the kids who want to be different all do it the same way. Here’s how: they watch Doctor Who.

So, I do realize that it has taken me a while to get to my point it is:

Everyone’s talking about how Phillip Seymour Hoffman died? Maybe you don't have to give us your personal opinion on the matter. The Seahawks are killing the Broncos? WE KNOW. How is it that I could have had a play by play of the Super Bowl, several times over, without looking at anything other than Facebook?

Facebook, by telling us what is "trending," is basically telling us what to think about. But it doesn't even really need this feature, because we weren't having any unique thoughts anyway.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

third eye blind fan fiction

It’s 2002. Stephan Jenkins and Brad Hargreaves are enjoying a beer after an exhausting awards show in the hotel bar. They can get away with this, because it isn’t 1997 anymore.
“Damn, man,” Brad says. “Can’t really do it like I used to.”
“I know.” Stephan looks pensively into his microbrew. “Hey Brad? Did you see that girl I was talking to?”
“The weird artsy one?”
“Yeah, man. She said she’s bisexual.”
“Haha, nice.” They fistbump. 
“And she’s a ballet dancer. So you know what that means.”
“Those little red panties, they pass the test.” Another fistbump. “But anyway, dude. Not to totally kill your boner know who that is, right?”
Stephan kills his microbrew and orders another. “No. Who?”
“That’s that Vanessa Carlton chick.”
“Yeah, I don’t know who that is.”
Brad covers his face in his hands. “Aw dude, it’s bad. Should I tell you?”
“Tell me! What is it?”
“I don’t want to crush you, but I feel like crushing you.”
“Tell me! Tell me! Crush me.”
“She’s that Thousand Miles girl.”
“That what?”
“You know. ‘If I could fall...into the sky.’
“The fuck are you saying?”
Brad exhales deeply, toying with his phone. “Man, sometimes I wish cell phones had the internet.”
“Yeah, but how would that work? Would you have to like plug them into a phone line?”
“Dude, you’d plug them into a DSL line. It’s way faster.”
“I don’t know. I don’t really like to be tethered down like that.”
“I know, I know. You live your life like a burning man.” Brad waves his hand at the bartender. “Hey man,” he says. “Could I borrow that?” He jerks his thumb at the fake Steinbeck in the hotel lobby, just outside the bar entrance. The bartender, who appears as if he has given up on life, and who appears to have no knowledge of the great alternative stars of the 90’s, shrugs his shoulders. 
“Alright,” Brad says, sitting down at the piano. “I never claimed to be a pianist.”
“Haha,” laughs Stephan. “You said ‘pianist.’”
Brad sighs. “Alright, man. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.” Brad cracks his knuckles and then launched right into the opening notes of “A Thousand Miles.” You know. Doo doodle-oo doodle-oo doo, doo doo doo...
“Oh that one...” Stephan laughs. But in his nervous laughter, he sees it all. Like a crystal baller. Like a star-crossed pimp. He sees a commercial for engagement rings, he sees White Chicks, he sees Workaholics, he sees Lil Wayne.
And that’s how Stephan Jenkins began producing music for Vanessa Carlton.