I swear.

I do. I’ll admit it. It’s one of my worst habits, after biting my nails–yes, my twice-monthly manicured nails.

I’ve had a potty mouth since about 1975, a year after my mother died. She used to have a potty mouth, too, but not surprisingly, when she began getting herself squared away with the Lord, she put aside her swear words, and I have to say that at the time, it was quite unsettling. Not because having a mum with a more evolved vocabulary was a bad thing, but knowing that she was shelving her words in order to be a better person was. And because my dad was the world’s all-time champion swear word utterer, I began to worry about his standing with The Almighty.

My dad took swearing to an entirely new level of intellectual prose. He eschewed the “common” language of the swearer–never, ever uttering the big kahuna of swear words–you know, the one that begins with an ‘F’ and ends with a ‘K’ (unless you changed the verb to a noun, in which case it ends with an ‘R’). No. His swearing was a patois of strung together adjectives; all colorful, threaded together by the occasional swear word. A master of both hyperbole and figurative language, my dad had the innate ability to generate a variety of words to describe one’s mother as well as one’s suspect parentage.

To wit: My dad had an ancient International Harvester Farmall tractor, bequeathed to him by his dad. To start it, he had to crank it, like an old- fashioned automobile. Then some levers had to be pulled, then pushed, then pulled again, and, if the planets were in alignment and the gods were on his side, the thing started. Most of the time, though, it didn’t. As a child, I thought the magic words to start the tractor included his long string of cursing, combined with several rich and vivid adjectives, combined with his kicking of the front tires. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

So yes, I come by it honestly. That damn apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Ironically, as a teacher, I only once made the mistake of swearing in vain: I called a kid a smartass. I meant to say “smart-aleck”, but I was way pregnant with twins, short of breath, short of patience, and had a serious case of cankles, and this kid was such a smartass that the word just flew out of my mouth before I could think. After the collective “Oo-Ee-oo!” of the other students, I got someone to watch my class of fifth graders (Oh, stop it. You’d have done the same thing if you had had that particular class of fifth graders. They were monsters.), marched down to the office, and told the principal what happened. He laughed. It was 1993–a time before principals got their panties in a wad over the shenanigans of their teachers. But I still called the kid’s mom to tell her I cussed out her son. She asked, “Well, what did he do?” I told her he back-talked me. She assured me that when he got home he was in for an ass beating–her words, not mine.

I smiled and triumphantly waddled back upstairs to my fifth graders. Prospective teachers–do not try this today. Times have changed, and you are the one who will suffer the ass beating.

Even before that incident, when I was teaching sixth graders and I had taken them camping for a week, I purposely let a swear word fly. I, along with two other milquetoast first-year teachers, were with the girls in our cabin, lights out, and I was exhausted. Not sure about the milquetoasts–they weren’t saying much–and besides, these were my kids and I was in charge. Naturally, the girls, ages 11 and 12, were all a-twitter with the excitement of being away from home for the first time with their friends. Repeated entreaties of “It’s time to stop talking, girls,” and, “Stop talking please. It’s time to go to sleep,” were of no use. Unless I took drastic measures, no one was going to sleep that first night in the woods. So I did it.

I said, very plainly and loudly, “Shut. The. Hell. Up.”

The rest of the week was just ducky.

When I taught eighth graders and the subject of connotation and denotation came up, I would proffer this lesson about swear words: Use them judiciously. You never know when you might need them. Why?
If you’re not a habitual swearer, when faced with a seemingly critical situation, you can throw in a ‘damn’ or a ‘hell’, and you’ll end up getting everyone’s eyebrow-raised attention and maybe even a little bit of respect. Swear all of the time, and those same folks will brand you as no better than the wheelman of a canal barge or some such low-life occupation. I try to remember this bit of counsel that I’ve offered to others when I, the world’s current champion swear word utterer, swear out of habit.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to remember my own damn advice.

Next month, I’ll tell the story of when I told the parents of one of my students, “Every time I try to have intercourse with your daughter, she doesn’t respond.”

Stay tuned.