Garbage Mouths, Garbage Lives


July 28, 1992|By SUSAN TRAUSCH

BOSTON. — Boston -- Dennis Reed makes me want to cheer and sigh in the same breath. He's the principal in Tampa, Florida, who's been hitting the papers with his crusade to clean up the language of his students. He put every obscenity coming from the mouths of babes at Dickenson Elementary on a poster and took it around to parents for X-rated show and tell.

Go Dennis! But oh, how I wish you weren't news. There was a time, not too long ago, when you could have put that energy into the curriculum.

Something else deepens my sigh as I talk on the phone with this 57-year-old gentleman who sounds like a Southern Mr. Chips: guilt.

I pollute the air with at least half the words on his list. There are 15, plus a glossary of hand gestures, and he could probably double that with one drive through Boston.

Visit my living room, Dennis Reed! Tack the chart up in the office. A newspaper is a gutter. We don't usually print the words, but if an instrument could measure the blueness of the atmosphere, it would blow up in most city rooms.

It would blow up in a lot of places, which is why this man has to work so hard trying to correct what never used to be a problem.

Sometimes I wonder if language is related to the economy. As our dollars bought less, so did our epithets. Back when people could own a nice house for $50,000, they could also let off a load of steam with a single ''dagnabit.''

Today we need four times the verbal fire power, or think we do.

''I hear the f-word in the grocery store,'' says Mr. Reed, who worries about the sexual orientation of language. He feels that children are growing up thinking of sex as something dirty or violent rather than an act of love.

''Third-graders will jump on top of each other and say they are having sex,'' he explains. ''They watch soap operas. They see bedroom scenes in movies. They hear music with suggestive lyrics. It's everywhere, and kids mimic the world around them.''

Mr. Reed started his campaign last April when foul-mouthed students were being sent to his office in such numbers that neither he nor his faculty could do their jobs.

''Suspension is our only form of discipline and it doesn't work very well,'' he says. ''A kid thinks of a suspension as a vacation. He goes home, watches television, and comes back with a worse problem. I had to come up with something else.''

Mr. Reed has been in a dozen living rooms and plans more visits for the fall. He says most parents in this middle- to lower-middle-class neighborhood have been shocked to see his poster and are eager to correct the problem.

''Making parents aware is the first step,'' says Mr. Reed. Again, as I want to congratulate him, I see the obvious question hanging in the fetid air: Why weren't parents aware?

Mr. Reed notes that both parents in a household usually work and that a kid is dropped off at school early and picked up late, so there are few hours together as a family.

''We have to pull together and take a stand,'' he says. ''We have to teach our children what's right.''

He worries about the lack of conscience in young people, noting that ''there is no sorrow or remorse'' exhibited by students sent to his office.

''All they know is that if they do something there will be certain consequences,'' he explains. ''There is little emotion or desire to do what is right. I think the lack of conscience development is going to be a very serious problem in our society.''

If it isn't already. Mr. Reed's description fits corporate game players and a lot of politicians rather nicely, I think. These people are experts at measuring consequences and knowing what loophole they can slide through without getting caught. The soul of the matter means nothing.

You get an A, Dennis Reed, and society flunks. But maybe we can bring our grades up if we pay attention and do our homework. A well-applied bar of soap wouldn't hurt some of us either.

Susan Trausch is a Boston Globe columnist.

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