My mother-in-law teaches elementary school. And if there was a Hall of Fame for second grade teachers, she would be inducted faster than you can say “Open your text books to chapter three.” You can tell by looking at her. She has a warm face and head of hair that is styled just so and has been styled just so as long as I’ve known her. Kids crave routine and in my mother-in-law’s second grade class they get routine down to the last detail — her hair included.
Being a second grade teacher, she is calm and nurturing, quick to praise and slow to criticize. She can make a seven-year-old who secures two pieces of construction paper with three pounds of paste feel like he singlehandedly designed and erected The Sears Tower. And when that same child fails to demonstrate his multiplication tables, she gently reminds him that Einstein failed math too but still managed to bag Marilyn Monroe (I think that’s the story she told me — anyhow, you get the idea).
My wife and our kids live in the same town as our in-laws, and as such, we spend a lot of time together. Rare is the occasion that we venture out with my mother-in-law without running into former students of hers, students who graciously thank her for teaching them to read, for reminding them that the world is for them and not against them, for discouraging them from a life of drugs, prostitution, and the black market organ trade.
To have this kind of an effect on people requires a certain behavior, a certain mindset. There are constraints, I imagine, that my mother-in-law has put in place to perpetuate her nurturing and optimistic temperament. Perhaps this is why she doesn’t laugh at many of my jokes. It’s not that they’re not funny —
they are — but we might be speaking a different language. I have a recurring New Year’s Resolution to lower my daily F-bomb count from triple digits down to double digits, not to mention my resolution — at my wife’s insistence — to abstain from teaching our three-year-old daughter age-inappropriate jokes (e.g. What’s the difference between snowmen and snow women? Snow balls — another blog post coming on this at a later date). Her vocabulary, on the other hand, includes mostly innocent words, her day-to-day jargon brimming with the likes of silly, gosh, neat-o, dear, heavens, great, super, and all those other words that conjure images of Mr. Rogers and Eleanor Roosevelt.
So you can imagine my surprise when our daughter’s first use of profanity was a direct result of a less-than-ten-second interaction with my mother-in-law. Charlee was two, and I had done a remarkable job of not talking like I had been raised on Martin Scorcese movies. Sure, I had taught her some slang and some useful idioms — jive turkey, This joint is jumping, and We’re off like a prom dress — but it was my mother-in-law who had taught her the word that would get her sent to the principal’s office.
My mother-in-law came over for a visit. She knocked, we opened the door, and as she came in, our dog Girdie, who loves to scavenge the bushes outside our house for Kitty McNuggets, ran out. The other thing that ran out was a four-letter word — out it went right between the lips of my mother-in-law. I won’t say what word it was, but I will say that when she said it, we could practically smell it. And it smelled a lot like our dog’s breath after indulging in a few of those Kitty McNuggets.
It wasn’t long before our daughter used the same word and in the right context. It took some time, but we re-conditioned our daughter, and she no longer talks like a retired sailor on an amateur porn set. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever let my mother-in-law forget it. She enjoys a flawless teaching record, she defines class and elegance, and her positive impact on children is unquestionable — except that, ya know, she taught her granddaughter to use profanity.
She and my father-in-law are approaching retirement. I imagine there will be a party, and at that party, speeches will be given, toasts will be made, and stories will be told. I wonder which story I will tell. Well, shit, I’ll have to think about it.
***ATTENTION: Leave a comment on this post. Tell me about the funny things that you’ve taught your kids — or any kids (or mother-in-law, for that matter) — to say. Also, if you haven’t subscribed to the blog, I formally invite you to do so. The “Subscribe” link is at the top of this page. Thanks, ‘preciate that.