Musings + Essays

The Weight of Words.

By: Jen Shoop

This is a cautionary tale I have been loathe to share because it’s detrimentally self-implicating, but — here goes:

When I was a freshman in high school, we had a visiting lecturer stop by my religion class.  I cannot recall the specifics of her presentation, although I believe — devastatingly enough, as it will turn out — it centered upon the topics of diversity and inclusion.  At some point in the Q+A, for reasons that are both unclear and unforgivable, I stated, without hesitation, that “my elementary school was kind of ghetto.”

I will never forget the look of shock and disgust on the lecturer’s face:

“Well, wait a minute now.  Wait…a…minute, young lady.  You can’t use that word.”

I blanched.  I was mortified.  I still feel the burn of humiliation and regret all these many years later, and I remember sitting there, anchored to my seat, hard-gulping and nearly vibrating with embarrassment, for the thirteen agonizing minutes until the bell rang.  How could I have been so careless with my words? I glued my eyes to my hands as I loaded my belongings into my backpack, terrified that either the instructor or the lecturer would pull me aside after class for further admonishment, and then skulked out of the classroom with my tail between my legs.  It was only after I’d escaped down the back stairwell to the safety of the far wall of The Commons, a byzantine network of lockers and gaggles of girls on the first floor of the main hall of my red brick high school, that I could take a deep breath.  I stared blankly into the hollow of my locker and thought about the weight of the word I’d just used.  Badly done, Emma.

I have spent hours and hours of my life thinking about this moment.  In the days after, I would puzzle over why the hell I had used that word so flippantly.  It was hard to conjure my interpretation of the word in its original context after my comeuppance, but I marveled, sickened, over how I had somehow overlooked its racial implications until the moment it left my lips in that classroom.  My friends at my elementary school had used the word so freely, gesturing to the chipped wooden cubbies we used as lockers and the cracked asphalt we gathered on every morning and afternoon, and the crackly, intermittent intercom that had probably been around since 1973.  But they also used it to describe other things: a classmate using a small white trash bag to transport his clothes to school, another wearing shoes two sizes to big because they’d been on sale and hadn’t had them in his size.  I had conflated ghetto with cheap, or rundown, or — in some abstruse sense — the feeling of trying too hard, but I knew — even before the incident — that it was an edgy word, since my parents never used it, and my friends tended to smirk and gloat when saying it.  It had the feel of a lazy curse word to me, but I’d never interrogated the matter further.

Now I knew.

Of course I had known that bad words and slang words had no place in a classroom, but, with a flash of apprehension, I discovered that other words could be issued in poor taste, too, and for reasons far more pernicious than a disregard for propriety.  I began to think more critically about the composition of my elementary school: it had been remarkably diverse, and I’d not given adequate thought to what that meant until that moment.  Because it had the lowest tuition of any Catholic school in the archdiocese and it sat on Massachusetts Avenue, just blocks from Embassy Row, my grade school classes were a mezcla of children from devoutly Catholic, low-income families and the sons and daughters of ambassadors from abroad.  And then there was the Nurmi family — my family — which didn’t fit either category, but the school was conveniently proximal to our house and well-run by old-school nuns and a deeply frightening Monsignor who wore a flowing black cassock on his days off and scared the bejesus out of us, factors far more important to my reasonable parents than social standing.  I have long respected them for sending me there: though they had the means to send us to far fancier grade schools, they were unconcerned with bumper stickers and the old who’s-who and pragmatically intent on a convenient, decent, very Catholic education for their five children.  As a result, I had friends like Yara from Guinea-Bissau, Maria Cecilia from Chile, and Sam from Zimbabwe, for whom English was a second language and America was a second home.  And I also had friends like Fabiola, Marco, and Dishaun, who all lived in parts of D.C. I’d never been to before and came from families less fortunate than mine.  I knew this because they would joke about joining the Church choir.  You could secure a special scholarship if you were accepted into the choir, and the fact was that the school never turned anyone down, and so — there was a long-standing ring of self-deprecating humor centered around the notion of being poor, being bad at singing, and joining the choir.

Indeed, in my thorough and repeated reviewings of my failing, it has always puzzled me that class distinctions were so legible to me while racial ones were not.  I am not saying that I didn’t see race; to say that would be disingenuous, and in fact I distinctly remember that when I briefly “dated” (“dated” being a loose term, as I was in the sixth grade) a black boy, another classmate — also black — commented on my “jungle fever.”  Those were his words, not mine, and their colonialist slant makes me itchy.  Where had he picked up that phrase?  Was his deployment of the phrase OK given his race?  Did he even realize what he meant?  And yet, I hadn’t been stunned or disgusted when he said them; his tone had been inviting, impressed even — and I was never, even in the face of such casual markers of racial divide, under the impression that I was breaking any rule or going against any norm in dating this boy.  I was far more conscious of the fact that my family was better off than many other families than I was that I was white and most of my classmates were not.   When I intimated to a friend that I might try out for choir, feeling excluded from their after-school camaraderie, she replied: “Better not.  You might be using a spot someone else needs.”  There was justice in her words, and also a very clear marking off: the class lines were impossible to miss.  The racial ones were blurrier to me.

I am not looking for a way to curtsy out of my mistake; I am mining my memory in order to unpack the provenance of a racially-charged word I’d chosen to use.  The fact is that I had strolled around with the word “ghetto” in my pocket after stealing it from my classmates and assumed it was OK for me to bandy it about, too — and it wasn’t.  Of course there is a difference between intentionally deprecatory racial slurs and a misunderstood word, but casual propagation of misappropriated language is powerfully nefarious, and — I learned that day — I must take care with the ballast of my words.

These many years later, I remain repentant — the guilt I felt when I discovered I had offended someone through a flashy turn of phrase still reverberates.  The experience has seriously shaped my perspective on the politics of language.  Would you think less of me as a writer if I admitted that I always have one tab of my browser open to the dictionary?  Because I do — I do so that I can cross-check when I trot out a word that feels off or of dubious origin or implication.  It’s not always about politics, of course — I accrue a pocketful of new words (recent acquisitions include internecine and hubristic) every week in my reading, and I’m always eager to try them on for size myself — but I’m most leery when I’m deploying a word acquired via pop culture (“can I pull off thirsty?” I wonder aloud).  It’s un-writerly, unnatural even — but I learned the hard way about the weight of words.

Just the other week, one of my dearest, smartest friends made the well-articulated point that you can’t say anything anymore without stepping on someone’s toes; he pondered whether we have sacrificed a degree of freedom of speech in today’s litigious, “PC” environment.  And then, just a few days later, I was listening to my hero Roxane Gay on — improbably enough — an episode of “Bitch Sesh,” a podcast in which two comediennes break down and poke fun at episodes of The Real Housewives, and she stated that she believes that it was Gwyneth Paltrow that bit Beyonce.  Have you been following the whole #whobitbey phenomenon?  Essentially, an actress posted on Twitter that she had been at a party at which Beyonce was bit on the face — yes, bit on the face — by another celebrity.  People have spun out all kinds of theories about who did it and why –and Roxane believes that it was the Goop queen herself.  Why?  As she put it here, “[Paltrow] just seems like the kind of woman who would overstep that boundary. I think that I think that because I saw her singing a Jay-Z-Kanye song once and she said the n-word while she was singing it, and I was like, “Girl. No. Not for you.” Which to me is the same kind of thing as biting Beyoncé, so I think she bit Beyoncé.”

And so there are these two contradictory thought currents coursing around me: on the one hand, I am an avid believer in freedom of speech, especially as a writer myself, and I’m inclined to agree with my friend’s well-observed comment.  On the other, I am horrified by but not unsympathetic to Roxane’s conflation of verbal violence with physical violence.  Horrified because I’m no better than Gwyneth given my ghetto comment, and sympathetic because I have always felt that old schoolyard rhyme to be unthinkably misleading; it should be: “Sticks and stones can break my bones / but words will always hurt more.”

Of course, these “tent poles” needn’t be mutually exclusive, and when I think about it, there’s almost an ethical imperative that they shouldn’t be: I can write well, and articulately, while practicing good hygiene in the exercise of language.  (I use the word hygiene carefully here, too, as I don’t intend to say that my word choice is contrived or robotically bleached in editing, or that bigoted thoughts can be in some way sanitized through the topical application of spellcheck — but to underscore my belief that extreme care must be taken, and that, for many years now, I have operated under a primum non nocere oath to the vocation of writing.)  So here we are, today — me, plucking and planting and preening my words and fretting over whether this entire post will be perceived as tone-deaf, and me, feeling as though my experience is nonetheless worth sharing and that I have the space to do it.  And all because of the weight of words.

P.S.  What words do you hate?

P.P.S.  Roxane made my list of 10 books that changed my life.

Post-Script: 10 Things Always at My Desk.

Aside from a browser open to the dictionary, these are always on hand when I’m in the mood to write:

+Carafe of water.  (She so thirsty…see…I did it.)

+Inslee desktop calendar.  I use this constantly.  I didn’t realize how many times a day I would open my computer to look up “” or my Google calendar in order to figure out the timing for something — this obviates the need.

+A julep cup filled with the best pens on the planet and sharpies, in every imaginable color.

+An infinity of post-its.  Mr. Magpie was appalled to find nearly an entire moving box full of post-its when we moved to New York.  I love them so much — they’re perfect for stowing bite-sized thoughts and reminders, and I tuck them onto the pages of my day planner and apply them to the mirror in front of me throughout the day.  I prefer to write on them in sharpie — it’s an odd but satisfying habit.

+My day planner.  I am extremely picky about planners — I’m 100% analog and must write my to-dos down against a calendar, so I need a planner that has enough space on a daily basis to accommodate my tick list and large enough pages so that I can slip receipts/invitations in between them.  As I write this neurosis out, I realize I completely lifted my mom’s style: I now suddenly recall the smooth slide-and-click of my mother’s desk drawer as she’d open it and turn the pages of her own planner, the receiver of our home phone cradled between her ear and shoulder.  “Let me just see…yes, the 24th?  10 am?  I can do that.”

+My mirror.  (And, sadly, the picture at the top of this post is not my actual desk.  Sob.)  We ran out of space to hang an oversized white wood mirror that had been in our guest room in Chicago and that I’d salvaged it from The Christ Child Opportunity Shop in D.C., where I paid a casual $40 for what should have retailed for several hundred.  Since moving to New York, we’ve stowed it on my desk, propped up artfully against the wall.  Every day, I sit in front of it and write, taking occasional breaks to glance at myself.  It’s an odd place for a mirror, but the symbolism is not lost on me: sitting down to write this blog is a long look in the mirror in more ways than one.

+A pile of my jewelry.  I almost always wear my watch (RealReal is a good spot to find gently-loved Hermes watches, too — I do not need another watch, but I love this one something fierce) and a gold bangle with the coordinates of Charlottesville, VA engraved into it (aka, the birthplace of the most important relationship in my life; you can get the look for less here), but I hate writing with them on — they clank and catch and jangle and make me feel inhibited.  But I always wear my wedding band and engagement ring because…well…you know.

+Elizabeth Arden 8 Hour Cream.  I am legitimately never anywhere without it — including at home.  It’s like that thing they say about rats or cockroaches or — most likely — both in New York: you’re never more than five feet from one?  But any Nurmi woman is never more than five feet from a tube of 8 Hour Cream.

+A candle, and I just bought this one — a new scent for me.  I almost always stick with either Tocca or Fresh candles, but this caught my eye (nose?) at Blue Mercury the other day.  I love the feeling of writing next to a lit candle.

+A hand-written list of blog topics and products I’ve been eyeing.  I usually convert these into a digital list on Trello, but right now, they’re chilling on a piece of paper waiting for Tilly to tear into them, so I’ll share them here:

  1. A vintage jewelry set to nail the oversized flower trend in a more novel way;
  2. A retro-looking hand-stitched outfit for minimagpie this summer;
  3. A pair of wooden tongs so I can stop burning my fingertips every morning while retrieving my daily toast;
  4. A toast rack — can you tell I wrote these down after breakfast?  Also, my mom had one of these and I always thought it ridiculously outmoded, like the “crumber” she forced us to use after dinner…but now I see the appeal and rather like the idea, especially since Mr. Magpie complains when his toast has sat on a plate for too long while he’s out walking Tilly — it gets soggy!
  5.  A marble platter as a gift for a friend who enjoys entertaining;
  7. Do I need this waste basket Y/N?  (Yes.)


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16 thoughts on “The Weight of Words.

  1. Great post!
    One thing I often tell myself is I’m more than my mistakes. It has helped me to not be so hard on myself and instead focus on learning and growing from faults and missteps.

  2. could not put my phone down while reading this post this morning, we’ve all made mistakes like this one and I promise we’ve not all been as thoughtful or mindful not to make the same mistake twice. Not only do I love your way with words, you seem to be a truly good human who’s words will make a positive impact…we need more people like you!!

  3. This is a great and interesting story, but one of the things that I felt while reading is that you’re still really upset with yourself about it, and my take is this: don’t be. You were a kid, and kids make mistakes…with language, with complicated issues of privilege and race, with understanding how the world really works. To me, the person who made the mistake in this story is the lecturer who reacted BADLY, and who could have used it as an opportunity to help you and your classmates really understand the power of language (and privilege) rather than just shaming you into learning a lesson.

    I say this because I had a somewhat similar incident in middle school — I had just moved from NYC to the suburbs of Long Island and was feeling very aware that my family was different (I had a single mom who worked and our home and car were very modest, and I was in awe of all of the big houses, fancy minivans, and SAHMs that other families seemed to have). I made a casual comment in class that my family was poor, and my teacher took me aside and gently corrected me. Do you eat 3 meals a day? -Yes. Do you have plenty of clothes to wear? -Yes. Do you have a safe home to go to everyday? -Yes. OK, then do you think you’re actually poor? -Um, I guess not. We had a good talk and she helped me feel a little less self-conscious about the very minor differences in my family situation. And believe me, I never made that mistake again (and today I realize how lucky I was to be raised by such a badass single mama who literally was a superwoman).

    And going to the story about Roxanne and GP (wasn’t that a great episode!?!), you definitely ARE different. Because I think what Roxanne is ultimately getting at is that GP can’t learn, can’t understand her privilege and won’t even try (she’s shown that REPEATEDLY), and so she won’t ever get it. This is a woman who says with a straight face that she is “self-made”. Nobody helped her get where she is. Nope. No one. Not Bruce or Blythe or even Uncle Morty (aka Steven Spielberg).

    Shame is a horrible, abusive teacher — it might help you learn, but god do you feel shitty about yourself and the whole situation. And this is very kumbaya/INFJ of me, but I do so wish that when we hear others saying something that offends us (or we think is offensive) and it seems like it stems from a naivete or lack of understanding, we’d just take a beat and try to talk about it before going full Lewis Black on them.

    1. I love this comment, Alison. You bring up so many good points, and I especially love your last paragraph. Such a good way to approach similar situations.

    2. Gosh, I must have read your comments about a dozen times. There is so much wisdom and insight to unpack here — first, your observation about shame has made me think about the entire experience from a new angle, in that I thought to myself: “Well, you know, how would I react if I were a teacher and someone said this?” And then, more realistically: “What would I say if my daughter said this?” I think you’re right that the lecturer could have handled it differently, but maybe I needed the comeuppance. You are right that I continue to hang onto guilt about it — and while it might have been a mistake at the time, and could have been addressed differently, in the long run, I think it was a cornerstone coming of age experience for me that has seriously shaped who I am, as ridiculous as that sounds, and so I am rather grateful for it now in a weird way. I’m thinking in circles here, but the point is this: I appreciate your input on this; it’s made me think even more critically about the entire exchange, how it could have been different, and whether it should have been.

      Finally, yes x 100000000 about wishing that we could restore a measure of civility to conversation these days. It’s appropriate to take offense when words are issued thoughtlessly, but there are more productive ways to deal with it than to immediately write someone off as a bigot. Lots of teachable moments, and they don’t need to be violently friction-filled, either. This is where a well-timed, earnest question can work wonders: “What do you mean by that?”

      So much to chew on. Thank you!


  4. I had a similar experience in high school, only — and this speaks to how non-diverse my school was (extremely), everyone laughed, including the teacher. I wince even thinking of it now; at the time I deployed it with the same flippancy you mention, and also a touch of Legally Dumb Blonde, an ingredient I used often to cover up / counterweight being smart (why did I do that?). I think it took college to impress upon me the weight words could take on in my mouth. These days I’m reflexively careful, esp when it comes to anything racially tinged. It’s only just, i think, as I’ve not the perspective that would allow for anything else. Thank you for the thought-provocations, as always!

    1. Claire – Your honest note hit home for me; I can remember many instances in social settings in which I’d play dumb on various topics in order to curry favor with the coarser sex (haha): “What’s a field goal?” “What’s that guy doing on the field?” as I’d bat my eyelashes like an idiot. Ah. Your comment brought me back to those many moments and how fruitlessly humiliating they were.

      But, on a more serious note — “reflexively careful” is just how I’d frame my current approach. We are on the very same page. xoxo

  5. A weighty post indeed! There’s so much to unpack here. I cringed at your story from freshman year of high school — I have recollections of using the same word at a similar point in my childhood, until I realized that it was terribly offensive. I don’t have the same clear recollection of when this was, but I do also recall being righteously offended when I’d hear people use the same word in college (at my not-very-diverse Jesuit university), sometimes in reference to the quite racially and socioeconomically diverse public high school I attended.

    Anyway, I think the fact that you are aware of the weight of your words speaks volumes. We all need to learn about the weight of our words, at one point or another, and your lesson clearly stuck with you. I’m sure it informed your ‘primum non nocere’ policy!

    1. Yes — exactly! I cringe, but I’m grateful for it in a sense. Touchstone coming of age experience for me for sure. xoxo

    2. I can see that — and I would feel the same way, I know this, and that’s one of the reasons I think we are kindred spirits!

  6. BEST EVER. Seriously this may be my favorite post from you, because it shows how much of a good and thoughtful a) writer and b) human you are. Those sorts of “oh everyone gets offended” comments annoy me beyond comprehension — until now. You’ve highlighted why: not knowing the context of what your friend said obviously, but I’ve heard so many of my husband’s rich/white/WASP friends say something similar…. and yet none of our friends who grew up poor/marginalized/of color, etc use this kind of condescension.

    It has become so stylish amongst our set to be casually flippant about the care in use of words (I like your word “edgy”, or remembering when that guy talked down to you in front of your daughter about baby speech)— now, when we are collectively being reminded we should exhibit a tasteful, intelligent prose, instead of being put into place, we are displacing blame. I want more Jane Austen-type of elegance in speech and manner, so thank you for providing such a delicious sip of that this morning!!

    1. Thank you, Bunny, for weighing in. I thought your comment about “displacing blame” was especially provocative; I’ve been turning that over for awhile this morning. And thanks for the ultra-generous words, too…xoxoxo

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