Back in our younger years we liked to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true?
In reality, words can hurt deeply. There are some playground taunts that remain in my memory. Most of us have had those experiences.
When I lived in Creston I was a “celebrity reader.” That’s a fancy name for a very pleasant task. On a regular basis I would visit a fifth grade classroom and read books to the students.
Walking up to the school building one morning, I witnessed an older boy mocking a smaller child, calling him names. Some long-buried memories rose to the surface and I wanted to grab the perpetrator and give him a few good swats. Fortunately, I knew better so I got his attention and stared him down. He walked away.
Ideally, name calling would end with childhood. Regrettably, it doesn’t.
I’m guilty, too. In recent years I have caught myself calling some of our politicians and a lot of drivers boneheads, dolts, idiots and a few other choice terms. In my defense, it is difficult to refrain from this practice when they really are boneheads.
Not that it makes it any more appropriate, but I normally refrain from calling boneheads boneheads to their face.
Forty years of working in the media gave me the opportunity to be the target of some interesting names. As an adult even the vilest names weren’t as crushing as “fatso” was when I was a kid.
I joke about the many times I have been called a “pinko, commie, godless, liberal” journalist. Actually, no one ever put all of those words together in one collective pejorative but on a number of occasions I have been called one or more of those terms because of my profession.
When I called down an angry reader for his extensive abuse of God’s name and the f-word, he called me a “Jesus freak.” That’s okay; if I’m going to be a freak I’ll be a freak for Jesus.
Other readers have called me ignorant, a bully, stupid, a pain in the (rear) and worse.
In the mid-80s, when motion picture companies still advertised heavily in newspapers, I was the advertising director of the Sioux City Journal. One or more pastors in the community apparently initiated a campaign from their pulpits to clean up the movie ads in our newspaper. We began receiving look-alike/sound-alike letters and phone calls from folks complaining that our movie ads were too racy for a family newspaper.
I am a strong First Amendment advocate but agreed that some of the ads could use a little tweaking. I required that all movie ads be inspected (by me) before publication and, if necessary, be edited. A few ads needed some less spicy synonyms. In a few cases, I had a staff artist cover up an excess of cleavage or buttocks. It’s a thin line to walk.
During this crusade, I received a letter that began, “Dear Heathen.” It went on to accuse me of contributing to the decay of our community and its citizens by virtue of our movie ads. I didn’t know if I should be offended or honored. To my knowledge I had never been called a heathen before.
As high school seniors, my buddy Lyle and I enjoyed keeping things lively in the classroom. We both admired and appreciated our college prep grammar instructor but one afternoon we were carrying on a bit too much in her class.
Having had enough of our tomfoolery Mrs. Riskedahl said, “Arvid and Lyle, you two are pragmatic prevaricators with a propensity for oratorical sonority that is too pleonastic to be expeditiously assimilated.”
Wow! Neither of us had been called that before.
We told our instructor we would graciously accept her criticism if (a) she told us what it meant and (b) if she wrote it out so we could memorize it. Mrs. Riskedahl smiled and told us that it meant we were a couple of windy liars who talked too much. And she wrote it down.
More than 50 years later, Lyle and I can both quote the phrase word-for-word and we agree it’s one of the nicest bits of name calling we have ever experienced.