When I was in fifth grade, I did not know what the word “fart” meant.
OK, stop laughing — I truly didn’t know the word. My family had always called them “potty-burps,” which is a term exactly six people have ever used (me, my parents, and my three siblings).
Not knowing the word “fart” was the source of the harshest embarrassment I have ever felt in my life. It still smarts today, thirty years later. I’ve gotten sweaty palms just typing this.
I was just sitting at my desk, minding my own business while the teacher diagrammed sentences on the blackboard. It was after lunch, likely a processed cheese sandwich, apple slices, and a Little Debbie, when I accidentally let one slip — a small fart with a small, but audible squeak.
And the boy behind me started giggling. Then he told the kid sitting next to him and they both giggled. I shrank in my desk, my ears burning with mortification.
The noise of two students carries when there are only twelve students in a class and you’re in a big, old Catholic School with eighteen-foot ceilings and ancient, sloping hardwood floors. So my teacher stopped writing, mid-word, to ask them what they were carrying on about.
“Courtenay farted!” the boy said, barely able to suppress his glee.
The teacher rolled her eyes and sighed wearily. It is not easy to maintain order in the monkey house.
“Courtenay, what do you say?” she asked me, clearly prodding my manners into action.
Except that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do because I didn’t know what a fart was, nor if I had done it. So I did what any non-native speaker does when he or she is accused of a crime with a word he or she doesn’t understand: I protested.
“I did not!”
“Yes she did! I heard her!” the boy argued.
“Yeah!” said a kid sitting across the room, who more than likely hadn’t heard anything, but wanted in on the ruckus.
Flustered and on the verge of losing it, I stammered, “I didn’t. I did not. I… I…”
“She did, too!”
The voices supporting that opinion grew louder, soon all of the kids were a-twitter.
To nip insurrection in the bud, the teacher calmly asked me to step outside into the hallway, then she demanded silence in the room with a threat to involve Sister Martin. Few students actually survived an encounter with Sister Martin, so the room quieted quickly.
I stood and followed my teacher as she left for the hallway, never taking my eyes from my shoes. By the time we crossed the desert to find Israel, I was sniffling and dripping tears on my Buster Browns.
I had never been in trouble for anything, so I did not know what happened when a student was called into the hallway. Was I going to be marched down to the office? Forced into Confession? Drawn and quartered with a sword plunged through my heart, never to be seen or heard from again?
My teacher closed the door, then squatted down to look me in the eye.
“Courtenay, I need you to tell me the truth. Did you fart?”
“Then what happened? Why are they saying that you did?”
I had no idea how to answer the question. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and whispered, “I potty-burped.”
Uncomprehending, the teacher looked at me. “You what?”
I started to cry in earnest as I repeated, “I potty-burped.”
For a moment, neither of us moved. Then she set her hand gently on my shoulder and said, “All right then. Go wipe your face and come into class. And, the next time you feel the need to pass gas or potty-burp or fart or whatever, please excuse yourself to the restroom.”
It was then that I finally understood that “fart” and “potty-burp” were synonyms. My embarrassment about actually farting was eclipsed by the sense of dread I felt knowing that my immature vernacular was just another way that I didn’t fit in with the other kids. I wondered how many other words I didn’t know.
Taking the lesson to heart, I made learning slang a goal for the rest of the school year. I learned about farts, poop, and barf from eavesdropping on the boys in class. I learned what a brown-noser was when I volunteered to sort some papers for the teacher. I learned what it meant to teased for being smart, mocked for using manners, and called “gay” just because it was 1984 and Catholic kids apparently know the best insults to shout over the fence into your backyard. I hardened myself to jeers of “Miss Perfect,” “Stuck Up Snob,” and “Smartie Fartie.”
And I decided that I was going to teach my kids the words the other kids would be using. I would hand them each word wrapped carefully in instructions for use: “Fart is appropriate in the bathroom, but please say ‘passed gas’ at the table.” “Yes, someone may call that a boob, but it is more polite to call it a breast.” “It is inappropriate to call someone or something retarded or gay.”
I guess my Catholic school education did stick.