Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Appreciating Student Slang: My Bad, So Good

Teachers sometimes feel like their students live in a different linguistic world. The varieties of English spoken by students these days may be jam-packed with slang and other colloquialisms largely impenetrable to their teachers, especially when there's a difference in cultural background. Though the teacher's job is to train students in the proper use of standard English, can that be balanced by an appreciation of the diversity of student slang? To answer that question, we're checking in with two teachers with experience in the New York City public school system. First up is Shannon Reed, who writes regularly for our Teachers At Work section.

It started with my response after I misheard a colleague at a faculty meeting: "Oh," I said. "My bad." A startled group of fellow teachers stared back at me.

I do not think of myself as a "My bad" kind of person. For one thing, I'm pretty white. How white? Well, remember reading about Representative Murtha, that old politician from Western Pennsylvania who said that his constituency is racist? He's my hometown's representative.

Of course, I'm not racist, but I do greatly lack any hipness or urbanity. Once, a classmate in graduate school asked me if I was Amish. (No.) I like to watch movies about Jane Austen (not just adaptations of Jane Austen's novels, but movies that reenact her life), and read books, often by Barbara Pym or Kathleen Norris — lovely, encompassing writers who are, like, so white. I usually go to bed before 10. I didn't start using the word cool as an adjective (meaning great vs. not quite cold but not warm) until I was in my mid-twenties, and I felt like a fraud for the first six months of doing so.

But now I work in a principally African- and Caribbean-American school in the inner city (although I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which is about as outer city as you can get), so I'm surrounded by the slang of that demographic. Thankfully, after two months of working there, the student body isn't a demographic anymore, but a living, breathing, sometimes seething, wave of humanity. The language these kids use is heavily influenced by rap and hip-hop, although there are also, as with any community including newly immigrated folks, inflections from other languages and places.

I love words and language, so I am totally into how the kids express themselves. It's hard not to code-switch from my usual conversational style into how they might say something. I used to do this at my previous job, which was at a much more ethnically diverse girls' school. These students found it (I hope!) endearing when I said things like "I sweat my new Blackberry so much" as they might. (Rough translation: "That Blackberry is a remarkable object, and I am sort of romantically attracted to it.") At my current post, I must be cautious, for I don't want to look like I am pandering to them, trying to seem something when I am really not. I know I'm not the female, East Coast equivalent to Eminem.

But still, a little appreciation is OK. It just begins with "My bad," the history of which has been ably told on Language Log here, here, and here. It's a beautiful phrase, covering much more than just "I'm sorry." It doesn't really replace "Excuse me" or "I should not have told that heinous lie about you to your mother." I generally hear it used by my students (and, consequently, use it myself) as a replacement for the much longer: "Oh dear, an error has been made, for which I am at fault. Please accept my apologies for committing this small mistake." If someone's grandpa has died, you do not want to say "My bad." But if you were not listening while Ms. Reed made a fascinating point about Robert Frost, "My bad" is an appropriate response when she calls you on it.

Another big favorite is shawty, which seems to change meaning fluidly. Sometimes a boy might use it affectionately about an attractive female friend: "Yo, shawty! Get me a milk too!" is not unheard of in the cafeteria. But very occasionally, it means a sexy young woman, as in, "Yo, shaaaaawty! Looking fine!" While I'm not yet at the point where I can pull off any shawties at all, I relish hearing it. It always reminds me of the ridiculous conversations I used to have in high school, along the lines of, "He's a boy and he's my friend, but he's not my boyfriend." I feel like shawty has a quality of "You're not my girl, you're my friend, but I am recognizing that you are attractive and giving you a compliment here." I sure would have liked that more in high school. (And, ahem, now.)

I'm also very fond of boo for one's beloved. This pops up in rap songs all the time, and, interestingly, the online Urban Dictionary says it is derived from the French beau meaning a male admirer. It may have made its way to its present slang form through a French-speaking Caribbean island. My students never seem more vulnerably sweet to me as when a girl mentions, "I'm going to see my boo this weekend" or a boy tells me, "I've gotta buy a new nameplate necklace for my boo's birthday."

I swear these kids are making this slang up on the spot. It's so inventive and specific. A colleague told me about an incident in the hall the other day. She was trying to get a student to go into his classroom. (Always difficult, for there is so much to see and do in the hallway!) He said to her, "Stop hotting me up!" I so wish I had been there to hear that. What a perfect phrase. She was completely hotting him up — crimping his style, getting up in his business, poking her nose somewhere it didn't belong (at least in his view). The colleague who told me this then went into a long Shakespearean parody: "Mayhap you think I am hotting you up, young sir?" which just further proved that play and language are something we've been doing for a very long time.

While I doubt that any time in the near future will you see me begin my regular VT column with, "Yo, shawties! Hot me up! Let's read some of that whack Hemingway!" I will continue to be a spectator to my students' playful abilities with language. It's easy to grind one's teeth when one hears the English language get desecrated... until one pauses to consider the creativity and expressiveness to what's being said. I'll still try to teach my students proper formal English, to be used at proper, formal occasions (such as essays for class and job interviews), but I'm also going to continue to dabble in their slang. It's too fun not to, boo.

Next week we'll hear from Elissa Seto, who taught science to sixth graders in the Bronx before joining the Visual Thesaurus sales team.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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