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A Field Guide To Urban Early Literacy

By Vivian Manning-Schaffel


New York provides abundant opportunities for your child’s burgeoning synapses to string letters into words like popcorn onto a garland. Early readers are constantly faced with an onslaught of linguistic stimuli; a seemingly infinite barrage of letters and numbers swoosh by as inky shadows through transient subway platforms. But for the parents or caregivers of these fired up young minds, urban life can require a refined hair-trigger creativity when it comes to definitions.

During a midday sojourn to a health food café on Avenue A, my then five-year old son and I were enjoying a bite to eat when he suddenly had to use the restroom. We ducked into the dank, fragrant stall and, like many bathrooms in older establishments in the Lower East Side, the walls were festooned with colorful commentary. He begins his business only to pause mid-stream, gaze up and, among the exclamations, diatribes, band stickers and phone numbers in eyeshot, focuses intently on a single statement.

Then he zips up and turns to ask me oh-so-casually, “Mom? What’s F*&k Bush mean?”

I don’t know what this says about me but my first instinct was to marvel at how he pronounced the word perfectly. Like it was an innocuous a term as “shoe” and he’d been saying it since he could talk. I crank up the water faucet to suppress a startled giggle and concluded he must’ve drawn a parallel between that word and “duck,” a common sight word. But I had to think carefully about how to answer this question and I had to think fast.

Problem was, this seemingly simple statement of aggression, sexual implication and political unrest was a minefield to race through. There was no way I was going to attempt to explain it as a verb in the literal sense. I was bound and determined to keep fornication off the table for at least a few more years if I could help it. And if I did opt for honesty and tried to paint it as an intimate, loving act, he’d wonder why was it written in anger — as if it were a bad thing. Then, it occurred to me there were also two ways to explain the whole “Bush” thing, but I opted to steer clear of the anatomical angle and went with the President.

“Well, ‘f*&k’ is not really a nice word,” I start, with a full grasp of my hypocrisy as it holds a prominent place in my post-bedtime vernacular unless I drop something on my foot.  Then, anytime will do. “People really don’t like President Bush very much so they’re being mean to him.”

“Does he come in here to pee too?” asks my son astutely.

“I don’t know,” I say, grateful to locate a germ of honesty in my side of this conversation. “I guess they were really mad and felt like they had to write it down. But that’s not something that’s cool either,” I back peddle, fully aware that I’m not making a whole hell of a lot of sense.

“But what does ‘f*&k’ mean?” persists my boy, never one to let go of a question until the answer is explored in its full circumference.

F*&k. What do you mean to me, oh honorable f-bomb? I don’t literally mean penetration each time I say it or think it.  So what do I mean?

“Does it mean ‘hate’ then?” he continued.

“Kind of,” I responded, blatantly stalling while marveling at his insight. It did devolve into meaning hate, in a way. What kind of a people were we to degenerate something so fun into something so…unfun?

“Does it mean people want to hit him? Like, people should hit Bush?” he pressed.

Naturally this made me laugh even louder on the inside. Yeah, I thought, sometimes it means you like to ‘hit’ that. Then, I pictured him telling his Kindergarten teacher that a classmate ‘f*&ked’ him at recess. So that was out.

Having exhausted all my options, it was time to put an end to this seemingly endless inquisition.

“You know what honey?” I said, wiping my hands dry. “You have to trust me when I say that it’s a word that you are too young to understand. I promise I will explain it when the time is right. But you have to promise not to repeat it until then, okay?”

Much to my surprise, he nodded obediently and let it go. Silent obedience usually indicated he was considering the prospect of learning a magic, grown-up word and the dark foreboding force he’d eventually wield with it in a magic, grown-up world.

I paid the bill in haste, bundled him up and ventured back out into our city, one full of elusive definitions.

Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a freelance journalist and essayist who writes for a vast array of publications, including CBS Watch!, The New York Times, Working Mother and The New York Post. She writes/performs sketch comedy and is an upstanding member of US Weekly’s Fashion Police, poking fun at red carpet risks in its pages every other week. Read more of her work at and follow her on Twitter @SoapboxDirty.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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