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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pidgen-Watts: Life or Death Language Lessons in South LA

I was in the office the other day and ran across a new kid. He was morose, sitting in one of the shit-seats where kids in trouble fidget while they wait to meet with the principal. He stared at me through a mop of thick stringy hair that fell in his face. I didn't know him, but I took a moment anyway because he looked like he needed a friend.

"Hey man, what's up?"

He looked at me. Friendliness from adults makes most students suspicious and often only brings defensive chaff in return, but this one was beyond that. He didn't say anything and he looked like he was going to cry. I sat down across from him.

"What happened?"

"I didn't know." He mumbled through his hair.

I began to feel like Dudley Pippin's principal -- a reference the kid in front of me surely wouldn't get.

"Didn't know what?"

"That fool didn't know enough not to say bootie out loud 'round here. Boy nearly got his ass kicked -- he was lucky it was in class and not in the hallway," another student in another shit seat offered before laughing and going back to her phone.

The poor kid was obviously not from around here.

Moving to Watts is like moving to a foreign country where the local language consists largely of English homophones -- it often sounds just like English, but the meanings are vastly and sometimes dangerously different. Fuck isn't rude, but Bootie can get you killed. That's what this kid had run into.

In most neighborhoods, bootie is a time-honored slang for a person's behind, most recognizable in phrases like "shake your bootie," or "bootie-scratcher," but here using it is bad news. Bootie-heads is what other gangs call the Bounty Hunters who populate the Imperial Courts housing projects and our school is filled to the brim with Bounty Hunters. This new kid had just called out one of our largest gangs accidentally. He wasn't morose, he was scared to death.

Bootie isn't the only one. You have to be careful about offering Bubblegum, too, because of the Broadway Crips. Don't mention Miniskirts or the Main Street Crips'll sit up and take notice.

I once called a kid a slob in class for leaving papers and trash all around his desk and the room nearly exploded with "oooh's" and "Oh shiit!"'s. A slob is an insult to Bloods. I now make sure to use "messy" instead, which doesn't offend anybody.

I love language more than most people and, for me, coming to work in Watts has been a gift. Each time a new word or phrase is tossed at me, I try and catch it so I can toss it back. I figure that if they have to learn formal English, the least I can do is learn to speak pidgen-Watts. There are multitudes of other, less dangerous, adaptations, too. If you get called thirsty, it doesn't mean you're parched, it means you're being overly aggressive and controlling. If you are angry you're "Turn't up," and if you share somebody's personal business, you're "Puttin' them on Blast." Being crusty isn't good. But being a "cold piece," means you're hard-hearted but respected. I, it turns out, have Swag and I also "got jokes" because I can hold my own when going to the dozens.

There's a lot to learn for a newcomer here. I struggled at first but as a teacher, I got pretty much a free pass so long as I was willing to learn; like the rest of us, kids would rather teach than learn. I've incorporated a lot of the language in my school-site discourse. My wife wouldn't recognize me if she heard me talk at school.

For me, it's fun. For kids, though, it can be life and death.

This poor kid in the shit-seat wasn't going to get a free pass. As a kid, he was going to have to learn the hard way. Even in a community as transient as ours, there is a strong slant towards the nativists and they enforce it. Hard.

"What's your name?" Not nice, not kind, not pitying, agressive so he'll know I don't think he's weak.

"Jorge." He looks up at me for the first time.

"You pretty much stepped in it, didn't you?" I laugh, hoping he'll laugh a little bit, too. He does. He nods.

I told him about calling the kid a slob. He looks at me, as lost as I was when it happened. I explain. He nods. I give him a rundown on some of the other no-no words and he listens. I don't know them all yet -- I discover new ones all the time -- but I know the main ones. He will, too, if he wants to survive.

Because it just isn't hard enough to grow up poor and transient.

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