We could get ourselves whacked three times with a paddle if we were caught with cassette tapes of secular music. We could also get paddled if we said mean things about someone or if we sassed a teacher. Heck, we could get paddled for just about anything.
Some kids, like my cousin, actually knew all the tricks that made paddling less painful. He’d sit at the lunch table and hold forth for all the “good” kids like me who were terrified of the paddle. “Wear about three or four pairs of underpants. I only need three now because I’m used to it, but you might want like 5. Just put them on right before you go in to get paddled. When he hits you the first time, really howl, because then he’ll lighten up. If you tell him how sorry you are, sometimes he’ll just pray with you,” and on and on. He acted like an expert, and he was. He got paddled once a week, on average. I was in seventh grade, and we were attending a fundamentalist “Christian” private school. It was the worst.
I had gym class a few times a week, which at least gave me a little social time. In preparation for gym class we all had to change into matching gym clothes including a red shirt emblazoned with the school’s name and a somewhat indistinct white graphic of a lion with its right front paw raised. Boys and girls had gym class separately, for reasons that were obvious to the adults at the school. Something about sinning, no doubt.
We were trying to learn to play basketball, and four of us were taking turns shooting baskets. We knew each other well and ate lunch together every day. David, a round-faced kid with brown hair, braces, and bangs, was sort of the ringleader. He was not much to look at, but he was rich, we thought. His dad’s ownership of a franchised sub shop impressed the heck out of us. Then there was Alan, a skinny kid who talked fast and always seemed to be lying even when he was telling God’s honest truth. And then there was Froggy. I don’t remember his real name– Glen, maybe?– but he had perpetually tousled black hair and thick glasses and his voice always sounded broken and squeaky (hence the nickname).
We weren’t very good at our free throws. It was getting frustrating, and we needed to vent our frustration. But we had to be careful because there was a policy at the school– severely enforced, with paddling– against any sort of swearing. So, to vent about our lack of basketball skill, we resorted to what we very quickly learned were words that were almost as bad: shoot, heck, and darn.
The gym teacher was a harried but athletic-looking young woman with a long Bruce Jenner haircut. Is that still OK to say? I could imagine her standing next to Bruce Jenner with some gold medals of her own, so imposingly athletic did she seem to me at the time. Her gym outfit matched ours in every way except that she had a whistle. She told us that we couldn’t use those words. We asked why. She was flustered and couldn’t explain it. But we were told we had to stop, so we did.
Well, the principal sure could explain it, and explain he did, devoting the whole of the next day’s chapel service to the evils of substitute swear words. I don’t remember the Bible verse he cited, but I would guess he provided a pretty imaginative exegesis on the text. We were told that we needed to avoid not only the obvious bad words, but even words that vaguely sounded like bad words or that were based on bad words. That cut down the functional vocabulary for many of us. We felt chastised. Well, hell– we always felt chastised. We were 7th graders, secretly listening to AC/DC on tiny portable tape recorders on the bus, telling jokes, watching the wrong TV shows. By the world’s standards, we were really good kids. But, of course, the world’s standards were MUCH lower than the school’s standards, which were exactly the same as Jesus’ standards or maybe a little higher just in case.
So, David, Alan, Froggy and I now knew the rules. Swear words were out. Words that sounded like or were derived from swear words were out. So, what did that leave us? Interjections, as we learned on Schoolhouse Rock, showed excitement or emotion. We needed at least one exciting or emotional word that we could use when we missed our layups.
We talked it over for a long time at lunch. We tried out words to see if they made us laugh. Vomit? Nah, didn’t roll off the tongue right. Dirt? Not satisfying at all, and possibly open to scatalogical interpretation. Rats? Nope– didn’t get the emotion. Finally one of us said it, and we all winced and started laughing so loudly that the monitor in the lunch room gave us a stern look and started walking toward us. But it was too late to stop our plans. We all knew that we had our word.
The next day after lunch we went to gym class. More basketball. More free throws and layups. More frustration. And a new way to vent it.
“Aw, pus.” said David quietly, after missing his first shot. He looked around. We giggled. The teacher didn’t hear it.
“PUS,” exclaimed Froggy, his wrecked voice squeaking a bit, making us laugh harder. The teacher looked, then looked away.
“AW, PUS!” I finally cried, even though I hadn’t even taken a shot. I didn’t know then where my stupid, happy, defiant courage came from, but it became clear later– that day I discovered some deep well of rebellion and glee within me from which I have drawn many times since. These days, I think it was the Lord giving me bravery and a willingness to stand up to the Pharisees, but I don’t think the folks back then would’ve accepted my interpretation. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. It was the purest joy I had known in that abysmal place. Shot after shot, deliberately missing now, louder and louder while the other kids–and eventually the teacher–began to come over to learn the source of out delight.
“What are you SAYING?” She asked, unamused.
“We are saying, ‘pus,’ Ma’am, I said, mustering what little dignity I could while completely unable to keep from breaking or from being terrified. The fear, of course, made it so much funnier. I was going to die for this.
“YOU CAN’T SAY THAT! UGH! THAT IS DISGUSTING!” she said. Tears flowed down Froggy’s cheeks as he tried to stop laughing. Alan was the first to compose himself. David was next. Froggy and I never got there.
“Didn’t you hear pastor’s message yesterday?” she scolded.
“Well, yeah,” one of the guys said. “But we didn’t think this broke the rules. How does it break the rules?
She ran her fingers through her center part, feathering her hair back and giving herself time to think. The moment of victory came quickly and showed on her face and in her eyes. We were right, dammit. Uh, darn it. Uh, never mind. It wasn’t against the rules. Yet.
By the next morning, of course, it was no longer OK to say “pus” in any non-medical context. In fact, that three letter word changed the school from a place governed by rules to a place governed by the whims of people. We were told at chapel that any adult could tell us if our language was appropriate or not and could order up detention or spanking according to their judgment. And we were told sternly that although it was very likely that Jesus was mad at us, there was nothing they could do to enforce their sense of his sense of decorum.
So, we didn’t get paddled. Rules, until we ruined them, were rules. And pus? Well, at least in my happy memory, pus is still pus.