Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scrooge's Gay Heart and Dickens's Language Lessons

I guess it's no surprise that both my kids love to read. After all, their mom read the word "Tide" on the detergent box before she was three years old, and their dad was poring over high-school science texts in elementary school. At homework time, reading is the first thing the children want to do, and they don't consider themselves too old to have bedtime stories read to them.

So I figured this year would be a good time to introduce my son to the original "A Christmas Carol." It's got Christmas, ghosts and a classic villain - how could it miss? And though the language can get pretty dense - when you get paid by the word, conciseness isn't your primary goal - I refused to use the edited-down version created by a columnist trying to reach today's attention-span-challenged kids. An almost-9-year-old who's racing his way through the Harry Potter series should be able to handle a few run-on sentences about Saint Dunstan nipping the Evil Spirit's nose and low-browed, beetling shops with masses of corrupted fat and sepulchres of bones.

So we began with the first "stave." (Stave, Charles? Really? Surely they called them "chapters" even 170 years ago, didn't they?) Since it takes a few pages for the ghost-action to rev up, I did worry a bit that D would get restless. But when I finished for the night, he said - and I quote -

"That was the most powerful language I have ever heard. It's making a movie inside my head!"

Huzzah! He was hooked! My first attempt at a Get-Them-to-Love-the-Classics Momsperiment was a triumph!

And so we went for the next couple of nights. Marley arrived, yoked to his weighty cash boxes. Scrooge relived his boarding-school boyhood and Fezziwig's raucous celebration. (Now that was an office party.) The Cratchits had their modest feast of goose and plum pudding before reluctantly toasting the Founder of the feast. Then, right after the round of guessing games at cheery nephew Fred's house, we came to this sentence:

Uncle Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart...

"HEY!" cried my boy. "He used a BAD WORD!"

Whoa. I knew what was coming. And while I knew this discussion would come up sooner or later, I wasn't sure I was ready to tackle it right at that very minute.

Blast. Why do Important Teachable Moments always come at the most unexpected times? Couldn't this wait till, like, 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon instead of bedtime on a school night? Couldn't we just keep going and zip ahead to the part where Scrooge buys the Turkeyzilla for Tiny Tim?

Nope. I signed up for the full mom-package when I took on the job, and having deep talks about social issues is mentioned right there in the small print. So I jumped in.

" 'Gay' isn't a bad word," I said calmly. "At the time the book was written, it meant 'happy.' What do you think it means?"

"It's when guys kiss guys," D said succinctly.

"Well, yes, today it's come to be used to mean men who love other men. Is that a bad thing?"

"It's just weird," he said. "Justin Bieber's gay."

I sidestepped that part. "Okay, you think it's weird. And I understand - it's a new idea to you. But that doesn't mean it's bad. Isn't it more important to love someone and have someone love you, no matter who it is?"

"Yeah. But it's weird."

Deep breath. "Being gay is a difference, just like being black is different from being white. You're Jewish, so you're different from your friends who are Christian. It's just the way the world is, and there's nothing bad about it."

He nodded.

"But here's the thing. What's not okay is to call someone "gay" as an insult. That's wrong, and it's hurtful. You wouldn't want someone to insult your religion, would you?"

That he understood. "Uh-uh."

By now it was way past bedtime. Time to wrap this up - but not before making one final point. "You know," I said, "you actually know some people who are gay. Not your own friends, but friends of Daddy's and mine. People we care about very much - and who you like a lot, too."


"Yeah. So using "gay" to mean something bad is hurtful to them. And I know you'd feel really bad if you found out you were saying something that hurt them. Right?"

"Yeah." A pause. "Mom, can you turn on the Star Wars radio show CD?"

So much for that. Well, at least the ice was broken. Maybe he'll bring up the subject again soon, or maybe it'll just get forgotten in the crush of more important third-grade thoughts like LEGOs, Pokemon cards and winter vacation. Which wouldn't be such a bad thing; it'll give me more time to prepare for the next deep discussion.

But now we know that Dickens's language certainly is powerful.

God bless us, every one.