Childhood Defined

There are some words, phrases, and expressions that, during childhood, are often misconstrued. And often hilariously so, as any parent can surely attest.

As a little kid, I didn’t know much about the sport of bolleyball. When we played it once in gym class, I learned that “bolleyvall” was actually the correct term. But as I matured, I recall basking in a smug feeling of superiority when I began correcting my peers’ pronunciation — to volleyvall, of course.

Did any of your teachers consider the word “bathroom” impolite? My first grade teacher did, so when students felt the need arise, we would ask her permission to go to the laboratory.

Of course, being a precocious child, I was wise enough to know that a “flaming yawn” was a really good piece of steak, and that all tv shows were “bra-chewed by” whichever commercial came next. Took me awhile to figure out “grain assault,” but fortunately some adult was kind enough to explain it to me before I adopted a gluten-free diet out of sheer terror.

Apparently, an adult clone of 6-year-old me manages the breakfast buffet at a hotel somewhere.

Apparently, an adult clone of 6-year-old me manages the breakfast buffet at a hotel somewhere.

We drank pop growing up. But I was always curious to try this other mysterious drink known as “soda” that I had read about in a book, and also seen on vacation somewhere. One beverage I definitely did not want to try though was skin milk. Who would want to drink something composed of liquefied flakes of epidermis? I much preferred whole milk, which I poured liberally onto my Raisin Brand™ cereal.

Human beans. Need I say more.

… Yes, yes I do need say more. Because of kidney beans, a particular variety of human beans, obviously harvested from dead people’s midsections. Why oh why did people make this thing called “chili”? Cannibalism, sheer cannibalism!

Speaking of violent acts… There were also the rape artists. Sigh. Because apparently committing a violent crime requires some sort of artistic ability? I’m guessing this one must have been some sort of an amalgamation of “rapist” and “con artist.”

Then there were the diseases. For a couple of weeks, I kept my distance from the lunch and recess monitors at school, as I feared I would catch AIDs from these “aids.”

Coming down with ammonia for the first time in fifth grade was a decidedly unpleasant experience. But after two weeks spent languishing in bed, at least I had learned that ammonia was meant for disinfecting after the pneumonia.

Sewercide- Watermarked

One definition that persisted in continuously evading me throughout childhood was that of “suicide.” It was at some point during elementary school that I first heard the word “suicide,” when I and the other neighborhood kids were standing around at the school bus stop one morning. One of the kids mentioned something about a famous person and “suicide,” and another noted that the funeral for said person was happening on such-and-such day. Having not been paying complete attention to the conversation, and realizing that we were standing near a rather large sewer grate, I put two and two together and assumed that “suicide” was when a person fell into a sewer and died. For a few days after that, I was careful not to stand too close to the edge of the sewer grate (although I did wonder whether I was actually thin enough to slip through). I believed in this meaning of suicide for quite some time, until I overheard another conversation about it, from which I gleaned that suicide was a purposeful act. So, I refined my definition — suicide must be a form of murder; it’s when someone kills someone else by pushing them into a sewer. This belief persisted for awhile, too… Until, after hearing people repeatedly using the phrase “commit suicide,” I finally realized that suicide is something one does to themselves — suicide is when a person purposefully jumps into a sewer, knowing that they will die from doing so. How had I gotten it so wrong all those years?!? I needn’t worry anymore about falling into sewers, nor about getting pushed in — what a relief! It wasn’t until middle school that I learned that, unfortunately, people can commit suicide regardless of whether they can fit through a sewer grate. (As an adult, still whenever I hear the word “suicide,” an image of a sewer grate immediately comes to mind.)

Other odd associations and terminologies have endured into adulthood as well. To this day, if someone is too flaky to commit to a plan, I don’t know whether they like to “play it by ear” or “play it by year.” I also still call a man’s dress shirt a “blouse” because I know of no better one-syllable word for these button-down collared shirts.

And the perpetual wedding of the pepper shaker groom and salt shaker bride continues to fascinate me. I think we can all learn something from their marriage, from how they always travel together, side-by-side, across vast dining tables — a microcosm, perhaps, of our travels through life.

I hate to end on a sad note, but not all foods travel through life together. For many years, I believed that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were a match made in Aisle 7… Until I discovered the existence of that homewrecker, Mrs. Buttersworth.