11 September 2009

Not that F-word, Mr. Dittes!

Some questions aren’t worth the asking.

That’s not a very good thing for a researcher to write—particularly someone like me who spends several months out of the year teaching high schoolers how to research.

But it's true. Sometimes it's better to have never asked at all...than to have asked and known.

I gave my honors students a research assignment: find origins of family and ethnic groups that immigrated into the United States. At the least I was expecting students to trace the migration of Italians, Irish, Germans and Africans, from which we are all descended.

These being honors students—and among the best students that I’ve had the privilege of teaching, they quickly gravitated to family history sites, finding family crests and detailed data about their family origins. Amidst the thrill of this discovery, one student—who I’ll call “K-“—raised her hand.

What exactly is a “faggot?” she asked.

That’s not a word I like to hear in class. I write detentions for students who use it as a pejorative. But K- wasn’t the kind of student to get detentions. She’s smart, well mannered, a cheerleader; she’s the prototypical all-American girl.

She directed my attention toward the web site on which she had found her last name, Womack. “It says ‘faggot’ right there.” (It also says, “applied as a nickname for a thin person.”)

I stammered for a few moments. I tried to explain the real meaning of the word, “faggot”—how it was still commonly used in England to describe a cigarette or a bundle of twigs. I speculated that one of her ancestors had been a woodcutter who sold bundles of sticks in the village. I wasn’t making any headway. I felt like I was making things worse. K- still looked quite disappointed (although if she had been a male, about 2 years younger, she may have faced a total emotional breakdown). I encouraged her to do her best and ignore anything difficult, and she did.

The next day she turned in a wonderfully detailed report, showing the county in Wales where the Womacks originated, and even their settlement rates in individual American states. It was a complete presentation--a tour de force of research talent. There was nothing, I might add, about woodcutters or skinny people or 'faggots.'

Should I teach this assignment again? Do I dare peer further into my own name's origins?

Maybe I should just learn my lesson. Maybe I should just stop the questions...right...there.

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