Over-react (v)-to go bananas over something that should have just raised an eyebrow

The other day on my way to yoga I heard a news story that would have curled my hair if it wasn’t curly to start with. My jaw dropped, my blood pressure spiked and I momentarily lost awareness of what I was doing.

Why? Well it all began when I heard the morning DJ start talking about a Southern California school district’s decision to … wait for it … ban the dictionary from their schools.

“Oh, come on,” I thought. “This can’t be real. It must be a joke.” But no, it wasn’t a joke.  According to the story, a parent in the Menifee Union School District freaked out when an elementary-age student came upon the word “oral sex” in the dictionary. Maybe it wasn’t accidental. Maybe the child in question simply overheard the word and decided to look it up. I don’t know.

But whatever the case, it so upset the woman that she decided she couldn’t allow any other children to come in contact with words like THAT again. So she vowed to put a stop to any future interactions between the children in her school district and that nasty dictionary.

And believe it or not, she did. She went to the district and convinced them that the dictionary was totally inappropriate and needed to come off the shelves immediately. And they went along with it!

So now the Menifee School District is “reviewing” the dictionary in question to determine whether it should be banned as a threat to their students. Yep, tax dollars are going out to pay for someone to literally read every word in the dictionary and then decide whether it is “appropriate” to have at school. You can’t make this stuff up.

“Well okay,” I thought, as I tried to calm myself down. “Some parents do get all wacked-out when their kids begin to get interested in sex or start to ask questions about how the species keeps reproducing itself.” “Where DO babies come from?” “What’s THIS for?” “Why doesn’t my baby sister have one, too?”

The idea of discussing sex or sexuality with their kids is embarrassing and difficult for some parents. Not that they’re off the hook, but they may need some help with it, and I get that.

So that’s one explanation for her behavior. Or, maybe this mom has just had it with the constant barrage of sexual images and innuendo that seem to permeate our culture these days and worries about what effect it may be having on her child. I get that one too, and can sympathize. Maybe she feels like she can’t protect her daughter and fears that her innocence is at stake. Okay, got it.

Then again, this mom might believe that her opinion is the only one that matters and that she is going to call the shots regardless of how ridiculous her suggestions may be. Hard to know where she was coming from.

But however much I may be able to explain or overlook the mother’s behavior, I can’t for the life of me understand the reaction of the school district. We are talking about the Merriam Webster Dictionary after all, not The Happy Hooker.

Don’t we want kids to have access to words and their meanings in school? Don’t we want to encourage them to increase their vocabularies and learn as many words as possible so that they can communicate and interact with people and institutions and the world?

And aren’t the educators and officials who represent our schools supposed to fight for the rights of all children to have the materials they need to grow and learn as students? I thought so, too.

So why do you suppose they caved when one irate parent came in with an issue? Why didn’t they calm her down and then explain that the dictionary is part and parcel to the academic life and that she is not in a position to force it off the shelves?

I worry sometimes that the voices of some parents have gotten too loud and that they aren’t listening to anyone else. Somewhere along the line a strange kind of attitude has emerged and taken hold in certain groups of people. They are very vocal, very self-righteous, and very good at convincing others that they know best and speak for us all. But they don’t.

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the dictionary and we’ve got a few of them around our house. I’m big on pointing to it when somebody has a question. My mom was too. When I was a kid and asked her what a particular word meant, she would smile and say, “Look it up.” She wouldn’t sit me down and go into a big explanation of what the word meant until I had taken a stab at getting the definition myself.

Her thinking was that it was my homework and I needed to figure out how to get the information on my own. As a result, I learned how to alphabetize, how look things up, that words have more than one meaning, and that there were a lot of words out there that meant the same thing.

And believe it or not, in all those years, I never once came across  the words”oral sex” (I can’t believe that I’m having to defend the honor of the dictionary, of all things).

These days the dictionary still has a warm place in my heart. My family loves to play our own version of Balderdash. We get a dictionary, some little pieces of paper, and enough pencils for everyone who’s playing. One person thumbs through the dictionary and finds a word he thinks nobody knows and calls it out. The other players write it down and come up with a definition that they think the others will believe.

The idea is to get people to think that your definition is the correct one. You get points for fooling people and it’s fun and harmless and educational, too. The papers are folded and tossed into a bowl (including the real one) and the person who picked the word reads them aloud. The definitions are frequently hilarious, but even so, it’s often hard to figure out which one is real.

We’ve spent hours playing this game and have been doing it for years with kids and friends and family. It’s lots of fun. All you need is a dictionary. I hope they don’t take ours away.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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