On-the-Job Training

I grew up Southern Baptist, in a home where we were taught to not smoke, drink or cuss, or hang around with those who did. I obeyed the rules without fail through childhood and even as an adult.

When my career began, I spent a significant amount of time at out-of-town training classes, one of a large group of trainees. We became close while sharing meals and work hours. After the first night, however, I realized that everyone—except me—was a drinker. My old training kicked in and I began to stay in my room in the evenings, dining on Coke and vending machine snacks, rather than going out with the others.

And then there was the cussing. These people knew words I had never heard before and used them freely. My innocent ears were aching in a way they had not throughout my sheltered upbringing. Our first phase of training was a very long six weeks.

Staying holed up in a hotel room for an extended period gave me lots of time to think. By the time phase two training rolled around, I had acquired a new perspective. I had been eating breakfast and lunch with these people and been in class with them every day. They had become friends so why should it matter that they cussed and drank alcohol? These friends were as amazed by the fact I didn’t do these things as I was amazed by the fact they did. Our differences led to some interesting discussions. It was refreshing to live with an attitude of acceptance.

My ideas were being challenged; my mind, stretched to consider things other than what I had been taught.

Six years later, when I was twenty-eight and newly divorced, George entered my life. He was from an entirely different background and I was surprised at my willingness to date someone who cussed and drank alcohol.   Going through a divorce, though, from a man who was quick to invoke God’s name or lead in prayer but who couldn’t tell the truth for the life of him, had resulted in major reevaluations of what was important. George had more integrity than any man I had ever met; what did cussing and drinking matter in light of that? We got married, but after kids came along, my worries about the children picking up bad language from their dad made me more determined not to use such words myself.

Then I met Miss Jennie, who lived in the assisted living facility where I volunteered. Miss Jennie entertained me with her surprisingly honest takes on life. She was forty-one years older than me and spoke more freely than any old person I knew. After she was paralyzed by a stroke, Jennie liked to complain to me about her caregivers, but typically ended every bout of complaints with two threats.

“If things don’t improve, I’m going to live in a box under a bridge,” and “if you tell anyone what I said, I’ll beat the shit out of you!” I laugh to remember her words, the impossibility of any follow-through, and my surprise that a ninety-one-year-old would even know the word shit.

I was fifty at the time, with a growing awareness that I needed to loosen up. If old, half-paralyzed Jennie could speak her mind, why couldn’t I? What was wrong with using a word that clearly expressed how I felt? The word shit crept into my vocabulary. I felt naughty at first, but no one shunned me in my newfound freedom. Not a soul showed any reaction to my speech until I was sixty and in the midst of helping my son and daughter-in-law remodel their condo. I was trying to hang a window blind, which was not going well, and I said, “Shit!”

My son, Chris, ran in from the next room. “Mom! What did you say?”

I finally shocked someone, one of the two people whose ears I tried for years to protect. Oh, well. My children are fully grown, old enough to say whatever they want. And, as Granny, I’m more than old enough to say what I want. Perhaps Chris agrees, since, in spite of the shock he verbalized, he had the slightest hint of a smile on his face.

I wonder what else is going to change as I age.

I’ve tried alcohol, but didn’t like it.

Smoking? That hasn’t tempted me at all, more from the awful smell rather than on any moral grounds.

That covers the three sins I was cautioned about. But there are others I could learn. No telling what shit looms on my horizon.

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