A New York City teacher is fighting a $15,000 fine for using the word “cono” (COHN’-yoh) in his classroom. He is arguing that while the word’s literal translation may mean female sexual organs, it can also mean other things that are less controversial and fit for classroom use.
I wrote a print column a while back about classroom language after a local teacher told a fourth grader to stop “acting like a retard.” I’ve never been troubled by reports that a teacher slipped up and muttered a “damn” or worse when a chair fell over or a finger got slammed in a drawer. But I was troubled over this because I find “retard” hurtful.
However, others disagreed, explaining that the teacher might have been trying to talk to the children in their own vernacular. Maybe the teacher knew that kids used that term when a classmate acted goofy, so she was conveying her disapproval in their terms.
I understand the adult struggle to relate to teens, whose language can be described as salty. (A visit to a teenager’s Facebook page is often a trek down Obscenity Lane. With my younger kids, I try to avoid sitting next to large groups of teenage boys in fast-food restaurants because of their penchant to use the f-bomb as an exclamation point. )
Remember the Florida teacher, seeking to make a critical thinking lesson more appealing to her high school students, who lost her job over a “Keep Your Mind Clean” quiz. The quiz included the question: “What is a four-letter word that ends in K and means the same as intercourse? Hint: You do it all the time, especially when you shouldn’t, except when your parents ask what you did in school.”
The answer was “talk.”
In responding to students in West Virginia, where parents attempted to suppress the teaching of two of his novels in 2007, Georgia writer Pat Conroy fired off an epic letter to the area newspaper.
“People cuss in my books, ” he wrote. “People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. . . . The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language.”
The teacher, Carlos Garcia, declined to be interviewed. But his attorney, Sergio Villaverde, said his client didn’t use the word. He also claims the court interpreter mistranslated the term during Garcia’s disciplinary hearings.
“The interpreter didn’t understand the way that the word is used,” Villaverde said.
But Bruce Rosenbaum, a city attorney, said “the hearing officer properly found that Mr. Garcia used inappropriate language in class and that the penalty imposed was warranted.”
New York is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. One ethnic group’s profanity can be another’s everyday slang.
Among immigrants from the Dominican Republic, where Garcia is from, the word is so widely accepted it became the focus of a popular online video clip.
The chameleonlike nature of the word is exemplified in the video clip posted by Sir Nube Negra called “Speak Fluent Dominican” where the host gives examples of “cono” to express: “Damn, girl, looking fine. Very Nice,” ”Stop bothering me!” and “I heard your mother died. I am so sorry.”
Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and founder of a language research institute there, said context, intonation, whether it was fully articulated and the extent to which its use was premeditated would need to be assessed to determine whether its use was objectionable.
Nevertheless, he said the term is an expletive. “I don’t think there is any getting out of that,” he said in an e-mail.
The city’s Department of Education accused the tenured teacher of inappropriately bandying about “cono” in class between 2008 and 2009 at the High School of International Business and Finance in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood.
–By Maureen Downey, AJC Get Schooled