Like many children of the seventies and eighties, I watched a lot, A LOT, of television. Way too often, TV beat out any kind of reading, fort-building or dress-up. The daytime reruns were my familiar playmates. I could smack my Charlie Chips, slurp my Shasta and burp in front of them. The primetime shows were my older role models. They were like babysitters who wore too much make-up and had boobies.
But the late night sketch TV shows were my idols. Theses were the cronies my parents didn’t approve of—making them all the more exotic and alluring. At a very young age, I was sneaking out of bed to watch The Carol Burnett Show with my ear pressed against the TV speaker. In junior high, it was Saturday Night Live I cohorted with on the weekends.
By the time I got my driver’s license, a boyfriend, and, coincidentally, boobies, SNL was reduced to an anti-depressant on nights I was grounded. (Carol didn’t make the cut.) One particular Saturday night while on restriction, I watched a skit of the Church Lady while I talked on the phone. A wigged Dana Carvey in support hose was chastising a guest about something, I don’t remember what. And while I was quite good at memorizing entire skits word-for-word (I was grounded quite a bit), the only thing I took away from this particular one was a single word.
“Well, then,” the Church Lady said, “I suppose that leaves you plenty of time to fornicate.” I didn’t catch exactly what they were discussing, but what a totally awesome new word. FORNICATE. It was unusual and had a kick to it. It sounded smart, yet it was easy to pronounce. I instantly downloaded it to memory—all the while assuming it meant to goof-off. I don’t have no idea why, I just did.
The next Monday afternoon, I was manning my post in the Vice Principal’s Office where I was an aid during sixth period. A woman and her daughter walked in. The mother leaned over and signed in her daughter on the sheet, writing Dentist Appt. in the rectangle titled Reason. “What class are you headed to?” I asked reaching in my drawer for my powerful yellow check-in pass pad.
“Mrs. Thomas’ geometry,” the girl answered.
Sophomore. I thought. How cute. I started to write out the pass, while the girl and her mother stood waiting. I looked at the clock and smiled. “I’ll write it for five extra minutes.” And then I said it. “That’ll give you plenty of time to FORN-I-CATE.” With this, I proudly slid the slip across the desk to the girl. I kept my head lowered while doing so to give the two a moment to absorb my eloquence and me time to conceal my gloat. But when I looked up, the ultra-impressed expression I’d expected to see on the mother’s face was instead one of utter shock and horror. She clapped her hands down onto her child’s shoulder, spun her ninety degrees and shoved her out the door in one swift movement.
“That was weird,” I whispered to myself. “She’s never heard that word, I guess. But what a rude reaction. Huh.”
After the bell rang and I headed for my seventh period English class, it hit me. What if this lovely new word meant something else besides goofing-off? My pace quickened in time with my heart rate. I made it to Ms. Swindle’s class in seconds flat, skipping my locker stop. I collapsed to my knees in front of the bookcase where she kept the dictionaries. Fornicate. Fornicate. I ran my finger down the Foible-to-Fox page until it stopped at the word. Fornicate-v: to commit fornication. Not helping! Down a line more. Fornication-n: 1. To consort with prostitutes. 2. Sex acts performed when unmarried.
The word I shouted out at that moment (one I’d heard on HBO that, ironically, carried a very similar meaning) got me sent right back down to the Vice Principal’s Office — knowing that this time I would not be earning an elective.