Semantics

My last class today was an ACT prep class; I’m not entirely sure what that is generally supposed to consist of, and I’m fairly certain the material we covered today will not pop up on your basic ACT test – but it was…different.

On the chalk board were two columns; one on the left with the heading ‘gangs’ the other labeled ‘soldiers’. Under the ‘gang’ heading were listed such things as army, jail, weapons, fighting, danger, short life and ‘dirty money’. Under ‘soldiers’ the students had apparently brainstormed freedom, weapons, fighting, danger, helpfulness, and ‘clean money’.

As I took the roll, one of the students – an amiable and pretty bright graduating senior named Curtis – stopped and stared at the material on the board. He then proceeded, quite eloquently, to pick up where they had left off the day before, recapping a very nice compare-and-contrast. Curtis had worked his way through each list, and then returned to one key point: jail.

Facing the board, his back to the rest of us, he stated, simply, “Jail. You know, I asked my dad the other night to tell me about his time in jail, and he got upset. He corrected me.” Curtis’ voice showed a bit of bemusement. “He said ‘no, I did not go to jail…I was incarcerated. THAT is the professional term. I was not in jail”!

The room was silent. Curtis turned toward me, and with a smile in his voice said, “Mr. Lucker, I looked them both up and I think they’re the same; jail, and incarceration. Don’t you think they’re the same”?

I was leaning against a desk toward the back, and found myself chuckling – as much at Curtis’ light-hearted take as much as at the question itself. “I guess I would, I’m not sure. Maybe your dad was just joking around”.

He laughed. “Uh-uh. My dad is funny, but he wasn’t laughing about this”! He dropped his voice about half an octave to dad-range: “’I was not in jail! I was incarcerated – that is the professional term’! I don’t know, Mr. Lucker…” he was chuckling; the rest of the class was perfectly silent.

“I think they’re the same thing”.

“Well, you could be right, Curtis”.

“I guess it don’t matter, either way…huh, Mr. Lucker”?

“I guess not”.

With that, Curtis simply moved on to topics more mundane in nature; girls and the upcoming long weekend. And all I could do was marvel at his good humor and shake my head. The English teacher in me could’ve gone down the jail-is-a-noun, incarcerate-a-verb route, but it wouldn’t matter, and it’s not what Curtis was asking.

The day ended and Curtis told me goodbye, and to have a nice long weekend. I watched him leave, pretty confident that whatever is next, the kid is unlikely to be incarcerated by somebody else’s past.

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