James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Sun Jul 11 15:31:29 UTC 1999

Kathleen Miller wrote:

> Having been a
> Philadelphia Yankee in "King" Edwards court during my high school years, it
> is my recollection that there was no lack of polite forms of address. Yes
> Ma'am was used [for] every woman from the cafeteria ladies to the vice
> principal. It just sort of rolls off Louisianan tongues. Even at my age I
> was called Ma'am - or in the habit of Gone with the Wind, Miss Katy - by
> those younger.

My first experience with southern culture came in 1956, when my family moved
from Iowa to Maryland (suburban Washington) for a year.  In junior high
school in Iowa we referred to our phys-ed-cum-social-studies teacher as
"Bill."  In my first days in school in Maryland I was amazed to hear a
student berated by the phys ed teacher because the student casually answered
"Yeah" to a question:  "Yeah?  YEAH??!!!"  "Yes, sir," the student corrected
himself.  But I learned that respect had its limits:  I was equally
nonplussed when the junior high school orchestra of which I was a member took
a school bus into DC to perform, and as the bus passed some Negro children
(as I would have said then) walking on the sidewalk, some of my classmates
yelled at them out the windows, "Nigger!"  Both of these linguistic and
social phenomena were new to me.

> I fail to see how, in just over a decade (and I do mean
> just), the students at my alma mater could have gone from, "Yes Ma'am, I
> did my homework" to "Yo, lady, I got yer homework right here!"

Maybe not that extreme, and maybe not in every school; but as one who taught
in New York City public schools in the 1960's, I know that a lot can change
in ten years.  (Look how far the Jerry Springer show has come in ten years.)
And in a region where certain forms of civility are as deeply ingrained as
Kathleen indicates, I can understand a certain panic resulting from the
change, and a feeling that some effort should be made to stem it--even if it
is the largely symbolic step of passing an unenforceable law deploring the
incivility of the young.  Of course I'd have voted against the law; but
Kathleen's description of traditional Louisiana culture makes it clear why so
many voted for it.

James E. Clapp

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