Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What She Said

I learned a lot, working with high-school-age people for a month and a half, and remembered some of what it was like, being 15 or 16.  That's probably why when I read the new volume of poetry by Billy Collins--Horoscopes For the Dead--this poem stuck out, for me:

What She Said

When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner,
I was like give me a break.

I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break.
I was just similar to give me a break.

As I said, I was like give me a break.

I would love to tell you
how I was able to resemble give me a break
without actually being identical to give me a break,

but all I can say is that I sensed
a similarity between me and give me a break.

And that was close enough
at that point in the evening

even if it meant I would fall short
of standing up from the table and screaming
give me a break,

for God's sake will you please give me a break?!

No, for that moment
with the rain streaking the restaurant windows
and the waiter approaching,

I felt the most I could be was like

to a certain degree

give me a break.

This poem's speaker and I are, you know, like, aging!  And this is the kind of thinking that can go on inside an aging person's head when she hears a fragment from a 15-year-old girl's conversation.  It's not useful.  It's certainly no more pretty than the original phrase.  And yet it circles around and around in there.

One of the things I notice about the difference between people who age gracefully and are still interesting to talk to, and people who become curmudgeonly and boring is that the first type stay open to new experiences and ways of saying things.  They sometimes listen to music they know they might not like, and they occasionally read books that aren't exactly suited to their tastes. They continue to grow intellectually.  I want to, like, know what younger people are saying, if only to make fun of it, in the manner of this poem.  What about you?


Harriet said...

This poem made me laugh out loud, because God knows, I've been on both sides of this particular figure of speech. I grew up in the 80s after all. Absolutely I want to, like, you know, hear what young people are saying. It's, like, one of the things I like best about parenting and teaching.

Claudia said...

Hilarious! And Zappa's "Valley Girl" is now playing in my head. Thank you for the laugh, Jeanne. I needed it today.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

What a funny poem! I do think it's funny to keep up with what "the kids" are saying these days. I volunteer with high school students, and I always learn a lot from them about how they see the world differently than even I do, and I'm not that much older.

Jodie said...

Like, Ohh my Gawd. Growing up in the UK we had and have different none valley girl type teen lingo going around, which is no less interesting. It's all 'it's safe, init, blood?' at the mo (I know that sounds like something no one outside a film would say but I heard someone on a bus say it and they were not beng ironic). Traitor to my language, but I kind of like US 80s teen speak better than ours, somehow ours comes out sounding so angry. I always imagine we swear a whole bunch more in general while growing up than American teens, but probably just influenced by all the films I saw.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The kids in the choir often ask better questions than the adults1


Jenny said...

I have been guilty of saying "I am like". I gave up "like" for Lent, and I've been slightly more mindful of that particular locution, even if I haven't given it up entirely. I like the poem although it feels like sort of an obvious shot to take.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, glad to give you a laugh! I think many good teachers are interested in what young people say AND how they say it!

Claudia, I'm not sure I'd ever heard that song before. Now my life is complete.

Kim, that's kind of reassuring, since you're not that much older. I find a kind of sophistication in some of their responses that I know I didn't have at that age (as Lemming kind of notes, too).

Jodie, when I read British slang I do think it sounds angry; interesting that you do, too. Especially that rhyming slang.

Jenny, I think the obviousness of the target is part of the joke. As Harriet notes, this is slang that has been around and come around again. The poet is probably not altogether innocent in terms of usage...let he who is without "like" cast the first stone!

Jenners said...

I believe that I am aging gracefully...after all, I listen to Lady Gaga and Jay-Z!

Jeanne said...

Jenners, listening to new music does keep you up on the vocabulary...if you can understand the lyrics!