Scrotum Wars

Susan Patron, a librarian at the Los Angeles Central Library has won this year's Newbery Medal, awarded to what is deemed the very best in children's literature, for her novel The Higher Power of Lucky.

There's a flap, however, over the use of the word scrotum.

In the book, the word is overheard by Lucky, a 10 year old orphan, when Short Sammy, a recovering alcoholic at a 12 step meeting describes the location of a rattlesnake bite on his dog; Lucky confuses it with "something green....medical" (obviously sputum--a word Ms Patron does not invoke, I guess, luckily for her).

Does that sound dirty to you? Ms. Patron thinks the word is "delicious".

Other librarians in Durango, Colorado, Missoula, Montana and Louisville, Kentucky do not agree. They are afraid that the target age group (9-11) may not really be the one to actually read the book, that they feel sympathy for the poor teachers who will have to explain what scrotum means, that Patron is like Howard Stern and just wants to shock her intended audience.

The book is already number 3 on the children's best seller list.

The Times presumably printed her photo to show how non-Howard-Stern like she looks. Did you see the picture of Susan and her dog (not showing scrotum) in her office with her spectacles and pearls? Did you know that she's been a children's librarian for years?, was their subtext.

But even if she was wearing a mini and a low cut top it would have been ok.

Words can have deep alternative meanings. They can be weapons every bit as sharp as knives. The N word, the F word, the C word, can all bring out the anger in our society.

But the word scrotum, is really not very scary.

And the people who are afraid of the word scrotum are the same people, I am sure, who don't want kids to learn about evolution. They're probably the same ones who are against a woman's right to choose. They surely voted for George Bush. And almost certainly, they believe the Reverend Haggard is now as straight as a row of corn in Iowa.

Now why do you think I can generalize so sweepingly about this?

Think about it. A teacher who is afraid to take a word, any word, and explain it unemotionally and unequivocally to his or her students must be terrified of what words can import. Those like Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian from Durango, who thinks that the situation is very "sad", who thinks "you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature" (she doesn't address whether you might find a woman's) is sure to be frightened about sex. Hmmm. Maybe the children will leave the classroom and go home and ask their parents more questions. Maybe they will learn that there are actual words for the slang that gets thrown around on the playground or even in their homes. A teacher like this, a teacher transmitting her own fears, should not be in the classroom.

The other reason I can make sweeping generalizations is that I have four sons, a husband and a male dog, all of whom have scrotums. (I would say scrota, the correct plural, but that doesn't sound dirty at all and would certainly not be offensive to Ms. Nilsson in the slightest, I am quite sure). And for me, the word, besides being a biological term for the pouch of skin that contains the testes (Random House Dictionary of the English Language), merely recalls a lot of years of service of various kinds. And there's nothing mysterious about that.

Short Sammy himself describes it "as the place where it hurts the worst for a male" and I couldn't have said it any better though I am not sure that my sons ever actually did ask me. I did however have to explain hooker to the youngest at the age of four and that's not even an anatomical term. But Sammy's explanation is as cogent and succinct a description as any, and one that the librarians and teachers could easily adopt.

One of the reasons this brouhaha struck me so hard is that I've been working on a project about men and boys and (in the great minds think alike theory, natch) I have actually referred to a dog's scrotum in my text. I spent a lot of time thinking about this word choice because I thought it sounded more dignified than penis or phallus.

But to make sure about my concepts, I got in touch with Professor Jeffrey Tobin of Occidental College whose class called "The Phallus" was recently named to the number one most bizarre, leftist college course by the Young Americas Foundation, a conservative watch group. Clearly, the words penis and phallus struck as much fear in the hearts of those who blacklisted his class as the S word did to Ms. Nilsson and her colleagues.

Is it 2007?

In general, I think librarians, along with teachers, are among the most undervalued members of our society. I find them almost unfailingly generous with their time, eager to engage in the minutae of a zillion different searches and lovers of words.

Maybe the librarians should ask the teachers if they're willing to take on this explication de texte before they stop ordering The Higher Power of Lucky. Maybe they're selling the teachers short and they wouldn't mind saying the word scrotum or, if they're a little bit gun shy about human scrotum, they could bring a dog in the classroom and show an actual dog scrotum. Don't kids have dogs that lift their legs to pee and who hump other dogs and well, have scrotum?

Do these librarians know the current statistics about boys and girls? That girls experience menarche, the onset of menstruation, often between 10 and 12? That there are reports of oral sex in elementary school? That children begin to masturbate as early as the age of 5?

Lucky ruminates on the word afterwards; she knows she'd like to see a scrotum but not really. She's confused. Maybe this is where the librarians get nervous. Lucky actually sounds like a ten year old; one who's interested in body parts and knows enough to know that there's a lot more to learn.

Professor Tobin, who has kindly invited me into his classroom this week to eavesdrop on a lecture and discussion about the ur-meaning of the word phallus, (personally, I would LOVE to have taken a class like this in college) sent me an essay by Jane Gallop which appeared in the Columbia University Press series on Gender and Culture to read in preparation for the class.

Perhaps Ms. Nilsson will forgive me if I repeat a story Ms. Gallop shares.

Anna Freud was reaching maturity and began to show an interest in her father's work so Freud gave her some of his writings to read. About a month later he asked her if she had any questions about what she had been reading. "Just one," she replied. "What is a phallus ?" Being a man of science, Freud unbuttoned his pants and showed her. "Oh, Anna exclaimed, thus enlightened, "it's like a penis, only smaller!

Gallop says it's a joke of course. But the point is well-taken. Lighten up librarians! As gatekeepers to the kingdom of knowledge, to all those little people with scrotum and without, you are responsible for making it plain.