Fingers are used for so many things in our lives. They write our essays. They type our papers. They speak our words? Yes, apparently they do that too. Unfortunately, first grade Jason was struggling to acknowledge this last concept. There was no sense, according to him, in deriving meaning from actions, particularly ones involving fingers, when everyone had a perfectly good mouth that could communicate more precisely than a digit. The teacher’s words were providing very little guidance towards this idea, so Jason relied on his perceptions instead. He surveyed the aftermath: a girl irrigating the fake wooden landscape of her desk with a water fountain of tears. The rest of the class stood in silence, shell shocked from the audacity they had just witnessed. These perceptions served only to further exacerbate the confusion and embarrassment fomenting inside the naïve first grader.
I entered Ms. Beck’s classroom with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I loved the class and felt freer than a conservative with gun rights. On the other, I was castaway to the table in far corner of the room. I say castaway because my table mates were all girls and in elementary school there was no harsher sentence than to be marooned with all girls. To add to my dire circumstances, Jenny sat across from me. Jenny had the qualities you would want… in the world’s most annoying, ingratiating, belligerent, first grade antagonist. She had the voice of a beautiful, dying horse. When her lips parted, vitriol flowed out as if a levee had burst. To complete the package, Ms. Beck held Jenny on a pedestal and would most likely adopt and/or marry her if given the chance. This set the stage for our eventful Friday.
The topic of today, as per our glorious leader lord Jenny, was a new gesture she had discovered. According to her, if you held up just your middle finger towards somebody it was a worse insult than telling them they were stupid – the most severe slight a first grader could bestow upon another. My fellow desk partners absorbed every word in the same fashion a catholic zealot listens to the gospel of a priest.
They were the main factor in the rise of Jenny’s tranny. Their names escape me, so I will reference them as nod and vigorously agree, NVA collectively. NVA followed Jenny’s likes the way two sycophants follow the perceived tastes of their boss. When Jenny wore a certain type of boots one day, 3 sets of the same boots would appear the next. Their ingratiation was not limited to material items. Any idea that Jenny presented to the table was infallible the second the words left her mouth. This is what made Jenny so overwhelming. NVA’s assent and praise gave Jenny the confidence and audacity to attempt to control events of the table and even the class. However, where I noticed her power and felt the need to keep it in check, the rest of the class either missed or choose not acknowledge this. Consequentially, I was left as the hero the class needed, but did not want – at least this how I viewed it.
From the beginning of Jenny’s description, I was incredulous of her idea. I wondered how an action could be anything more than that, an action. This disbelief that lifting a finger could be translated into words coupled with my sense of duty to stop Jenny galvanized me to challenge her assertion. I raised my hand towards her. My pinky went down. Then the index and ring followed. The world stopped.
Jenny sat there stunned. Her mouth opened in sync with the flood of tears. I looked at my hand. How could one simple action have the power to reduce a girl that had terrorized me for a month into a weeping wreck? Nod consoled Jenny while vigorously agree recounted to the class how I had antagonized Jenny all day. The teacher, of course, was immediately by Jenny’s side and understanding Jenny’s version of the events as truth.
I was still perplexed by the power my fingers when the teacher came by to punish me. She explained to me how actions can be just as hurtful as words. I presented my view that a finger was simply a finger and nothing more. It did not make sense to me the that I could raise my ring or my index fingers without consequence, but then throw the class into chaos with the finger in between. It was only when Ms. Beck explained to me symbolism and what symbols could do that I began to see the other side.
I would like to note that seeing the other side did not make me partial to its reasoning. The middle finger, to me, was an example of how my peers had vilified an innocent finger. Yet, slowly, as my teacher’s words sunk in, I understood my error. As correct as it is to say we should not perceive the middle finger to hold anymore intent or meaning than lifting my foot, the reality is people still will see the action in a malicious light. I learned two things from my encounter that afternoon: society can change the meaning of absolutely anything in this world, for better r for worse, despite its literal meaning, and that as long as enough people accept a certain interpretation, the word or action is defined as that. This realization has caused me to view interactions, words, and symbols around me in two lights: their literal meaning and their current societal meaning. Furthermore, it makes me skeptical of words that people use with attached meanings as I view them as unstable and susceptible to change. Jenny may have made my first grade year hell, but I her to thank for this new and valuable insight.