In my never-ending quest to be the Nicest Mother On Earth, I took the teenager and three of his friends to Six Flags/Great Adventure last week – a destination I had hoped I would live my entire life without ever experiencing. Before leaving, I went on their website to get directions. I discovered that you could buy and print out discounted admission tickets online, saving $20 per person, as well as pre-purchasing parking and food vouchers. I passed on the food, but bought us all admission and parking, printed my directions, loaded up the car with boys and headed south.
The entrance road to Great Adventure is clearly marked with signs and instructions every few feet. There’s a lot to read. That, along with being in completely unfamiliar territory, made me a little tense and when I’m tense I don’t like to read instructions, I like to talk to someone. Fortunately for me there was a gentleman not too far away wearing one of those orange and chartreuse reflective vests that let you know right away this is a person who is here to help. I was slowly approaching a giant line of toll-booths that all seemed to be labeled Credit Cards Only. I had no idea which line to get in, given that I’d already paid for my parking online. I yelled over to my vested friend, stating my predicament in a few short sentences. “Do I actually need to be in one of these lines?” I asked.
“Yes, Ma’am. You need to be in a line. How is anyone going to know you paid already if you don’t show your voucher at the booth, Ma’am?” He had that same exhausted tone my son takes with me whenever I ask him a question.
“He called you ‘Ma’am,’” said one of the boys.
“He called me ‘Ma’am’ twice,” I said. “I hate that.”
The boys all wanted to know why. So I told them the secret of ‘Ma’am.’ My contempt for that term is not really due to what Natalie Angiers refers to in her New York Times piece today: that the honorific implies a middle-aged dowdiness (although it does).
“It’s code for ‘you idiot,’” I explained to the boys. “It may seem like someone is trying to address you respectfully, but here, in this part of the country, 99% of the time someone says ‘ma’am’ they’re really saying ‘you moron.’”
The boys found this very amusing. “It’s often the same with ‘sir,’” I said. “It all depends on the tone of your voice, but most of the time, the speaker is saying ‘you’re stupid.’”
I was very pleased with myself, imparting this bit of wisdom. It’s not often that I can be the successful purveyor of life lessons to my own kids, let alone a car full of teenage boys. I could tell by their small grunts of acknowledgment, the heads nodding in the rear view mirror, that they really heard me – really got what I was saying.
It was confirmed all the more as we made our way through the park, and for the next six hours, my four teenage charges managed to “Ma’am” and “Sir” every living soul they encountered.