Cait, having two parents who make their living from writing, has been doomed from birth. She sticks out like a sore thumb in any conversation with her peers. That is, she has an impressive vocabulary and she’s not afraid to use it. Her speech is also remarkably free of teenage idiomatic stutters such as “like,” “ya know,” and “I mean.”

So I was not surprised when she told me that she wanted to share her new favorite poem (as she is also an avid reader). But that she wanted to read “this great poem my teacher read in class” out loud so that I would hear it with the proper inflection peaked my curiosity. After she finished, I understood why. I wouldn’t have known to read each line as a question, with the voice going up. We had a good laugh because we both couldn’t agree more.

Taylor Mali, the poet, makes for quite an unusual teacher. Wish he taught at Cait’s school. He has a great website; take a look.

Totally like whatever, you know?
by Taylor Mali

In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?

Invisible question marks and parentheticals (you know?)
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true, okay,
as opposed to other things are, like, totally, you know, not.
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
whatever!

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.

To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Mali. Taylor. “Totally like whatever, you know?” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002.