Monday, March 2, 2015

Hollow Laughter

Playing the buffoon too often is not the wisest choice for a teacher, especially if she hopes to be taken seriously when it counts. If you are always a child’s pal and never the “heavy,” you can’t really get away with controlling a situation when you need to.

Well, that sounds pretty schoolmarmish, doesn't it? But, truly, it seems to me that teachers and parents alike have to “pick their battles,” and balance their roles with children. Sometimes, humor can distract a very upset child or diffuse a sticky social situation in just the right way, helping you avoid a “battle." Sometimes, especially in the case of imminent danger, there is no room for humor, and you just have to be totally absolute and serious in order to make your point stick (you will never hear me make a joke when a child tries to leave the group on a hike or “hide” from an adult at school). But humor does have an important place in developing bonds of trust and comfort with children. As my astute Dodge colleague, Julie, will point out, “Happy, well-adjusted, confident children don’t worry about how to behave.” Julie means that secure kids are often very likely to get carried away when something honestly silly comes up in a group situation. When kids let themselves go, and enjoy a good laugh together, we are usually seeing comfort in action. When we teachers let ourselves go in the company of children, the kids are usually delighted and we end up deepening our relationship with them. 

Now, we don’t “get crazy” with kids right away, we get to know them first, just as you would any other person you meet and form a relationship with. Usually kids get to know what makes us laugh, and vice versa. Kids and teachers, when the timing is right, will often try to make one another laugh, just like happy families do at home. One day, not too long ago, when we were off the trail and the sun was finally out, we all got a little silly.

We were in a pocket of woods, climbing on a tangle of fallen cottonwoods, enjoying that ephemeral winter sunshine. While the kids scrambled around and I spotted the risk-takers, we chatted amiably about one thing and another until the conversation waned. Then a girl asked, with a twinkle in her eye, if I remembered “that Pirate Song?” I responded by beginning, 
“When I was one, I had some fun on the day I went to sea…”  I have a terrible singing voice, and perhaps this is why everyone froze, like deer in headlights. I continued on in an extremely high, glass-etching, screechy voice and finished the next line in a Ricardo Montalban accent. The kids stared, slack-jawed. I went on and on, working through my repertoire of weird voices. When I paused, they begged me to go on. I did, and they all began to giggle. On and on we went with everyone singing in not-so-sotto-silly-voce, until we were too tired to go on. It could have ended there, but it didn’t.  

After a time, one child decided to stick her legs into a hollow section of tree trunk; this trunklet actually resembled a pair of pants and I had an inkling of her intent. Her friends watched closely as she wriggled her way into the trunklet. With some difficulty, and a little balancing help from me, she finally stood and announced, “There’s somebody inside ‘em now!” One child guffawed and jumped up and down with pleasure. He got the joke. You see, together, as a class, we have read and reread Dr. Seuss’, “What Was I Scared Of?” This is a story about a young fellow who meets a “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside ‘em.” One by one, the members of our happy band in the woods got the joke and danced around, celebrating the tree pants. Then, in turn, each child re-enacted the joke, shimming into the pants, getting stuck, laughing and announcing, “I’m inside ‘em!”

Great vignette, right?  But there is a nice little coda to this story:

Hiking back to school, the new kid in class, walking right behind me, says, “Marlais!”  
I turn back to him, “Yeah?”  
“Do you know what happens to all of our sticks at night? Our Dodge sticks?”  
I stop and the rest of the hikers gather around. “No, what do you mean?”  
He’s grinning like mad. “I know what happens to them.”  
“What?” says another kid. “What happens to our sticks?”  
The new guy looks around at us, carefully, then he comes back to me. “The Donut Man takes ‘em.”  
“The Donut Man?”  
“Who’s he?”
“The Donut Man is the guy who takes our sticks to poke the holes in the donuts.” He arches his eyebrows in high humor, turns his head slightly but keeps his eyes locked on mine.  
“Well, no wonder it’s so hard to find a stick around here!”  
We all laugh very hard, enfolding our new friend in mirth, as snug as a bug in a rug...or a kid in a hollow log.

This blog is dedicated to my teaching mentor and "life coach," 
Bev Nelson McDonough, 
who is well acquainted with Donut Men, and Women.

No comments:

Post a Comment