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This is a stupid story.
I’m telling it for several reasons: One, I’m a little burned out on teaching strategies and education research. I’m preparing to take a month off from blogging and sharing this story seems like a good way to go out. I’ll get back to all the really important stuff soon, but for now I’m just going to tell a little story about a moment in my teaching career that has always stuck with me, and has probably also stuck with the students who sat in my classroom that day.
I’m also telling it because it might be worth more than a quick laugh. I think at least two valuable lessons about teaching might be buried inside it, so after I tell the story, I’m going to see what nuggets of wisdom I can extract from it.
Finally, I’m telling it because it’s inappropriate. A few weeks ago, a reader emailed me to inform me that she was going to stop sharing my articles with her pre-service teachers until I got more serious about referencing real research in my posts, instead of the fluff I’m basing them on now.
That email made me take a good hard look at my body of work, and I realized it’s been a while since I wrote something truly fluffy, something that didn’t even pretend to be research-based. I decided I was long overdue for some fluff.
The world is full of serious academics who have devoted years to learning how to conduct, consume, and disseminate high-quality research. I’m grateful to these people for the work they do, and I try to help them get the word out about what they’re learning.
But I am not one of them. I hope I’ve never given the impression that I’m trying to pass myself off as belonging in their ranks. I am something else, someone who tries to stand in the space between the serious academics and the people on the ground, grinding out the teaching work day after day. I’m trying to build bridges in that space. My building materials are practical advice, the wisdom of academics and practicing teachers, and clear, simple language. And—in equal measure—slang and humor and cussing and stories, some of them stories of times when I made bad decisions and wasn’t a good role model.
So here’s one of those stories.
It was an honors class, seventh graders. “Gifted and talented” language arts. They were pretty well-behaved kids. They took themselves and their work as seriously as 13-year-olds could. Not that the class was all business; they goofed around some, didn’t always do everything right, socialized and freaked out and complained just like any kid that age. But in general, an easy group to work with.
One day they had a test to take. This was around February or March, by which time I had gotten to know them pretty well and we had a routine down. I have zero memory of what the test was over; that’s not important.
Just picture them all sitting in their desks. About 30 of them. Lined up in rows, pencils sharpened, tests handed out, and we were about four minutes into it, so by that point everyone was fully settled. I’d sat back down at my desk, which faced them from the front corner of the room, and I was starting to go through some sort of paperwork or grading or whatever. My heart rate had settled into a nice slow rhythm, my breathing was nice and steady, and I was just enjoying one of those rare, peaceful moments when all of my students were, all at once, quiet and busy. Doing what they were supposed to do.
The calm was so strong that it pulled me away from what I was planning to do and instead I watched them while they worked, gripping their pencils, some biting the edges of their lips ever so slightly, a few glancing at the ceiling while they considered their answers. Some had their feet up on the book racks of the desks in front of them. Others bounced a leg or wiggled a pencil.
At these moments, when there was no attitude, no questions I’d already answered four times, no complaints about the day’s activity, I was able to just look at them and love them. Love them for showing up, for sitting in those desks willingly and going along with whatever I had planned without giving me a fight. It was a level of trust we’d all arrived at, an unspoken agreement that they would come here and let me teach them stuff, and they’d try their best to do their work well.
It was at these times that I stopped seeing them as a giant blob of creatures whose sole mission was to give me more work and aggravation, and I could just appreciate them as precious, individual people. Back then I didn’t have kids of my own, but now I recognize this feeling as the same as when my kids were napping, when all the craziness of trying to parent them slowed all the way down and I could just take in their pure essence.
So I was having one of those moments. You with me so far?
I could have just enjoyed it. I could have simply taken a deep, cleansing breath, noted the presence of bliss, and carried on with my grading.
But something came over me. I don’t know what it was, but suddenly I kind of wanted to mess with them. To surprise them, I guess. I don’t know. Call it crazy or call it a moment of raging immaturity; I was just overcome with a desire to make a really loud fart noise right in the middle of all that beautiful peace and quiet.
So that’s what I did.
I looked out over them, pressed my lips together, and —–.
The next few seconds were a thing of beauty. All thirty of them jerked their heads up at once and stared at me, mouths wide open, incredulous. And for just a moment the air was still while they tried to process what the heck had just happened. I looked back at them, paused for a second, then burst out laughing. Then they did the same. And there we were, hysterical.
After that it was complete mayhem. We laughed for about two solid minutes without any breaks. Then the hysterics turned into chatter, with the kids telling me they couldn’t believe I did that, asking me why, and comparing reactions with one another, retelling the events that had literally just taken place.
Finally, the room calmed down and I told them to get back to their tests. Turns out it wasn’t going to be that easy. Just when things got almost quiet enough, someone would snort really softly, it would set off a chain reaction of giggles, and we’d all be in a heap again. Finally, after about ten minutes, they all got back to their tests. More small waves of laughter rose up, but we were able to suppress them. A few times one of them would look up at me, shake their head as if to say, “You’re frickin’ nuts, you know that?”, and then go back to their test.
Once class was over, other students approached me—kids from other classes—to confirm the story and see if I was going to do the same thing in their class, too, but I said no. It would be too expected, I said. The element of surprise was gone.
The next day and a few more times throughout the year, we would re-live the moment again: Someone would remember it, they’d ask me to retell the story, to imitate the way they looked right after I made the sound, and we’d all crack up all over again.
That’s pretty much it.
Now. Here are the two things I learned:
First, I learned the hard lesson that if I am the one who disrupts class, it’s going to be a thousand times harder to get my kids back on track than if one of them did it. Way, waaaay harder. That moment was hilarious; it’s one of my favorite teaching memories. But it’s no way to run a class. If I’m trying to set a tone of seriousness in my room, if I actually get them all on the same page for once and I manage to create an environment in which they can fully concentrate, I’m an idiot if I go and mess that up. I also completely destroy my own credibility when the time comes to redirect behavior; I can’t very well reprimand someone for making obnoxious body noises if I literally just did it myself.
So this is not something I would advise anyone to do.
BUT—and this is lesson number two—sometimes it’s totally worth it to do something ridiculous, especially if you’re doing it for the sake of bringing joy into people’s lives, and to your own life, for even just a few minutes.
And this is where I want to tell one more story, a story that might seem unrelated. For me, there’s a connecting thread that I’ll try to explain.
[Content warning: This next section contains mentions of self-harm.]
In 2012 I went online in search of an old friend of mine named Debra, who had been one of my teaching methods instructors when I was an undergrad at Penn State in the early 90’s. Deb was my favorite college professor, not because of what she’d taught me about teaching English, but because of who she was. She made us laugh, told us things about her life, invited us to dinner at her apartment, shared honest, unpolished truths with us, things that were not just about being a teacher but also about being a wife, a woman, a friend, a decent, fully alive human being. She was only at Penn State for a few years while working on her master’s degree; the rest of the time she lived in New York City, which I thought was incredibly glamorous.
After graduation Deb invited me to visit her in Manhattan, where I spent a fantastic weekend walking through her Chelsea neighborhood, eating in diners, going to the movies, watching her teach at Stuyvesant High School, and just generally being in her orbit for 48 hours. We wrote letters over the years and she’d recommend books, send bits of poetry, share small slices of her life. Eventually we lost touch, but when I became a teacher I felt her influence the strongest, felt myself channeling her honesty, her sense of humor, her sense of fun. She definitely would have approved of me making that fart sound, if for no other reason than to see the looks on the kids’ faces.
When I looked for Debra online in 2012, what I found was an obituary. She had committed suicide the year before. She’d written “Thank you everyone” on the board in her classroom, left her keys on her desk, drove home, swallowed a bunch of pills, then walked into the creek behind her California home. She was 53.
To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Not only was she someone who lived with creativity and gusto—a woman described by people who knew her as a whirlwind, a most delightfully original person, smart, theatrical, bawdy, very funny and a little reckless—but she also didn’t take crap. She put up with no one’s B.S. So it’s hard, and more than a little devastating, to imagine the level of depression she must have been experiencing to give up the fight and actually succumb to it.
Knowing that Debra’s time on this earth had ended in such a tragic way made her life even more precious to me. It made everyone’s life more precious to me. We really have no idea what other people are struggling with, the pain and loneliness and despair that might be making life unbearable. We may never know until it’s too late.
But we have right now. Every day we have a right now: We gather in groups inside buildings and classrooms and we get to decide what to do with that time. It’s an incredible privilege, a huge opportunity. As educators we are so much more than delivery systems for information. When we come together with our students every day, we are doing so much more than teaching them about stuff. We’re also being together.
One of the things that makes humans so unique, so different from other species, is our ability to experience joy. And one of the best manifestations of joy is laughter. The kind of laughter that surprises us and bonds us and melts our anxiety. Laughter that takes us away from the have-to’s and must-do’s and reminds us that there’s a lot more to life than being productive and accomplishing things. Laughter that makes us feel, for a few minutes anyway, that we’re not alone.
Making that stupid fart sound is not even the most inappropriate thing I did in class that year. I saved one more for the last day of school. Maybe someday, if I find I’m running short on fluff, I’ll tell you about it.