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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Treasuring Found Humor

Im a big fan of found humor -- the sorts of things that arent meant to be funny but which brighten the day if you take the time to acknowledge them. Its my theory that if you dont laugh at the absurdities of everyday life, youll miss a great deal of fun that the world has to offer.

And lets face it -- most of us need all the fun we can get.

On one particularly dreary March day, for example, my morning was unexpectedly brightened by an announcement taped to one of the larger classrooms. The appearance of the handwritten document was not itself unusual. These sorts of notes appear with some regularity -- when someone is showing a movie, when theres a guest speaker, or when the heating pipes break -- letting the students know that their instructor is holding class in a different venue. Its not the kind of thing you usually notice.

But somehow the large red letters caught my eye: Tuesday, March 9: DEVIANT BEHAVIOR CAN BE FOUND IN 108.

Even though I was burdened with my handbag, my knapsack, and the two big bags of stuff that I generally need to get through the day (not to mention a paper cup filled with very hot coffee on which I had a tenuous hold at best), I stopped to laugh.

I put my burdens down, both literally and figuratively. It was as if the cogs in the universe clicked and fate itself seemed to tell me Lighten up! I stood in front of the door and laughed out loud.

Like a kid suddenly unsupervised on a playground, my mind raced into unfamiliar territory. Exactly what kind off deviance is being practiced in Room 108? I wondered. Why couldnt it be practiced in the usual classroom? Did the department head grant permission for this behavior? And finally: Why did the writer of this note use the passive voice?

For several years now, Ive asked students who observe classes or student who teach to keep records of the astonishing exchanges they overhear or have seen in their students writing. This, I promise them, will keep them laughing even when they have a tough day.

Here, without any editing, are a few of their -- and my -- favorites:

From a young woman who worked as a team teacher at a junior high school: Tenth grader: Isnt that just like saying No man is an island? Teacher: Yes. Nice comparison. Do you know who said that? Tenth grader: Wasnt it Hugh Grant?

From a third-grade teacher: Student 1: So Patricks a starfish, Squidwards a squid, Mr. Krabs is a crab, but whats SpongeBob? Student 2: A sponge! Student 1: Oh. I thought he was a block of cheese. Student 3: I see. So SpongeBob SquarePants is a piece of cheese that lives in the ocean. Student 2, stomping her foot in frustration: HES A SPONGE!!

And here are quotations from three elementary school students who, according to their teacher, offer a fascinating perspective concerning the lessons one learns versus the information one simply assimilates. According to his second and third graders, for example: 1. Anything that says Mixed Nuts has a snake inside; 2. Seeing a platypus is bad luck; 3. Diversity is easy when everybody is the same.

Im not sure about the whole platypus issue, but the other two observations seem correct.

From an eighth grader: Sorry, Im just talking out loud. No, no, I mean thinking out loud. Thinking with my mind.

From a fourth grader: Its not so bad when a fish dies. Its like Oh that is sad. Then its all, Woo, now we get to flush him down the toilet! Ill grab the net!

From an essay by another fifth grader in response to an assembly where a speaker explained the tragedies of drug use: Dont do drugs, because if you do drugs youll go to prison, and drugs are really expensive in prison.

One former student started reporting back on the unintentional humor supplied by her colleagues. Professor Barreca, she wrote in a recent e-mail, You said we should keep an account of funny lines from our students. But what about the ones we get from our peers? Here are a couple of highlights from a couple of conversation I overheard in the faculty lounge last week: Leather comes from animal hide? I thought it came from wood. Like, melted wood, and Just because Im not smart it doesnt mean I cant teach good.

I suggested that she write her journal in code just in case anyone should look over her shoulder.

Of course, some of the old stories and old jokes about teaching still delight us -- thats why they keep being circulated on the Web. The one I currently have pinned onto my bulletin board is this:

The children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nun made a note, and posted on the apple tray: Take only ONE. God is watching. Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, Take all you want. God is watching the apples.

When paired with the Mixed Nuts story ( a lesson Adam and Eve should have been taught) we get quite a lot of theology from the juxtaposition of these two tales.

Of course, remembering experiences from school can help put everything in perspective. My friend Jan, who in the sixth grade was by far the tallest kid in our class, was chosen to play the lead munchkin in the school production of the Wizard of Oz. At least two heads taller than any other student, Jan knew even at that tender age that the only way to get through the experience was to laugh about it. There I was, welcoming Dorothy to Munchkin Land, explained Jan, while towering over pigtailed Dorothy like a lioness over a kitten. I looked like I could have taken the Wicked Witch of the West in a fair fight without anybodys help.

When author Blanche McCrary Boyd writes in her memoir The Revolution of Little Girls about not being able to stop laughing during a tenth-grade English literature class, she recorded an experience which most of us have had on both sides of the desk: Our Town was set in 1900, but I didnt think that could account for all the differences that I was noticing.When Dr. Gibbs got disgruntled because Mrs. Gibbs was staying too long at choir practice, I began to giggle. The women on the way home from choir practice had stopped on the corner to gossip about the town drunk: Really, one of them said, its the worst scandal that ever was in this town! I was trying to stop giggling when Mrs. Gibbs arrived home and Dr. Gibbs complained, Youre late enough, and Mrs. Gibbs replied, Now, Frank, dont be grouchy. Come out and smell my heliotrope in the moonlight. I started to laugh out loud. I didnt know what heliotrope was, and this remark struck me as hilariously off color.

Mr. Endicott stopped reading. I put my head down on the desk but I knew he was looking at me. Try to get a hold of yourself, Ellen. The pleasant sarcasm was back in his voice. But this laughter was like nothing that had ever happened to me. My face felt hot, and my new contact lenses were floating off my eyes. I gripped the edges of my desk as Mr. Endicott continued to read. A few minutes later Mr. Webb, Dr. Gibbs neighbor, went up to his daughters room to see why she wasnt in bed. I just cant sleep yet, Papa, she said. The moonlights so won-derful. And the smell of Mrs. Gibbs heliotrope. Can you smell it?

A howling noise escaped me. I began to pound helplessly on my desk. My dear, Mr. Endicott said, heliotrope is a flower. I stood up, squinting to hold my lenses in place. I could hardly breathe, much less speak. The laughter was brutalizing me with its terrible release, and I was no longer sure if I was laughing or crying. Now Mr. Endicott sounded concerned. Do you want to go home, my dear? I pulled my books against my chest, nodding. Go to the office. I struggled down the hallway, still laughing, my face soaked with tears. In the principals office I couldnt speak so I wrote a note to the secretary and pushed it across her desk: GOING HOME. CANT STOP LAUGHING.

In terms of getting some wonderfully unexpected fun out of teaching -- and out of life --we need to enjoy the humor that comes our way. Its when we can stop laughing that we need to reassess our lives.

Maybe we need to peek in on what theyre doing in Room 108.

It has GOT to be funny.

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