Back before I grew my hair back this school year (my mother made me promise in the spring), many students relished yelling, “Mr. Potato Head,” as my shaved head and I walked the school halls. I always feigned consternation, and they got a good laugh. I love it when teenagers laugh–especially with adults. While the unfettered giggle of their younger selves is submerged somewhere, what remains is still a joyous stream of naturalness that is contagious.
I read this week that babies laugh, on average, 300 times a day. By the time they reach the age of sixty, that number plummets to two or three times daily. I bet it’s higher for teachers; we get to feed off the wonderful silliness of youth. My students still like to hide things from me and crack up while I “frantically” search for my missing notebook, or jacket, or board eraser. I keep hoping none of those master teachers slip in to observe me during one of those scavenger hunts. I will surely be assessed poorly, as the expanded teacher evaluation guidelines in DC strictly require that every single moment of class time be spent on instruction. Last year, I tried explaining to one that some “down time” is instruction time. I have to get my students to relax and trust me if they are going to move beyond the all-imposing “grade” grab and actually allow themselves to learn from me and each other.
This year, I have in my debate class a senior girl who first came to me in the tenth grade. Our relationship did not begin well. She never laughed at any of my jokes–even the good ones. I could see she was trying hard not to laugh, and I started to resent it a little. Not a lot, but a little. She was very serious about “her work,” and I appreciated her willingness to answer questions or volunteer to go to the board. She especially enjoyed diagramming sentences. I just could not make her laugh.
As the first advisory neared an end in late October of that year, I did notice her building bonds with some of the other students in class. She began to share with them, then smile, and finally laugh so big she covered her mouth with her hand. I loved the way her eyes danced when she let go. But still no laugh for me, not even when I unveiled my most embarrassing moments, or pretended to plead for a right answer in my best “woe-is-me” voice.
For much of the first advisory, our readings had focused on short stories and the importance of conflict in literature and in life. “Without conflict,” I told them, “there is no pulse. Somebody has to want something they do not or cannot have. Conflict comes from the quest, and the obstacles placed in his or her path.” At the end of story, the main character is changed somehow by the journey. My students always understood that part intuitively. By high school, conflict and obstacles are as familiar as rain, and what I then try to get them to see is the necessity of each for a bountiful life.
I tasked them to write about a moment in their life that “changed everything.” They were instructed to “let the moment breathe” by describing events before the conflict arose. Then, they should carefully guide the reader through the unfolding. Obstacles, real or imagined, must interfere with a strong desire, and they should be altered somehow at the end.
Students always loved that assignment and attacked it with zeal. Some wrote about family celebrations gone awry, or the day a parent disappointed. A few focused on romantic adventures, or the loss of a loved one and the messy aftermath. The one girl who wouldn’t laugh with me shared her story in a way that sealed our relationship in an unexpected way.
She wrote about the incarceration of her father on a serious conviction involving a younger sibling. She used her words to sketch a moving picture of the little Daddy’s girl she once was. She moved skillfully, using the metaphor of a candle, to detail the day the “lights went out.” She said she buried her childhood that day, along with any positive feelings about men. The thing she desired most, but could never have back, was her innocence. I can still remember sitting in my chair after reading her paper and marveling at the weight her young shoulders bore.
I gave her an “A” on her paper, her first from me, and in the note I always attached I praised her choice of words and imagery. I also asked her to see me after class. When the lunch bell rang that day, she lingered around her desk, packing and repacking her book bag, until the other students had left.
“You wanted to see me?” she asked.
“The story you wrote about–it’s true isn’t it?”
“Yea,” she said.
“You want to talk about it? I mean, how are you doing with all of it?” I asked.
“I mean, I miss him and all. But I can’t forgive what he did. I just can’t understand it,” she said, her eyes cast downward.
I asked her to talk to me about her childhood, and how she was before all this happened. She described Christmas’s past, and the big party she had when she turned seven. We talked that whole lunch period about her favorite color, and the dog she wanted, and life at home with her mom. I asked her what was her favorite toy when she was younger. She laughed, finally, and told me “Mr. Potato Head.”
“Do you still have him?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I threw all that stuff away.”
“You’re still a child, you know,” I continued. “Don’t let what someone else did, even someone you love, take that away from you. That little girl you wrote about still lives inside you. Don’t be so quick to send her away.”
After that afternoon, things between us changed. She shone those bright eyes at me more than a little, and we came to laugh at jokes even the other students didn’t always get. At the beginning of the eleventh grade, she came to see me on the very first day. I was no longer her English teacher, but she wanted me to know her father had died suddenly over the summer. I asked her how she felt. She told me she was doing better with it all, and I urged her to write about it and get her feelings out.
She did for her first English III assignment, but her new teacher did not believe her story and said so in a note. The young lady again came to me, very upset. I promised to speak to her new teacher and did. Their rapport subsequently improved, and my former student continued to visit and smile whenever we passed each other in the hall. Last June she ran up to me and said eagerly, “I have you in debate next year.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed as we touched fists.
This year, she has been a good student, but not great. Like with most seniors, debate just seems like too much work, and she is not looking forward to Saturday tournaments. Last Thursday, I pulled her out of class and into the hallway. “Look, I know you are nervous,” I said. “But I know you have it in you to be a great debater. I just want you to try harder and set an example for the younger students. Remember, you’re a senior now.”
She smiled at me and promised to settle down. Then, just before she reentered the classroom, she looked at me and said,”You remember that little Mr. Potato Head you gave me? I still have it on my dresser.”
Up until that moment, I had completely forgotten. The day after that lunch time talk two years ago, I had given her a small gift I rummaged for in my children’s old toys. I had said something to that young lady about holding on to childhood, and I had presented her a tiny Potato Head replica from one of those Happy Meals my daughters so loved. He had rubbery white arms and big feet, a black baseball cap, and a heavy mustache. I had forgotten in all the rush of classes since, in all the students moving in and out view, how much that long ago moment had meant to her and to me.
Later back in class, even after I caught her checking email on the laptop I had assigned for research, all I could do was smile her way until she had no choice but to return my gaze and get back to work.