Selected Chapters from
Angels in My Classroom
Jude came in from the bathroom. “Hey, Lucy! I’m hooooome!”
I took a deep breath. “Please leave the room and come back the right way.” He did just that. It gave me a chance not to start laughing with the rest of the people in the room.
Jude also once wrote a story. The story starter (the only one I ever choose to use) was: You are walking through the leaves on a beautiful fall day. Suddenly you hear a voice in the leaves shout, “Help!”
Jude wrote: There was my lost cheeseburger. It had gone away and I couldn’t find it. It wanted me to eat it. I love my cheeseburger.
You try not to laugh at that. Not enough content to get an “A,” but funny nonetheless.
Laughter is something that we teachers have to get a tight handle on. I don’t mean stopping students from laughing. That would be sad. I mean, stopping yourself from laughing at the students’ stunts and absurdities. I frequently have to remind my students, “Second grade isn’t a comedy club.”
Eleanor would often cause me to lose my restraint. One day, I told my noisy group, “Quiet down, let’s get started with math.”
“Yeah! We might as well get it over with,” Eleanor shouted. Another day, when I gave the sign for the class to stop and listen, she shouted, “Hey! Let the lady talk!”
When you have a class of people who all want your love and attention, laughter keeps all of us moving forward. I’d say to a whiner, “What? Your leg hurts? Let me get my scissors.” Or after another day of three children coming back from recess holding baggies of ice: “We are depleting the Earth of fresh water and baggies, people!”
Our school had perfectly lovely banisters. The rails were hip level for most seven-year-olds. Just raise the haunch an inch or two and the ride was free. Everyone felt the urge to slide. (I even had to fight my urges!) Sliding down the rails was not seen as “responsible” behavior. It was especially irresponsible to do it when the whole class was lined up in front of you like bowling pins. My question to anyone I saw doing it was, “Who will want to put their hand on that railing after your bottom slid on it? Yuck!”
The floors were marble, so the banister slider’s landings needed to be perfect. “Who’s going to clean up the blood when you break your head open?” I’d ask. The slider would look shocked, but I would be laughing behind my hand.
I sang spelling words: “Jet. I’m leaving on a jet plane. I don’t know when I’ll be back again. Oh babe, I hate to go. Jet.” They groaned and laughed at the same time. I also found songs that reminded me of them and serenaded each student with his or her song. One boy always had a cheese bagel sandwich for lunch. His song was, “The Boogey-Woogey Bagel Boy of Room 203.”
Laughter is a great disciplinarian. My absolute best threat was a lipstick kiss on the cheek, à la grandma. I would take out a tube of lipstick from my desk drawer, pocket, or purse. This usually brought a gasp from the class. They knew what was coming.
“I noticed, Calvin (or whomever), you’re not doing your work,” I’d say, taking the top off and slowly twisting the tube upwards. I’d apply lipstick to my bottom lip.
“I sure hope …” I then put lipstick on the right side of my top lip.
“...you have started…” Next the left side.
“...your math. I’d hate…” I rubbed my lips together. At this point everyone in the room had scrambled to do whatever they needed to be doing.
“...to have to give you a big ol’ kiss on the cheek.” I looked up and around. Everyone was on task.
No student was exempt from my lipstick trick. I could silence a bus of rowdy kids simply by showing them how many tubes of lipstick I had in my purse. The funny thing was they loved to hate it. Sometimes secretly, they came to me with a cheek tilted upward and asked me to give them a kiss.
Sometimes you’d get a child who laughs at everything, like Elmer. If someone just glanced at him, he laughed. This was a tough problem to solve. Was that joy bubbling up? Was it a lack of self-control? Was he a fairy changeling?
I called Elmer over to talk quietly to him. It wasn’t a soft, low laugh—he bellowed.
“Can you please try some self-control?” I asked. “I feel like I’m calling your name all the time and having to stop the class while you calm down. That can’t be fun for you.”
“It was fun until you made me stop,” he complained.
Laughter welled up in both grandiose and tiny ideas. It occurred because we had the ability to recognize the absurd in everyday moments. It could have been a slapstick moment or a bad joke. It could have been one of those hilarious misunderstandings which were as convoluted as “Who’s on First?” We laughed many times each day, keeping the mundane at bay. My mother always claims it is better to laugh than cry. When we find ourselves doing both, it’s truly a soul cleansing moment.
One year, a first-grade teacher came to me and informed me that one of her student’s parents requested me as their son’s teacher for second grade. She is a good friend of mine, but she was concerned this little boy, who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, wouldn’t get my sense of humor or my sarcasm.
But as it turned out, we got along famously. I discovered he loved outlandish vocabulary words like “fewmets” or “chimera.” I knew I no longer had to worry that he might misunderstand me when he walked up to me one day with one eye shut. “Guess what I am?”
“A one-eyed pirate?” I guessed.
“No!” he harrumphed. “A cyclops!” He then proceeded to laugh so hard he could hardly breathe. His joke wasn’t ready for Comedy Central, but his joy at being able to tell a joke filled me with wondrous delight.
I am sure there were a few days without laughter in my room, but I don’t really recollect any. There is a teacher saying that goes, “Never let them see you smile until November.” I would go bonkers.
Instead, I remind my students if we work hard, we will have plenty of time for fun. I laughed at my own mistakes. I read funny poems before lunch or even better, scary poems that make us laugh at how we jump. I talked with crazy accents or voices. My class loved my terrible French accent or my fake brogue. The kids rolled their eyes in fake horror when I used my muted preschool teacher voice, “Now boys and girls, come sit with your friends.” That was baby talk in their minds. They loved my “whiny voice,” but it gave me a headache to talk like that and to have to listen to it.
Sometimes they didn’t realize what they said was funny. I had an exceptionally bright group of boys one year who could spell any word I gave them. I got them a set of unabridged dictionaries to peruse. These lads were not only smart but fairly ornery. A tattler ran over and told me Joel was looking up “bad words.” I called Joel over. He was the smarty pants who had the misfortune of being caught although I knew there were a couple other guilty parties. They sat watching to see what the outcome would be. “I know you are smart, Joel, but I didn’t get you those dictionaries to get you in trouble. If you know it’s a bad idea, why did you do it?”
“I just don’t understand it. It’s like a whole different side of my personality comes out when I see those bad words.” He looked like he was going to cry. I had to swallow my laughter. I still shake my head and wonder what side of Joel’s personality is going to come out when he’s a teenager.
I had been married to a man who had made me laugh every day. He saw the zany in most situations and just making eye contact with him sometimes would crack me up. The first night we met was a snowy winter evening and we were riding the El train home together after a money and banking class at the American Institute of Banking. He was wearing these thick-soled leather hiking boots. He had asked me a question that made me pause before I answered. He then pointed at the boots.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wear these big old waffle stompers to put in my mouth. Open mouth. Insert foot.” Maybe it was the words, maybe it was the delivery, but I laughed. And I never stopped.
He made jokes as he lay dying in the hospital and then in our living room. We both had learned from a friend who had died years earlier that you live until you die. Mark kept living until it grew to be too much. The last few days were horrible, as his eyes rolled in a morphine-induced stupor. No jokes then. We just muddled through those days. The final joke came, though.
We stood counting by 5s to 100. Then we would start over. Elena kept making mistakes through her tears. Mark looked at me, a little frustrated by it. I winked at him with a half smile. He nodded at me. I held one of his hands, Elena the other. Tom stood next to his sister. Pie, our huge orange cat, lay between his legs.
Mark’s morphine had been out for a few hours at this point and we were doing what I called “Mommy Lamaze.” It was keeping your mind focused on something else to distract you from the pain. Skip counting or saying your ABCs was a wonderful trick for skinned knees. This, however, was life-ending pain.
The useless[TJ1] substitute hospice nurse had shown up at 7:45 a.m. after she had called me at 6 a.m. to ask directions to our house from the suburbs. I told her to ask someone else.
Her hand shook as she refilled the morphine pump. Too little, too late, I thought.
When the kids got up that morning, I told them there would be no school. This was it.
As Mark took his last breaths, we all were saying, “I love you, Daddy.” “I love you, Dad.” “Go to your beautiful place, Mark. I will love you forever.”
As Mark took his last breath, my children and I stood holding his hands. Chopin played on the stereo. Suddenly, the overpowering sound of a waterfall filled the room. The music had switched to an incredibly loud waterfall CD. We all laughed through our tears. I rushed to turn it off. Who knew I was turning off the laughter that had filled my home for so long?
Thank heavens for seven-year-old laughter that saved my life.
[TJ1]There are a lot of adjectives here, which might slow down the reader at an important part of your story. I kept the most relevant ones in an effort to speed up the reader.
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