Hank Williams summed up the inevitable distress of life in his great lyric, "no matter how you struggle and strive, you'll never get out of this world alive." The wisdom of the line is in its humor.
Teenagers - and their parents - take things extremely seriousLY. The adults in many young peoples' lives often adopt a scolding stance. Aside from the judgments teens must weather, genuine suffering arises from negotiating intimate relationships, school failure, family difficulties, substance abuse and emotional disorders. Young people often suffer a double whammy from the images promoted and marketed in our media. On the one hand, they are seduced by iconic fantasies of adult pleasures; on the other, they are lambasted for not taking life seriously.
Laughter is the antidote to the challenges of life. Most of us adore people who make us laugh. A funny remark or event makes life worth living, even under appalling circumstances. When we share a good laugh our physiology changes, our attention shifts and we connect.
One of our teachers remarked the other day that one of the main things we're trying to teach our students is how to laugh at themselves. Once we can laugh at ourselves and share this laughter with others, we attain not only a bit of detachment but a psychologically altered state that promotes relationships. We like being with people who make us laugh.
But we can't teach students to laugh at themselves by laughing at them. We do it by being willing to laugh at ourselves. We let the students in on the joke of our own lives when we make fun of ourselves and make fun with colleagues. Students are drawn to adults having fun. Laughter is an absolutely defining characteristic of relational education.
Telling a funny story or exercising a sense of humor may be a particular gift, but playfulness is a domain that any teacher can establish. Silly or clever names for things - especially authoritative things - help everyone keep some perspective. When our staff meeting suffered from a lack of detail management and follow-up, we invented a role titled the DFT - Department of Fine Tuning.
When a teacher developed a new writing curriculum that required a committee to review student writing, it was dubbed the CAWG. Although most of us can't remember what the acronym stands for, it continues to tickle us.
Winter holidays are a notoriously challenging time. We celebrate at the School by meetings of the "Ho F-ing Ho" club. Students adore the teacher who founded this tradition and just the mention of the club frees us all to laugh and to enjoy more traditional traditions.
We call rule infractions "misdeeds." All misdeeds are subject to a rotating student and staff representative reaching consensus on the consequence. We've learned that a little humor goes a long way without in any way undermining the rules. Students who are caught in each other's rooms may have to create a limerick to be read at the next group meeting. Students habitually late for class may be asked to write and sing a song. The consequence lies more in the "have to" than in the assigned task. Good humor is maintained and negative reinforcement - never very effective - is avoided.
Any teacher who wants ideas for lightening up would do well to start with Loretta LaRouche's video "The Joy of Stress." From passing out red clown noses to regally asking for a standing ovation for coming to work, LaRouche will get you started.
Young people want to be part of an adult culture that is also fun for the adults. For teachers working with struggling teens', laughter should be part of the job.
(The Community School is an intensive six-month work/study program with a unique practice of relational education. The School provides an opportunity to complete high school with a State-approved private school diploma.)
Editors Note: Woodbury Reports, Inc. contacted Dora Lievow to confirm two things: first, that "Ho F-ing Ho" is the real name of the club, and second, that she wanted to run it in the essay. The answer to both questions was "yes."