“I don’t have answers; but I do have questions designed to make you think,” said the workshop leader, a young man with kind eyes and hair beyond his control.
“Oh great,” I thought, “I signed up for a workshop on humor in the classroom to get ideas on how to make learning fun; instead I’m going to spend forty-five minutes thinking lofty thoughts. Good grief.”
The instructor then asked a series of questions that, indeed, required thought. Worse, after each query, he stood silently for what seemed like an eternity looking at his participants as though we were thinking. So we did.
“Think about a time when unkind words, parading as humor, hurt you or someone you know,” he said. “How did you feel?”
In response, I remembered one of my fourth-grade students and her family entering my classroom during a back-to-school open house. I smiled at the shy but bright youngster, “Hi, Marlene, would you like to introduce me to your family?”
“Marlene?” her teenaged brother said, “We call her Toad. Just look at her. She looks like Grandpa.” As Marlene’s parents chuckled fondly, I saw the light in a little girl’s eyes go out. And it didn’t come back for some time.
I ignored the comment and said, “It’s a pleasure to work with Marlene; she’s an excellent, hardworking student.” I remember feeling inadequate in the moment, and the intervening years hadn’t changed my opinion.
I was relieved when the workshop instructor interrupted my self-critique with his next question: “When you feel uneasy or put down by words others find funny, how do you react?”
This time, my memory returned me to a faculty lounge in a new school in a new state where a colleague bombarded me with Mormon jokes after he heard my background. Daily, he greeted me with a new joke: “Hey, Janet, what do you call a good-looking woman in Salt Lake City? A tourist. What’s the difference between a Mormon woman and an elephant? About ten pounds. What is a Mormon woman’s favorite wine? When-ner we gun-na ha-va ‘nother baaaa-by?”
My colleagues laughed uneasily. I felt harassed, uncomfortable and defensive. Soon, I began to avoid the lounge.
Fortunately, my unhappy memories were ended by another question from the workshop instructor: “In the past, how have you responded to offensive or hurtful comments, stories or jokes presented as humor? Do you wish you’d responded differently? If so, how?”
“Obviously,” I thought, “I haven’t responded. I either pretend to ignore hurtful humor or avoid it. Then I feel ineffective. I wish this man would just tell us what to do.”
Once again, he didn’t enlighten us. Instead, he divided us into small groups and said, “We’ll never reach consensus on the best way to recognize and react to negative humor, but we can raise our consciousness by discussing our experiences with it.”
The intense discussion in my group included a response strategy suggested by a matronly lady with a kind smile: When someone used negative humor, she would wait until the laughter died and then pretend she didn’t understand the joke: “I don’t get it. What’s funny about that?” She told us that, usually, when someone attempts to explain negative humor, the joke’s put-down, hurtful nature is revealed.
After our group discussions, the workshop leader shared a quote:
“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
He then dismissed us.
As I left the room, I knew this brief workshop had forever changed the way I would hear, use and react to humor.