The days that make us happy make us wise. —John Masefield
Is using humor the best way to approach difficult situations and problems?
That was the question students attempted to answer in the writing portion of the October SAT. With humor as a topic, I expected to read some dumb jokes, like what did the fish say when it bumped into the wall? Dam! Or what is invisible and smells like worms? Bird farts. But there were no jokes. Students took this assignment very seriously. I read 1,385 responses, and the majority of them stated that difficulties should be met with seriousness, not humor.
The Serious Side
The question for me is why this year’s crop of students is so serious-minded. I can think of a few possibilities; namely, the current state of the nation, the seeming importance of the SAT, the serious tone of academics in general, and perhaps traditional expectations.
Students listed a host of current problems, both global and national — war, famine, AIDS, swine flu, depression, recession, inflation, corruption, health care, unemployment, global warming, natural disasters. These definitely are serious matters affecting all of us. Though young people may not give them much thought in general, when asked specifically about “serious problems,” they know what the problems are. One student wrote, “This economic depression that the U.S. has been slipping into has got everybody down.” Another student wrote, “Too many people feel like broken cakes — crummy.”
Importance of SAT
Many students have come to view the SAT as “the most important test of your life,” as one wrote. Adults know this is hardly the case. However, students approach this test with a huge amount of anxiety, which causes them to have a serious mindset. They want to answer questions correctly and may think that the “right” answer to this question is the serious one. After all, most of the adults in their lives are serious people, aren’t they?
Academics in General
Except for the inclusion of girls and minorities, not a lot has changed in public education since 1635 when the Boston Latin School opened. The basic format is still very much the same: sit down, shut up, do your work. Students often write about their favorite teachers being the ones who joke around. They also mention how strict and serious most teachers are, especially coaches and AP instructors. English teachers may seem especially serious, foisting as they do one tragedy after another upon students — The Diary of Anne Frank, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Hamlet, Macbeth. I have never understood why we put so much emphasis on tragedies. Students are led to believe that tragedy is more important than comedy. William Shakespeare wrote ten tragedies and fifteen comedies. That should tell us something.
Tragedy remains in the curriculum because that is the tradition, the same outdated, Victorian tradition that viewed life as serious and play as sin. One brave student volunteered the notion that “Education is a sort of sick joke played on youth by society.” It may be just that, a sick joke, but if it is, nobody wants to admit it and deal with it “head on,” as they say.
Facing problems head-on was the overwhelming response to the question, but that’s not very clear. What does it mean to face something “head-on”? How do you do that? They didn’t know. Only one student in 1,385 provided a clear method, which involved careful planning, correct preparation, and precise execution. His assessment of the SAT as a serious problem provided him with this strategy.
The Funny Side
I probably read close to a thousand papers describing grave situations, literally. Funerals are no place for humor, I’m told, even though the cast of “Grey’s Anatomy” burst into laughter at a grave site recently. One student wrote that on the day his grandmother died, her horoscope read, “Something will come up to block your normal routine.” Another student wrote that “without death, life is never-ending.” Yes, it is.
Despite their seriousness, they make hilarious mistakes — heart cancer, additude, up most for utmost. Over the Cookoo’s Nest by Kenny Chesney cracked me up. Martin Luther King, Jr. helping to create and enforce Jim Crow laws was pretty funny, along with Africans being captivated by Europeans. There are penalties for language errors but not for factual errors. If a student writes about President Benjamin Franklin, it’s sadly funny and nothing more.
My favorite essay, in terms of the one I remember most, was written by one of those divergent thinkers that every teacher loves. He threw out both humor and seriousness as effective approaches and wrote a beautiful piece about how music gets him through any difficulty. He used lyrics from a song in “Wicked” to make his point. I wish I’d written them down. I wish I could see that play.
The title of this post came from the first sentence of one paper. The John Masefield quote came from another paper.
I agree with this student.
“Laughter helps, and as long a there’s help, then there’s always hope.”
I admire this student.
“Even though humor may not be the best way to deal with some problems, it could be the only way to deal with others.”
I am inspired by this one.
“To be at peace with oneself and humanity is the only truly healthy life.”
I am content with what I’ve seen this week from a sampling of America’s youth. The writing, overall, was quite good, better than I’ve seen in recent years. These students were in 7th grade when the writing test was added, so they’ve had five or six years to prepare for a two-page timed essay. In this case, expecting more from them has allowed them to rise to the occasion. I think the internet is also helping to create more literacy. When students read more, they write better. Also, giving them topics that they know something about helps.
The poem that follows was mentioned by several students. It’s tragic, of course, but it shows you what they like. I like “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”
Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.