Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lost and found

For the past month and a half, I've been weighed down by a heavy backpack full of student work. Seven weeks into the second semester, I've realized two things:
  1. I've really hit the kids hard this quarter. Five formal essays so far for my eleventh graders; heavy reading and weekly essays on that reading for my English twelves. All this work, as any English teacher knows, translates into a mountain of marking. In fact, today was the first day in more than a month that I did not bring any papers home to grade. I simply refused to accept some work yesterday. "Take it home and revise," I demanded. "I don't want it."
  2. I don't know if it's connected to number one (it probably is, but it probably has more to do with other things), but I've also realized that I've lost something: My sense of humor. I've been grumpy, cynical, sarcastic, and mean--all rolled together into a ball of unpleasantness. One student summed it up perfectly last week: "You've become old," she announced, and this week, she has gone on the offensive, telling me which mannerisms I've picked up, comparing me to other teachers. All I need to do is grow a moustache and talk to my computer, and I'll be a history teacher.
When you lose something like your sense of humor, it's difficult to find again. It's not at the high school lost-and-found, that's for sure. And students--grumpy and cynical from all the work you've assigned--aren't going to help you search for it.

But I think I might have found a trace of humor on a car ride down the hill Sunday afternoon. I've almost got a joke to tell now. Well, I have the set-up and the punch line, but I need to fill in the rest. Here's what I have so far:

Here's the set-up: Four Korean kids in the back of a car.

It's a classic joke right from the start. Imagine four 16 year old Korean boys, crammed together, on top of each other, in the back of a small sedan, something like a Nissan Sentra. We were heading to Dehra Dun, one hour down the winding mountain, so that they could take the TOEFL exam, a four-hour test of their English competency. Being the chaperon, I sat in the front, trying to mark some essays.

OK, the middle part isn't quite done, but it goes something like this:

"Are you OK?"


"Do you need to stop?"

"No, I'm fine."

The punchline: And then he puked all over himself.

OK, OK, it's not really all that funny. My students, especially some Koreans, didn't think it was all that hilarious when I told it in class on Monday. But when you've lost your sense of humor, something is better than nothing.

We stopped the car. The other three kids woke up (there's another joke in there about Korean kids falling asleep whenever in a moving vehicle) and asked what was the matter. One realized he had vomit on his pants. The driver got on his cell phone and, even though I don't speak Hindi, I figured he was saying something like "why me" to his boss or girlfriend. He's the same guy who once had to deal with a vomiting dog, but that's another story.

We got back in the car and continued on our stinky way. Since it was a Sunday morning, we couldn't even find an open coffee shop, so we settled on McDonald's. While the sick kid was in the bathroom cleaning up, the rest of us had our McMaharaja chicken burger meals (no breakfast served here) and watched South Indian music videos on the restaurant's plasma TVs.

A commercial came on for some foot odor powder. "I wonder if it's effective on vomit odor," I said, and as the three kids laughed, I thought, hey, maybe this situation is funny.

Another commercial came on. Some guy standing in front of a fountain, talking about life insurance or something. "You know what that fountain reminds me of?" I asked the kids. "Projectile vomit." They laughed again, and I said, "Oh man, it's not like I can even make fun of the guy. He's not even in my class."

OK, before you get all high and mighty and start scolding me for laughing at a sick child, I should tell you that, on every trip down that damned hill that I've been on with students, someone has always gotten sick.
Many, many adults take Dramamine or something before the one-hour drive; it's that winding, that steep, that nauseating. Anyway, this was the first time I had a person actually puke in the car. So I thought it was funny.
At least it's a start.

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