Monday was the first day in almost two months that I’d been in physical proximity of the students I was teaching, and I got something valuable that I didn’t know I had been missing.
We were about 10 minutes into an 8 a.m. session that had five students in it, due in large part to social distancing protocols and online-only opt-out kids, when I started to explain something or other and I totally flubbed it.
One of the kids chuckled. I smiled and tried to work through it again before I paused and told them this:
“Look,” I said. “It’s going to be weird for you and weird for me this year. You all haven’t been in a classroom for somewhere between two and six months and I haven’t been in front of this many people in a while. The only thing I got going for me is that my wife made sure I shaved, wore a nice shirt and cut my hair so I didn’t come here looking like an unemployed Muppet.”
Suddenly, they all started cracking up, apparently imagining me with an unintentional mullet, begging them for spare change in Elmo’s voice.
The old saying that laughter is the best medicine might not be true for everyone, but it was for all of us in that moment. The pall lifted and the awkwardness and fear seemed to dissipate for that hour. When the class ended, the students wiped down their areas with anti-bacterial towelettes and sprayed down their chairs, but they kept chatting and laughing about various things.
For a fleeting moment, it felt OK to be there.
The rest of the day flew by, with each new set of students going through the same process of trying to figure out what “normal” was going to look like. I made efforts to crack a joke or two at my own expense. (“I’ve now said the same thing four class periods in a row,” I told my last class. “If I’m saying something to you multiple times, just treat me like you treat great-grandpa at Thanksgiving when he asks, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I was stationed in Berlin after World War II?’ Just let me roll on and pretend this is all new to you.”)
There is a hope in a lot of us right now that this will be the last semester of social distancing, masks and a yearlong pandemic. We see some numbers going down, even as others go up. We see videos on the news of people getting needles stuck in their arms and we eagerly await our turn. We try to remember what it was like to be in a roomful of people and not feel palpable anxiety.
Throughout this, I’ve told my students that I know they’re dealing with way more than anyone should expect of them: Double shifts at grocery stores because other people called in sick, weekly medical tests and online classes in subjects that really shouldn’t be online. I can’t make a lot of these things better, I explained, so my goal is to try my best not to make their lives worse.
Not exactly something inspirational to write on a vision board or needlepoint onto a couch pillow, but it’s the best I have, I told them.
In the mean time, I’m going to do my best to keep things light. I want to hear them laugh at the lame “Dad Jokes” they have heard a dozen times. I want them to snicker as they think about the misplaced modifier in a lead that makes it sound like a burglar has threatened a pair of underpants. I want that sound of muffled snorts when they think of what a homeless elf would dress like and that I’ve compared some of my better clothing choices to that caricature.
I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think I’m alone in that desire for human amusement. Sure, there are professors out there who view everything as dark and important and would admonish people for finding humor in ANYTHING in the time of a pandemic.
(A student came to me last term, telling me about one such person. I asked, “Wow. Was this guy born an (EXPLETIVE) or did he take lessons to get this way?” I quickly looked up the guy on our faculty database. “Oh,” I told the kid. “He got a Ph.D. in sociology from (NAME INSTITUTION). I guess the answer to that question is ‘both.'”)
For a lot of us, we just want to know we’re connecting on a human level, so if you feel that vibe in the room, do us all a favor.
Laugh at us. We sure could use it.