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Humor in the classroom in an age of paranoia

"I'm going to get fired. It's not a matter of if, but when."

I used to say this to my students for laughs, but it's not so funny anymore.

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Since August, three teachers at my school have been removed. While I trust my employer is legally prudent, tensions are high.

Teachers huddle to gossip, some confessing: I sent a funny cartoon through the county email. I checked my online banking at lunch. I contributed to the lottery pool.

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My sin? I said the wrong thing. Again.

We sense Big Brother looming. Outside my classroom a surveillance camera records my comings and goings. While I doubt my whiteboard is a telescreen, office staff can listen in to my classroom. Once, an administrator called in to request a student. I feigned a pleasant response and sent the child, but then I muttered a complaint about interruptions and a voice boomed from the intercom, "I heard that!"

This is why I worry. Other times I say things that could be misconstrued. Once, after riffing a remark, I wished for the gizmo Will Smith uses to erase memory in "Men in Black." Ironically, I couldn't remember its name. "It's called a neuralyzer," a student offered. If only I had one.

Most of the jokes I make, the jibes to humble the class clown, the witty comebacks, the exaggerated stories, are all defense strategies to cope with teenagers, school bureaucracy and faulty technology. Stephen King said, "Humor is almost always anger with its makeup on."

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Teaching and learning are frustrating jobs, but they can be enjoyable if we laugh while muddling through. I'm concerned Big Brother might not appreciate my humor.

For example, once, after enduring countless stressors and after having, not one, but two, students ask me repetitive questions about what I had just detailed, I felt a surge of annoyance.

Incidentally, I had recently watched "Fight Club," a film based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel about two guys who form an underground club for men. Though no one is supposed to talk about the club, it grows exponentially until major cities host chapters. Night after night the men meet to beat each other up.

With my frustration mounting, and school policy forbidding corporal punishment in class, I proposed this: "Raise your hand if you'd like to join my fight club."

Arms whooshed up. One boy — 6 feet tall — jumped to his feet, his arm pointing straight to the asbestos ceiling tiles.

"You can be president."

Yes! he hissed, pulling his arm into a celebratory biceps curl, much like Joe Flacco on a winning day.

With so much enthusiasm, I moved forward.

"So, you all know there's a bomb shelter under the school, right?"

Some kids gasped and turned wide-eyed toward classmates. Others nodded knowingly, a few admitting they'd been in the shelter.

"OK then, we'll meet after school in the bomb shelter." Murmurs of excitement rippled over the desktops.

"One more thing," I said with a tone of teacherly severity that means I am not messing around. The students leaned in, thinking, Here it comes — the caveat.

"You can all bring booze and weed."

Yeah!

My frustration abated, we turned our attention to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" where "the earth seemed unearthly."

I used to worry: What if a bunch of kids did access the bomb shelter and fight? They'd go home all bloodied up, noses cocked, gashes needing stitches, their bodies reeking of booze and weed.

"How did this happen, Son?"

"Well … in English class … Mrs. Stuller said we should start a fight club in the bomb shelter and drink booze and smoke weed."

This would lead to me sitting in the principal's office. "Is it true that you told these kids to start a fight club in the bomb shelter and to drink booze and smoke weed?"

"Yes."

Then the prison gate would clank shut, the bars framing my face.

But the reality is no student in that class believed I was serious; they knew I wasn't promoting violence and substance abuse. More importantly, the absurdity of the scenario and its unifying laughter was a better way to diffuse my frustration than to bark orders.

So, if there comes a time when, in order to keep my job, I have to defend my improvisational humor — which in fact models hyperbole, tone, mood, irony, and sense of audience, all concepts mandated by MSDE standards — then I don't want to be a teacher anymore.

And that isn't funny at all.

Mary Beth Stuller is a teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools; her email is mbstuller@comcast.net.

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