Monday, May 23, 2011

The Power of Humor

When I was a guidance counselor in a yuppie, white suburb of Yakima, Washington,I desperately needed a change. I’d had my fill of smothers, women who reacted to their whiny offspring’s complaints by ringing me up and making loud demands. “You need to change Jeremy’s English class. Mr. Mean Teacher doesn’t understand him. He actually expects Jeremy to have a No. 2 pencil with him at all times! And, oh, by the way, do you have any scholarships available? Just mail the forms to me where I work.”

I’d bite my tongue when I really wanted to say,  “Think about it! Maybe  Mr. Mean Teacher wants Jeremy to stop screwing around and actually learn something. And, hey, Jeremy’s smother – I know you’ll be writing the essay required on scholarship application.”

After considerable thought and a good many misgivings, I left the smothers behind and moved on. Into a new world. My new world was a scant eighteen miles from the old but in terms of language, culture and customs, I might as well have been on the moon. I’d been hired as the first ever counselor at an alternative school located on the Yakima Indian Reservation, a public school serving Native Americans, migrant students, gang bangers, discouraged learners and petty criminals. No problem. I was up to the challenge. Watch out, kids, I’m here to fix you!

I bounded through the door and set up shop, ready to capture the hearts and minds of this challenging clientele with my magnetic smile and winning ways. All they needed was somebody who cared. Right? Wrong. My surly students made no effort to hide their disdain. Daily, I heard, “Who’s the skinny white woman? Oh, she’s the new counselor. Yeah, Bro, she’s going to counsel us eh?” (I have to admit, part of me liked the “skinny” comment because I was considered a real porker in anorexia land. Amazing what a few miles can do.) However, it soon became obvious the very students I was hired to help regarded me with suspicion and distrust.

I backed off. How could I reach these kids? While I pondered this question, I decorated my tiny hole-in-the-wall office with Far Side cartoons. A big fan of Gary Larson’s quirky, off-the-wall humor, I had all of his books lined up in my bookcase. So what if I didn’t have any students to counsel! I had talking cows, dorky scientists and tether-cat.

It’s been a while but I still remember the first kid who came to my office. His name was Kevin. (Months later, he told me he’d been bored and  wanted to get out of class.) He was a big kid, Native American and tough as nails. He came through the door silently, walked to the bulletin board and started reading the Far Side cartoons I’d posted. I stifled my usual chirpy greeting, “Hi, I’m Marilee.” ( The use of first names was encouraged to make the staff more accessible to the students. HA!) I waited. He started to chuckle, helped himself to a Far Side book and settled in for the duration. Kevin was the first. Soon, I had a steady stream of students popping in to read the Far Side. Though it was against my pro-active nature, I bided my time. And then it happened. One day, a former gang banger shut the door and said, “Can I talk to you? In private?”
 My students at this tough alternative school taught me more in two weeks than I’d learned in my prior twenty-two year career. Here’s what I learned:
1. Shared laughter can work miracles
2. Patience is a learned virtue.
3, Trust has to be earned.
4. “To everything, there is a season.”

So, what does my moment of ignominious glory have to do with writing? Read the last four sentences. How can we apply these principles to our writing? When I started my first book—I should say one of the many times I started my first book—I had the most dreadful, dark and dreary plot one could imagine. I could barely drag myself to the computer each day. When my output dwindled to nada, I finally realized I was fighting my nature and consequently hated what I was doing. I came up with a new recipe. Add a dash of magic, sprinkle it with humor and see what rises to the top. I started to have fun, found my voice and completed my first book. Along the way, I learned a valuable lesson.  As writers, as human beings, we all have to be true to our natures. When we aren’t, we’re fighting a losing battle that manifests itself in stress-related illnesses and depression as well as incredibly bad writing.

Humor is almost impossible to define because it different for each of us. Some of my students (mostly of the female pursuasion) thought The Far Side was the stupidest thing ever. What makes you laugh? Figure it out, distill it down to its essence and add it to your daily output of words. And, don't forget to laugh! A belly laugh a day adds years to your life. Would I lie to you? 

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