Laugh or Cry

How do you write about this? I haven’t been writing anything here since before the election. Since before Betsy DeVos, before the great climate change denial, before we throw the sick out into the streets, before the refugee kids in our classrooms were denied any last hope of refuge, before it was ok to assault women as long as you are famous, before the majority of Evangelical believers sanctioned such behavior, before our proud and massive community of bombs finally lost their mother. Ok the last statement was a joke, one that didn’t come from me, but a good one. There have been a lot of good ones. They help, to a point. But what have I done? I’ve tried to do the same thing I have always done with my students, be open and listen, be professional and teach math. I look for ways to give them stuff to be curious about and challenged by and excited for.

Meanwhile my students keep laughing. I teach three classes of algebra 1, one of those classes I teach in Spanish to a group of dual immersion students. About half of the kids in the class have been raised here and have come through our schools, the other half are recent arrivals from other Spanish-speaking countries (by “other” I mean to say that we also are a Spanish-speaking country). It has taken three quarters of a school year but the divide between the U.S. kids and the recent immigrants is starting to be bridged. All year they have kept themselves separate to some extent. Even though they are all Spanish speakers, the U.S. students prefer to use English in school, while students who are still learning English prefer to speak to each other in Spanish. I have been teaching bilingual math classes since the early days of the Bush administration and I have never had students who didn’t want to speak English, this is still true, there is just a difference in comfort level and culture between the groups. But the bridge is being built and it is built mostly out of laughter.

It’s the graffiti on the whiteboard that happens while I’m greeting kids outside the room before the bell rings, the trash-talking across the room when they are doing classwork, the laughter at my expense when I make a mistake in my spelling or mathematics. They find common ground through a shared herencia and a kind of code that they have built up. There are certain things that they can joke about and others that are off limits. Making fun of a the abilities of a soccer player in the class both challenges his identity and affirms it at the same time, laughing at a video of a student on youtube that was meant to be funny, laughing at each other’s infantile behavior while that person intends to invite the laughter, all of these are ok. Laughing at each other’s neighborhood or immigration status isn’t. This wasn’t always the case in my classes. I used to hear much more jokes about immigration. Maybe it’s the difference between California and New Mexico, or maybe it’s the new level of fear that all my students might be feeling for themselves or their family members. Either way, they have built a community and the boundaries of what is laughed at is a strong communication that they are in some way watching out for one another.

This boundary is important, and I believe it even has a mathematical property. We could give it a name like, “Intuitive Boundary Function” or (IBF). So we could think of any class of students as a domain for a function where the output is the kind of jokes that are told. If this set of jokes results in such a boundary, there is a kind of community that can be built and sustained. If the jokes cross that threshold, like in other classes where I have had to clean swastikas off of the walls and desks, or where I have had to silence students who have told disparaging jokes about other ethnic groups or genders or sexual preferences, then the IBF becomes a woefully inaccurate model for the classroom. it destabilizes the possibilities for community in the class and the teacher needs to work much more carefully to find ways of creating cohesion. Sometimes this can only be done in disjoint clusters, as a way of keeping peace.

If any teacher is able to still bring that back, humor eventually needs to be a part of it, at least in my experience. I recently lost an old friend whom I had known since elementary school. She was a teacher and then a mom of four boys. I remember laughing with her at some point in college about something that really wasn’t very funny on the face of it, like the community of bombs losing their mother. Her response was always to say, “Laugh or cry.” Those are our choices, and students have always reminded me which of those choices are the best. They also can be geniuses in teaching me more and more about the nuances of that choice.

I am going to try to write more here, hopefully I can find out how to bring my own humor back into the equation.

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