Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.
They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.
Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.
How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.
Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It was impossible to know, because he exhibited no personality whatsoever. Zero. His face barely moved when he spoke. With his plain brown mustache covering his upper lip, you literally could not detect any change in his expression for hours at a time. He never smiled. It was like being taught by Buster Keaton without any of the physical comedy.
That was our biology class. Day after day, Mr. Ward stood in front of the class in his drab plaid shirts, droning on about chlorophyll and flowering plants. And in exchange for his years of service he was mocked and jeered and verbally abused by the teenagers who knew everything and had all the power.
Yes, power. Who knows where this power comes from? Teenagers are desperate, scared, and self-conscious. And also cocky, fearless, and totally in control.
I used to feel sorry for Mr. Ward. If only he’d tell a joke once in a while, he’d probably have a better chance connecting with some of the renegades forced to take his class. That’s all it took for other teachers, who could pal around a little. Anything to prove he was not a robot. If only he’d ask if anyone had seen the World Series the night before. Or say he heard something interesting in church last week. Or raise his voice in anger. Or smile.
But no: Donald Ward delivered his lecture in the same way, sentence by boring sentence, until the class, forced to submit to this for months at a time, had developed a kind of of pent-up frenzy. These were high school students, after all. Adolescents! Their insides were full of raging energies that had to be discharged. They needed to show off, to thump chests, to flirt, to challenge authority. They needed all this to survive.
In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.
Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.
Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke.