When I first started teaching, l perceived laughter as a sign that students were "distracted"…"misbehaving." I'd zero in on the laughs, demand that students "get on task." I’m sure this is a common occurrence in schools, especially ones filled with black boys and girls. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed kids “get in trouble” for laughing—from elementary school, to middle school, to high school (I’m sure many of you received phone calls home for laughing).
But the classroom changed for me when I started co-teaching with a colleague. We told inside jokes. Giggled. Made faces. But most of all, we made the classroom a place where laughter was okay, especially for kids who looked like us.
I remember one morning, a black girl who lived in the country came late to class when everyone was working quietly on their independent work. As soon as she crossed the threshold of the door, she just started laughing uncontrollably and loudly. Red-face-tears-rolling-down-her-cheeks laughter. And after noticing that all eyes were on her, she said in her rural accent, "I don't know what it is. It's just when I come in here, I feel happy and I just can't stop smiling and I just laugh! I laugh!" And she burst back into laughter and the rest of the class did, too.
Schools are often places that children see as the antithesis of freedom. For me, the worst thing to hear as a teacher is a student asking for “free time.” Implicit in this request is that what I’m doing is oppressive. I strive to make my classroom a space where students feel so much joy that they don’t ask to go to the bathroom or leave to get water because they don’t want to miss anything…that even after they graduate and go off to high school, they come back to visit, to seek advice or simply to laugh.
I’m thinking about the Napa Valley Wine Train incident and how similar it is to the various classroom settings I’ve experienced or come across. I’m thinking about all of the black boys and girls pushed out for being “too loud” when they were simply expressing joy or friendship. I’m reminding myself that there’s nothing more beautiful than hearing black boys, black girls or any child laughing in a classroom. How lucky the powers that be should feel that marginalized people can laugh with all this ugliness in the world that otherwise would trigger a violent, more vindictive response.
Fine is a classroom teacher and writer whose work focuses on questions of power and critical thought.