Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oh, To Be A Clown!

Although I’ve only been to Guilford Elementary Middle School once (blast those snow days!), the experience itself has still stayed with me. National Academic League was something my brother did as a child and teen and so at my house we constantly watched Jeopardy together or quizzed each other on random facts we read out of the World Almanac for Kids. Thus, I was very eager to work with the children at Guilford, but I knew not to get caught up in what I knew of National Academic League to interfere with how it was done there, at Guilford.

The atmosphere itself was welcoming and easygoing enough. The kids I was directed to tutor were very open to laughing and were none-too-serious, which made things easier for me since I was in a new environment trying out something new. Laughter was often used to break the ice or to decrease the tension in a situation, especially when I was quizzing a student on a subject and he or she couldn’t remember an answer to a question. I observed that both of the kids I worked with (a boy and a girl) were very determined to recall answers to questions and often wouldn’t let me give them the answer until after they had dug deep into their brain fissures. I didn’t want any of them to feel bad for not remembering, however, so I would encourage them and tell them “Come on, you know this! You’re close!” In the event that the answer they gave was wrong, I’d always try to keep the tone of my reply lighthearted.

While laughter was definitely a useful tool in getting adjusted to the way things worked in the League and to keep the students I was working with comfortable enough around me so as not to be closed to my help and assistance, I also observed laughter among the National Academic team itself. A lot of the kids were prone to insulting each other (and more often than I thought) and they would often do it in between having to recite the capitols of all fifty states at a superfast speed. The odd thing about it was that it was often accompanied by laughter, which made me believe that they all knew each other well enough t tease each other to no end, or that mockery and jeers was a normal part of developing relationships with their fellow peers.
Similarly, one of the students I worked one-on-one with was the team captain, and she often used her position of authority to justify some sort of none-too-flattering (or nice) comments to her fellow teammates. I recall her saying to me, jovially but apparently earnestly, “He’s (her teammate) is so stupid. He doesn’t even know the answer to ______.”

“Do you know it?” I asked her. She replied, “Yeah. That’s why I’m the captain.”

In relation to our class, my experience at Guilford definitely has ties to the types and uses of humor that we have been discussing (the superiority model included, as evidenced by the latter part of my recollection). However, in terms of what Millman, Turner and Douglas have to say, I thought that what I observed at Guilford related most to what Turner and Douglas were saying about humor (or laughter, or joking) as being a cultural rite that “aspire[s] to annihilate measurable temporality, and evoke, in order to reinstate, that generative time of beginnings, to draw on its unfailing, untinted, ad ineradicable efficacies, to redress the failures of the present ‘time’” (Turner, 244). In other words, humor, as a cultural rite, can erase or lessen problematic situations in a community and re-establish a tighter bond among a group of people, bringing the community back to the harmony it first had at the beginning of its formation.

How humor (and other “social dramas” as Turner puts it) accomplishes that is dependent on the messages it relays. According to Douglas, “Humor chastises insincerity, pomposity, stupidity” (148), which is exactly what the girl I was tutoring at Guilford did with her tease/joke directed at a fellow teammate. Similarly, when Turner is discussing the role of the clown in traditional plays, he quotes Richmond who says, “ ‘The clown has been invested with unusual power… Because of his freedom to criticize all members of society, regardless of their social rank and caste, the audience experiences a unique sense of communitas. In this the clown serves as a leveler of society’” (256). Likewise, Douglas writes “Laughter and jokes, since they attack classification and hierarchy, are obviously apt symbols for expressing community” (156). Perhaps this is the reason why the insults flung across the room at Guilford do not have negative connotations for their recipients, or for anyone, for that matter. It makes it so that no one believes he or she is above or below anyone else, since all teammates seemed to have at least been made fun of once or twice while I was there.

This, of course, creates problems when trying to connect Douglas’ and Turner’s principles to the team captain, who felt like she had the right to insult with reckless abandon (even to someone older than her; and no, it wasn’t me) because of her “rank.” I find it odd that both Douglas and Turner agree that the humorist—the clown and the joker—create community by removing the consciousness of rank or class, but that he, the humorist, himself has power over those who laugh at what he does. Douglas even says that the joker “appears to be a privileged person who can say certain things which confers immunity” (158). This makes me wonder what being the “clown” does to one’s psyche. Does it make one think one is better than others because one can use humor to create harmony? And if the humorist has a certain privilege of authority, who is there to put the humorist in his place? And can such power be abused?

I’m thinking it can, especially when considering that line from Spiderman “With great power comes great responsibility,” but maybe I’ll be able to say more about it as I continue my service at Guilford. Humor as a catalyst to creating harmony in a group, I believe, based on what I’ve observed thus far, is definitely true, at least at Guilford; but it still makes me wonder where the humorist is positioned amidst the harmony and community he (or she) can create.

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