Bennett Cerf, a famous publisher, wrote the first book I remember reading cover to cover. It was filled with corny riddles that appealed to my budding sense of humor.
Before long, I was feasting on Mad magazine, and every Sunday morning I couldn’t wait for another episode of “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” I needed some comic relief after a steady school diet of Dick and Jane, the Stepford-like siblings that surely inspired “The Stepford Wives.”
I have several joke books on a shelf in my classroom, and when I have a few minutes to spare, I pull one out and share a few with my sixth-grade students. I do it because laughter is healthy, and because understanding a joke requires one to grapple with the subtleties of language, something that’s still a struggle for many of my students.
I’ve found a kindred spirit in Kyle Cardoza this year, a student who shares my sense of humor. One morning I entered my classroom to find a drawing Scotch-taped to a cabinet door, a cartoonish dinosaur wearing a sombrero and shaking maracas. The caption read, “Tyrannosaurus-Mex.”
Sure, it’s politically incorrect by 21st century standards, but it reveals a playfulness that’s become a major element in Kyle’s writing voice this year.
So many of my students enter my classroom in the fall with a sterile, buttoned-up voice hatched from hours and hours of worksheet writing. They’re taught to follow a formula that requires them to begin with a question — “Do you like chipmunks?” — and end by restating the same question — “Now you know why I like chipmunks!” And the details in between read like the action-packed adventures of Dick and Jane.
I won’t accept boring lead paragraphs or conclusions from my students. And their details must move their narratives along. Kyle embraced each of these tenets of good writing in his persuasive essay, “The Translation of ‘We’ll See.’”
Kyle begins with “‘We’ll see.’ It’s a common line used by adults to say, ‘Never in your entire life, son.’ It’s a parent secret code thing that I mystically understand.”
It’s funny, honest and provocative.
In the middle of the essay, Kyle gives several examples to support his contention, one of which states, “I asked my mom if I could get a Halloween costume. My mom said, ‘We’ll see.’ I asked her about a week later and she said, ‘No, because those costumes cost way too much money.’ I know. Those costumes cost about $60, but the one I wanted was only $20. It was a gorilla suit.”
Detailed, logical and perhaps unintentionally hilarious.
Kyle doesn’t end his essay with a thanks-for-reading-now-I’m-done conclusion. He gives the reader some reasoned advice: “The mystical language of adults is very complicated to understand, but I can tell you, this one means ‘no’ most of the time. I’m trying to persuade you to ask your parents to give you a clear answer instead of the language of adults.”
Writers are creatures of habit. Most of us find the “right” time of day, the “right” pen, and the “right” place to ply our trade. Kyle likes a corner by my classroom door, on the floor behind two trashcans. I don’t know why. You’d have to ask him.
But it works for Kyle, a young writer who’s shown the courage and determination to stick with it, and develop a distinctive voice as a result.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.