Laughter – Surgery for the Soul to Rise Above
A Costume Drama in Three Acts
By Jane Tawel
May 27, 2017
It all began one morning on my way to work. I had taken a new non-teaching job at the high school my son Gordon attended. Driving to work with one’s son is, well….. different. I am a person who goes to work thinking through the day and what I need to accomplish and how I am going to do that and then what I will have for dinner when I am done with my accomplishments. I am a mental organizational task- maker and a worrier and a “To-Do List” sort of gal. Sons are not. Teenage sons, like Gordon at the time, like to start their day by catching up on the sleep they still need. Teenage sons, like Gordon, like to start the day not thinking for even a nano-second about the overwhelming amount of “stuff” other people like teachers and parents want them to accomplish that day rather than the stuff they would like to accomplish that day, like, well, catching up on all the sleep they didn’t get the night before. So like any good mom, I spent our morning driving together verbally illuminating my son on all the things he had ahead of him that day that he shouldn’t forget about, and by keeping up a half hour streaming version of “Tips on How To Succeed in Your Teenage Day Ahead”. And, yes, Gordon, “You’re Welcome.”
Finally after about two months of my rattling on with the To -Do List that GORDON! should be making for his day ahead and worrying for him about all the things he needed to accomplish that day, Gordon quite succinctly and elegantly explained to me the typical teenage boy’s brain: “Mom, I can’t hear you in the morning.”
So for about a month, I honored my son’s astute analysis of our mutal condition, and we rode in silence – unless he wanted to listen to “Papa Roach” or “Eminem” songs to gear up, or unless he broke the sacred silence because he needed to ask me for money.
The job I had started at this time of silent rides with Gordon, was one that demanded some fancier, snazzier clothes than I had worn teaching home -schooled students out of my dining room. I had hustled off to Ross and gotten what I thought was some pretty eloquent business attire, including some nice suits. I am a dress up sort of gal any way, so no biggie. But I had perhaps made a few choices in outfits that were, to put it nicely, not exactly “me”. But I didn’t know that. Yet.
So one morning Son of Silence and I walked to Polly Prius for our early morning commute and I had on a new outfit. This outfit was one that certain women I know could definitely pull off with aplomb. But then, there is me. The outfit has a leopard-print flowy skirt with a matching neck scarf and a brown blazer. So Gordon and I are taking the usual long completely silent walk to the car, and as we get to the passenger door for me to click it open, Gordon looks at me out of the corner of his eye and mumbling in his best Australian Crocodile Hunter voice says, “CRICKEY! It’s the most dangerous animal in the world!”
And thus, the Era of My Costume Drama began.
Gordon, Crocodile Hunter, and The Most Dangerous Animal in the World, a Mom who Talks too Much in the Mornings
Of course I had to tell every one I knew this hilarious comment by my son. And every one I told laughed almost as hard as Gordon and I had. I made the mistake though, or perhaps the serendipitously fortunate game -changing play, of relating Gordon’s crikey comment to my work friend Charles, who happened to be Gordon’s History teacher, Mr. Hampton. Mr. Hampton has a killer sense of humor and is also awfully smart. So after the dangerous animal outfit story was related, whenever I saw Mr Hampton and Gordon together, my outfits began to take on new meanings. Suddenly some of what I wore as snazzy business attire, did in fact look a bit like unintentional costumes. For instance, when I wore my very chic red suit, I became Miss Scarlet in the Library with a Rope or an Airline Stewardess for Southwest Airlines.
One of my most obvious costumes however, was not a fancy one. It was one I wore for casual days and really, it was pretty hard not to see this outfit as my “Where’s Waldo?” outfit.
In fact, one time I went straight from school wearing this outfit to join Verity at an Indie Rock concert in Hollywood. Not only did I stand out as the most “mature” person standing for eight long hours in the mosh pit, but I was I think the only person not dressed completely in black. At the end of the concert, a pretty toasted couple in about their thirties, steered through the crowd, to come up to Verity and me. With delight in his blurry voice and a twinkle in his blurry eyes, the guy looked at me and said, “We wanted you to know we think you have on the best outfit at the concert tonight. You’re Waldo, right?”
“Why, yes, I am”, I replied, “and you found me.”
Fast forward several years to Gordon at a new school and I in a new job back in the classroom teaching 7th Grade. I missed those silent rides with my son but I still had my Crocodile Hunter outfit and on the day early in the Autumn that I wore it to my 7th grade classroom, I told my students the story of how it became known as a costume. I told them to anticipate my wearing other outfits from time to time that might be considered costumes and that if they correctly guessed when I was wearing a “costume” and what the “costume” was, then they would get a point to add to their academically achieved class points to cash in for candy or stickers at the end of each week.
In hindsight, that might have been a mistake.
Because of course from then on, every single blasted thing I wore to school was in my beloved 7th Graders’ eyes, a costume. Because costumes meant points. And points meant candy.
So one of them whose parents still had an old Clue game guessed correctly the Miss Scarlet outfit.
And the Miss Frizzle outfit was guessed by Camille, although I have to say that is an easy one to get with my hair “style” (and yes, “style” in my case is meant to be in quotes).
This is me on Miss-match Free Dress Day at school, dressed as Ms. Frizzle might dress.
But then the whole Mrs. Tawel in Costumes began to morph into a somewhat consuming attitude on the part of my students.
At first they would politely ask, “Are you wearing a costume today?” And I would often say, “No, sorry, not today.” But after a while when a costume had not been worn in many a long lonely Junior High Schooler’s school life, they sort of “ganged up” on me and would rush me when I walked into the building in the morning with, “You look like a flower. Are you wearing a flower costume today?” “No, you look like a real estate person. Is that your costume?” And so after a while, all I could do is say, “Yes, that is a good one. I AM a rose bush today!” or “Okay, a point goes to Quincy. I do look a bit like a Peacock today.”
When on some mornings I had actually managed to sneak into the building without them spotting me, and they hadn’t seen me in the morning before class, as soon as they were sitting at their desks and I took my place by the white board, the students would rapidly raise their hands, trying to be the first with the correct costume answer. Some of my favorites were the day I was a “Bowl of Dip-N-Dots”. or the day I was an “Elf Lord from Lord of the Rings”. And, of course, the day I was “Plankton”.
This is me in my Plankton outfit with Quincy:
But my all time favorite has got to be the day I wore a truthfully absolutely non-costume outfit which was another kind of eloquent business dress I had gotten for my previous fancy job at Gordon’s school. It has a black and white herringbone top and a black skirt — all in one dress. It really is a bit too dressy and businessy for a 7th Grade Teacher but, again, I like to dress up and I never throw any thing out if I can help it.
So I wear my herringbone patterned dress and I stand in front of the class and of course all the hands shoot up as I am getting ready to disappoint them with the dreaded words, “No, this is not a costume.” And one student says, “Are you a real estate person?” (That of course had become their go-to which makes me wonder why I, who could never sell a house to anyone even if it were going for free, are their idea of a real estate saleswoman?)
“Nope. I’m not a real estate person.”
“Mrs. Tawel, are you a business woman?” “No.”
“You’re an airline person!” “Nope.”
“You’re a tree!” “Um, I’m not sure how you got that, but nope.”
And finally above all the shooting hands still trying to put off the moment when we really do have to do our grammar, the darling, sweet, tiny, delightful Mia, loudly blurts out:
“Mrs. Tawel – You’re a COW!”
A room full of big scared eyes looking at me for a response.
And I can’t help it. I begin to laugh and say, “Why, yes Mia, I am a Cow!”
And an eruption of hilarious laughter overcomes the entire room and we all laugh until we are literally holding our stomaches and falling out of our desks. (The boys love any excuse to laugh and fall out of their desks, so…).
And so the legend was born and the story of My People– the 7th Grade Class of Mrs. Tawel was born and soon took on a life of it’s own, much as the now mythologically legendary story of my son, the Leopard Printed Mama Hunter, became a legendary story to tell and retell for years and years. And years and years hence, these stories will be repeated and told again and again; because the best mythologically proportioned stories of all are the ones that make us laugh. And the stories that help us understand who we really are in our collective heart of hearts are worth storing up and remembering and retelling to each other and telling to new people who become Your People. And in those days when you need a good story in the silences, they are worth remembering even when you are all by yourself. Even if you laugh all by yourself.
“Why yes, Mia, I am a Cow!”
I have never seen my Anglophile husband laugh so hard as when I told him this story because of course, after years of watching PBS and British movies, we know that you simply do not call your teacher a “cow”. But then, haven’t you found as I have recently that we have lost the ability to laugh and we have especially lost the ability to laugh at ourselves?
I learned in the car rides to school with my son that you can’t take some one else’s life captive with your seriousness about what they should do and who they should be. And maybe we shouldn’t be so serious about our own day’s future accomplishments? Maybe we should just be present in the very moment we have, enjoying the ride we are on right now.
I should have realized that Gordon and I would share a love of laughing together when he as a child designed these matching noses for us to wear together:
I learned with Mr. Hampton that the very best gift a friend can give is laughter and that if you are not willing for that laughter to be about you, then you are missing out on the delightful lightness of being. I think about that scene in the movie “Mary Poppins” when crazy Uncle Albert played by the laughable and laughing Ed Wynn, invites everyone up to the ceiling for a tea party. The only way they can rise is to laugh. Maybe the only way we as people are going to Rise is to go back to sitting around together with all the machines turned off and tell our stories to each other. Maybe we could laugh together at the things that otherwise might pull us down. I personally don’t want to spend my life with both feet planted firmly on a ground that could open up before me at any moment and suck me down into yet another horribly serious situation. I couldn’t agree more with Uncle Albert when he sings, “I Love to Laugh”. And if laugher is called the best medicine, then perhaps learning to laugh at one’s self is like a successful surgical operation that just might save one’s life. Laughter is the “surgery” that removes the bad “heart” and replaces it with a brand, new good heart. Or maybe it replaces whatever is wrong inside with a funny bone. (Ta dum duh!) When we laugh, we begin to rise above the typical responses to problems or situations. Laugh and Rise Above.
And finally, I learned from my students, that the honest pure blurtings of a child are incredibly Freeing and Hopeful. It is after all, a child who blurts out, “The Emperor has no clothes on! Don’t you all see, the Dictator is naked!” And the teacher is dressed like a Heifer today. And when every one in the room can see the truth in a child’s happy, hilarious awkward shout, then we are all freed into the wonderful simplicity of child-like truth and wonder. For that moment of shared laughter, we have those eternal things called Hope and Love. And we Rise Above.
A child blurted out, “Mrs. Tawel, you are a cow.” And I laughed. And we all laughed.
Because honestly? — what does it matter if I look like a cow? If I can laugh at myself, I just might avoid acting like one.
Dressing up in costumes is a lot more fun that dressing to impress. I highly recommend it, intentional or not. And I highly recommend allowing others to laugh at you – and then joining them. Maybe if we all laugh at ourselves a bit more, we will have less time for being stressed, and worried, and combative. And we can in sometimes silent companionship, but sometimes giggling together joyfulness, enjoy the ride we’re on right now.
Let’s make stories together — of mythical, legendary proportions! Let’s make some belly-laugh fall -out -of- our -chair moments together. We so often choose the path of talking our To-Do lists to death and taking each other so very, very seriously in our Emperor clothing. The ride to work seems to be full of anticipated stressful and busy, busy serious moments just around the corner. We have forgotten that the current path we are walking on is just this moment. The path of joy and wonder in The Now is a path we seem to have veered off from lately, but, if we choose the path of laughter shared, then just maybe, our children and our children’s children and their children’s children will have a future worth making To-Do Lists about and as Robert Frost might encourage us,
The Cow with Her Beloved 7th Grade Herd