Humour is one of the greatest weapons a teacher can have in their behavioural management armoury. The ability to make a wise crack in a situation that could otherwise turn nasty, or to administer a quick-witted yet good-natured put down to lightly point out a student’s daftness can be the difference between you finishing a class grinning like a Cheshire cat or having screamed yourself hoarse in the fashion of Ron Burgundy in his glass cage of emotion. I have found this particularly true of high-achieving, overtly confident students who enjoy both a battle of wits and using their intellect to push the boundaries with you in more subversive and inventive ways than Tyrone Wakefield in 11B3 looking up swear words in your dictionary and then yelling out ‘f*ckwit’ at the top of his voice on the premise that ‘it’s ok because it’s in the dictionary and that means it’s English’.
When you’ve been teaching for a while then you have quite a few stock phrases and responses to call upon (though these can be dangerous as I mentioned last week), and so most of the time you have the upper hand on the kids and you can make them giggle and get back on task, rather than getting into a drawn-out conflict. A couple of my favourites are to use alliteration, pun or rhyming words in conjunction with a student’s name if they are up to no good, which instantly disarms them, catches them off guard and yet makes them feel like you’ve thought about them. For example: Sanjelina Jolie (for a lad called Sanjay), Nelson Frandela (for a girl called Francesca), Fryerrhoea (for the surname Fryer), Tamogotchi (for a girl called Tammy) and so on and so forth. By doing this, you are challenging that student to offer an emotional and psychological response that cuts down their processing time; this split second then gives you the chance to redirect them before they can come up with a retort.
Unfortunately for me, there are some students who process faster than others.
Even more unfortunately for me, there are some students who process faster than I can.
This week’s Fail Friday recalls one such moment when I attempted to fire off a shot of witty yet childish humiliation in the direction of one of my students only to have them not only dodge the bullet, but also return fire with a volley of verbal warheads.
It all began because the student in question was christened with a deviant spelling of the name ‘Emily’. Rather than making it simple for me and spelling the end of the name with the traditional ‘Y’, her name ended with ‘IE’ – Emilie. My limited intellectual capacity, coupled with a memory with enough holes in it to be the envy of a Swiss-cheese factory, led to me repeatedly spelling the name incorrectly. A lot.
Now, in the eyes of the outside world (especially students) an English teacher spelling anything incorrectly is a despicable, hypocritical atrocity that negates their entire reason for existing. It is a disjunctive dereliction of duty akin to a butcher that only sells vegetables, a devil-worshipping nun with sex addiction, or a supreme-court judge who has been arrested for masturbating in a playground after setting fire to a donkey sanctuary. So in the eyes of Emily, sorry Emilie, it was a professional negligence that called my whole reason for being into question, as well as being perceived as a conscious and calculated emotional rejection. After all, why did I remember how to spell all the other students’ names?
My lexical philandering was compounded by the fact that there were two other students in the class who had the ‘regular’ spelling of Emily for a name, lulling my brain into a false sense of confidence and security. This meant that whenever I rushed to fill in the myriad feedback forms for assessments that signified the end of an epochal stretch of marking, I invariably rushed to complete them, like a child wolfing their dinner down so they could go out and play again, feeling the sweet sweet freedom of being unshackled from the bondage of duty.
Things came to a volcanic head after I gave back a set of Macbeth essays. In keeping with the outstanding consistency of my stupidity and forgetfulness, I had once again neglectfully denied Emily, sorry Emilie, of the ‘I’ and the ‘E’ that brought her so much happiness and reassurance, being a badge of unique honour. In its place was the accursed ‘Y’, that vile stain that ends the name of the undistinguished, plebeian and numerous Emilys who clog up the realm of the proper noun with their abundant averageness. Or something like that.
Upon receiving her essay feedback form, not having been satiated or quelled by achieving the highest grade in the class, Emily, sorry Emilie, began bellyaching about the misspelling of her name, bleating like a sheep whose owner had just called it Anus instead of Enis. A deluge of wild accusations and insults delivered with a sardonic tongue rained down upon me, some of which I will list here:
‘What’s wrong with you? Have you got something really wrong with you?’
‘Your memory can’t be that bad. You must be doing it on purpose!’
‘How difficult is it to remember that one name is different from another?’
‘You call yourself an English teacher! You can’t even spell your students’ names!’
‘What kind of mental problems do you have?’
I listened good-humouredly to the tirade of teenage treachery, all the while plotting what I believed would be a clever and hysterical comeback that I was sure would put an end to all of her perfectly valid criticisms. In order to do this, I used the ‘I’ and the ‘E’ from the end of her name to create the abbreviation for id est ‘i.e.’ so that I could engage in some devilish wordplay. My retort – an attempt at humour via the medium of satirical mockery – went something like this:
‘It’s your fault for having an attention seeking name. As in Emilie, as in Emil (pause and a switch to a whiny, poorly-executed Canadian accent) I.E. my name has to be so different to everybody else’s to affirm my unique awesomeness, as in I.E. look at me; I’m so much more special and different to you all because I have a weirdly spelt name, as in I.E. I want to constantly be a talking point, as in I.E. me me me me me. I think it’s time to accept that it is just a ridiculous name.’
I once briefly worked on the door of a nightclub in Bristol and every night was a battle that brought a multitude of drunken adversaries. On the nights that I worked there were usually three of us: myself (back then a strapping six-footer, even though I was only doing ticketing), Neil – a six foot four musclebound hulk who looked like he had been fathered by a minotaur, and Phon – a diminutive gentleman from Thailand who was about five foot six and as thin as a reed. Normally, the pissheads who had been thrown out of, or never made it into, the club would start arguing or picking fights with us. However, they would normally leave Neil and I alone and single-out little Phon – believing he was the easy battle. In actuality, Phon was a former Muay-Thai boxer who was as lithe, graceful and deadly as a jungle panther. Frequently, and invariably, his opponents misjudged him and, upon attempting to attack him, were left doubled over in agony after a deft and sickening kick to the crotch.
I was reminded of this scenario as Emily, sorry – Emilie, responded to what I naively believed was an unassailable attack that was destined to vanquish her rebellion and end with me as the victor. But, like the staggering drunkards swinging blind and hopeless punches at Phon, I had misjudged and underestimated my opponent, my opponent who responded with the verbal equivalent of a thunderous boot to the testicles. The retort was lightning quick, as cutting and sharp as a cutthroat razor and, crucially, employed exactly the same kind of put down I had administered, in the same tone and tenor.
This was the genius of her counter-attack. By cunningly apeing my offensive, she had ensured that I could not really tell her off for it without resorting to double-standards. I had set the bar for what was acceptable in the interaction and I couldn’t renege on levels of appropriateness, having ignored them myself. It was a psychological bear trap that this thick-headed grizzly had not only walked straight into, but had even helped to craft and set.
And then the jaws of the trap slammed shut.
You may have picked up on the fact that my name is Richard through visiting the site. You may also be aware that there are several abbreviated or alternative forms of the name Richard. There is Rick, Ricky, Rich, Richie, Chard, Rickard. There is also another short form of the name. Emily, sorry Emilie, was also aware of the omission from the aforementioned list. Have you guessed what it is yet? If not, here is her comeback – visceral, cerebral, rapid – in all its glory:
‘Well sir, do you know any other names for Richard? How about DICK? Isn’t DICK another name for Richard. I wonder why your parents would have called you DICK. What could have made them want to call you DICK? If my name is an extension of my personality, is yours as well DICK?’
A terse silence fell upon the class; they were a sea of suppressed smiles and caged laughter, waiting to see whether the smoke that had plumed from Vesuvius had been an ominous harbinger of impending eruption. They didn’t dare laugh, because every one of them sensed a weapons-grade bollocking. The light in Emily’s, sorry – Emilie’s, eyes momentarily flickered out as they widened in the horror of a realisation that had come too late, her face turning corpse-grey as the adrenalin shot that had fuelled her instinctive defence wore off. I met her stare with a steely gaze and iron jaw that gave nothing away. Whilst locked in the No Man’s Land of that protracted eye contact, a portion of my brain was a smouldering pot of molten anger, trying to tell me that the right thing to do was to unleash a white-hot barrage of fury – the aforementioned weapons-grade bollocking.
But the rest of me protested; it was just too damn funny.
My ambiguous gaze and clench-jawed scowl melted slowly into a smile, before evolving into a lung-busting belly laugh. Emilie (for after that insult I shall never forget the correct spelling) and the entire class joined me in cackling like hyenas at a savannah stand-up for a solid ten minutes. It was a moment I will never forget. I told the class that Emilie’s oral smackdown was the solitary insult of that magnitude that would ever be tolerated in my classroom, and that in the future they would just have to remember that no matter what happened, or how they felt, they could mentally rely on the fact that I would always be a Dick.
Three years later I was teaching many of the same students from this group on the IB Language and Literature course. Emilie and one of the other Emilys were both in the class. I had just given out the feedback sheets for some coursework when Emily without the IE on the end of her name put her hand up. In an apologetic tone she said ‘Sir. You’ve spelt my name wrong. You’ve spelt it with an IE on the end instead of a Y.’
I guess sometimes there is just no escape from being a Dick.