Education Matters: Comfortable enough to laugh

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

I discovered long ago how easily embarrassed teenagers are.

I was once 17, a lifetime ago it seems (or was it just yesterday?), and I was at war with myself. There was the me who wanted to be myself, wanted to assert my individuality, wanted to claim an identity that was all my own. And there was the other, conformist me, who did not want to stand out, who wanted desperately to fit in.

The battle lines were drawn, with the conformist usually winning out over the individualist. And so it is with most of the kids I have taught over the years.

Right from the first day of class when my new students say who they are, it’s pretty easy to spot the ones that are not quite sure of themselves, are painfully shy, and don’t want attention drawn to them. It is easier yet to see who the extroverts are, who crave attention and insist on making their presence known early on.

But both groups, owing to their tender age, can be very easily embarrassed, not yet having developed hard shells to protect their fragile egos. We teachers are uniquely situated to deliver daily doses of embarrassment, usually unintentional, to our students by singling them out for one thing or another.

I always tried to put my kids at ease, reminding them that their teacher (me) will, in the course of the year ahead, embarrass himself multiple times and in multiple ways. I give a few examples to put them at ease, knowing full well that I only scratch the surface.

Like the times that I have worn socks that don’t match, (“Mr. Kimber, do you know that you have one black sock and one blue sock on?”) and, hard to believe, on one occasion, when my shoes didn’t match. (What can I say, it was dark when I put them on.)

Like when I let the world map go scrolling upward and it came off its moorings and crashed down on my head. After the briefest moment of concern, there followed a full minute of laughing — a history teacher getting bopped in the head with one of his maps that jumped off the wall. Classic.

Like the three times in my career that I stood in front of a class with my fly down. That’s one episode per decade by my reckoning, which I’m guessing is not a bad record, but it’s doubtful there are any stats on that. I can say that each time it was acutely embarrassing for me and immensely entertaining to the kids.

Like the time when I was making dramatic gestures to put life into a boring subject and, owing to a few extra pounds I had put on, my belt buckle was given flight and landed on a student’s desk. There was a gasp followed by a shriek from the young lady in the front row diligently taking notes. It was surely a moment seared in the memory of both teacher and student.

I tell my students to get enough sleep on school nights, and that bit of advice usually goes through 35 sets of ears in a flash, committed as so many are to their nocturnal texting habits. But then I tell the story of a high school sophomore many years ago (45 to be exact) who found his history teacher’s lectures to be sleep-inducing. One of his classroom slumbers had the teacher come to his desk to shake him awake.

As he raised his head from his desk, there was (How can I say this delicately?) a significant drool that caught just about everyone’s attention in the class who were then further entertained by a sudden awakening that sent books flying to the floor and a dazed student who suddenly realized where he (I) was.

Having a whole classroom laughing with you is one of the great pleasures of my profession. Having them laugh at you from time to time is OK too. We teachers sometimes, whether consciously or not, cultivate an image that puts us above our students, and I think it’s important for them to know that we’re not all that different.

Yes, of course we know more than them, but our emotions, our fears, our insecurities and our embarrassments are not far removed from their own.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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