Learning to Laugh

For six years I was a social worker in Chicago.  I worked with clients with severe mental illnesses, teen runaways, young men at high risk for HIV transmission.  I learned a lot and often times found myself wondering how the powers that be (my bosses, the health care system, family members of my clients, my clients themselves) could possibly let a guy like me do an important job like this.  I worried about if I was doing enough.  If I was making unfixable mistakes.  If I was a pretender.

During this time in my professional life, it was my good fortune and plain dumb luck to be teamed up with Thomas Dunning, a veteran social worker and golden-haired prince of a man with the quickest smile in the city of Chicago.  I remember the first time I expressed my fears to him about the job I was doing.  Instead of a furrowed brow and the serious leaning-in response I expected, Tommy D. sat back in his chair and laughed.  The warmest laugh you could imagine.  A deep bubbling laugh, sweet like honey; a laugh that rose up and wrapped you not in shame, like some laughter does, but in joy and understanding.  And after he laughed, Thomas Dunning asked me, “What makes you think that what you are doing is so important?  That you are so special?”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.  Tommy D. did not always laugh.  He cried like all of us cried when we lost a client, when a teenager came to us broken and needing to be put back together, when the world was just too dark.  But it is his laugh I remember and miss most of all.  It was his way of reminding me, of reminding anyone who cared to listen, that we are not the centre of all things.  That while what we do might be important, it is not the final word, or even the most important word.

There is all kind of advice for us language teachers, things we should and should absolutely not do in our classrooms.  One of them is, ‘Never laugh at your students.’  Social workers get similar advice about never laughing at their clients.  Like all advice with the word ‘never’ in it, this advice is mostly worthless.  Tommy D taught me that it’s almost always OK to laugh.  Avoiding laughter wasn’t going to help anyone.  What I needed to do was find a way to laugh, my own way to laugh, which helped my clients feel safe.  It is the same laugh I carry within me now, the laughter which, I hope, helps my students feel safe as well.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised Tommy D., my first real mentor, was teaching me something much more important.  It wasn’t just about laughter.  It was about all rules which tell us ‘don’t.’  Rules which tell us  ‘don’t’ are the simple way out.  Don’t-rules are someone saying, ‘Hey, don’t think too much about about it.’  Don’t-rules are the simple path which cuts us off from finding our own way.  The real path to growth is rarely about believing in a list of don’ts.  Thanks to Thomas Dunning, I started to see how real growth began when we looked at all those don’t-rules, and tried to figure out when and why they sometimes need to be do-rules.

[The new iTDi blog is out .  From the beginning of March, I’ve been the acting editor/curator.  This issue, the blog posts are all about people like Thomas Dunning, people outside of ELT who have influenced us as teachers.  I hope you will give it a read, and perhaps join in the conversation by sharing an ‘Outside Influences’ story on your blog and linking to the iTDi blog.  This is my first time taking responsibility of something as large as the iTDi blog.  I am hoping not to make a total mess of it.  But while I’m worried, part of me knows it’s going to be just fine, just as long as I find a way to, at least once in a while, laugh at myself, and everything else going on around me.]