Originally posted on the “Good Letters” blog, Friday December 9, 2011
By Vic Sizemore
For the second term in a row, one of my students died in the middle of the semester. He disappeared and left a gaping hole in the spot where he had so faithfully sat every class.
Last semester the student was neither young nor healthy, so the news led us to sad but un-shocked nodding.
This time it was a kid just out of high school. He looked as healthy as any other eighteen year-old boy. He was a smart kid and a diligent student. The one thing that characterized him more than anything, at least in our class, was that he was quiet. One girl in his workshop group affectionately called him Quiet Boy.
The email from my dean said only that he had died unexpectedly. No cause of death was given. Immediately I thought a car crash, as that is how most young people meet their demise (statistically anyway). Then I thought maybe it was suicide, and that’s why no one was telling. I have since discovered that it was a diabetic coma—he went to bed Friday night and never woke up again.
As I called the next class to order, the girl from his workshop group said, “We have to wait for Quiet Boy.” She was serious. Quiet Boy didn’t talk, but he didn’t miss class either.
I almost responded, “We don’t have that much time,” which would have appeared inappropriate and insensitive. Instead I sat down at the computer and checked the email against my roster to make sure I hadn’t misread the name—though I knew I hadn’t—before I told her that Quiet Boy was dead.
She had been in my last class to lose a student. She said, “My God, that’s the second time.” After she stared at me in shock for a few seconds, she said, “Your classes are dangerous. I’m not taking you anymore.”
That wasn’t the last laugh we had in class either. Further along, I realized that we were all laughing hard, having naughty fun with the reading assignment, even throwing in some of our own off-color quips. I felt a little guilty, like we were being irreverent.
I had handed back the reading quizzes and there on the lectern in front of me was Quiet Boy’s. As in class, he said very little in his short answers, but he managed to make his point. Here are his first six answers:
4. Play guitar/stalk her
5. Sticks her butt out the window
I would like to have had a little more discussion of the characters, but he had obviously read the story.
It happens to all literature teachers I imagine. Every so often a student asks me, “Why do I have to read this stuff?” or “How am I ever going to use this in the real world?” That day in class I began to wonder about Quiet Boy. The last thing I had given him before he died was a discussion of a literary form called fabliau. The last bit of literature he read for me is a raunchy story that burlesques the weaknesses and stupidity of the human animal.
Maybe I would have felt better if we’d just finished something heavy and serious—The Death of Ivan Ilyich maybe—something that wasn’t just for laughs? I don’t know, but the more I think about it, the more I feel the funny stories are just as important in their way as the serious ones.
When we laugh at a ribald story, it is not the same as when we laugh along with the angry sneer of satire (though the line between categories isn’t always so clear). It is not the bitter laugh of despair either.
What I’m talking about is a hoot, a guffaw, a big old belly laugh. The fabliau is comic relief, the Falstaff of the literary canon, a narrative reminder to relax and take life a little less seriously. “It’s only life after all,” as The Indigo Girls sing—two ladies who, judging by their song lyrics, appear to have trouble taking their own advice on this point.
The dirty stories aren’t just comic relief, though, a way to blow off steam, release some of the pressure that builds up as we go about the hard work of survival.
We recognize two things in these stories. One is that we are physical—a fact we aren’t entirely comfortable with. Our pretenses to niceness and culture are stripped away and there is the animal we are, doing all the disgusting physical things animals do.
The second is troubling and comforting at the same time: we are mean and cruel and nasty to one another in ways that animals simply cannot be.
We laugh through tears of recognition. We admit that, yes, we are nasty and cruel. We cheat. We lie. We steal. We hurt the ones we love. In the admission is a glimmer of hope. Maybe since we can be so much worse than animals, we also have the potential to be so much better; maybe we aren’t mere brutes.
Underneath the laughter at ourselves burns the eternal longing to rise above the ugliness. We go about the trying in clumsy and bungling ways, but the urge behind all our goofs and screw ups—the longing for love, for meaning, for eternal life even—is deep and abiding.
That’s why we can laugh in the end. We believe there is more to the story. We believe this is comedy and not tragedy. As bad as things can be, we hold out for a happy ending.
What did I give Quiet Boy before he left? I can’t say for sure. But I can say I must keep teaching the dirty stories right along with everything else.
Every belly laugh is a big burst of hope.