Back in grade school, I denied my parents were immigrants. I hungered to be
“all-American.” At the time, being all-American meant having peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches instead of my embarrassing homemade bread and sliced brisket. Wearing white blouses with circle pins on the Peter-Pan collars instead of a handmade gingham dress. I didn’t want to stand out. Standing out meant being teased.
I was born in America, but was called names because I didn’t speak English well, because I wore funny clothes, and not long after, because I could read (accent and all) before others and because I knew my multiplication tables early and could figure out long division. Being smart didn’t earn respect, it earned ridicule. I learned to tone it down.
But not enough. One day in second grade a boy behind me on the slide pushed me from the top. My head banged against the stairs and again on the ground and I was out cold for 10 minutes.
I was sent home, the teacher telling my mother that “he was only playing” and “your daughter must have said something he didn’t understand.” It was a small town in Texas and kids of immigrants weren’t welcomed then anymore than they are in Arizona today.
By the time second grade was over I had formed these beliefs:
1. Being smart is not a good thing unless you can do someone else’s homework and keep quiet about it. There will be no thanks, just retribution if you tell.
2. You do other people’s homework in the girl’s room or stay in from recess and do it in the coat room. If you don’t finish it, you will be tripped on your way to the blackboard. Or stabbed with a pencil in the lunch line.
3. When the teacher notices that a lot of kids seem to suddenly cross their sevens and catches on, you will be blamed by both the teacher and the kid whose homework you did. Avoiding notice is better than being found out as smart.
As I went on through school, many of the things other kids thought were hilarious were strange to me. I never understood physical humor. Cartoon figures slipping on a banana peel always made me worry that they were hurt. Pie-in-the-face didn’t look funny, it looked scary and I thought of food waste and clothes washing, not humor.
The phrase I came to associate with bullying (which I truly thought was my fault because I wasn’t American enough) was “you don’t have a sense of humor.” I believed it; in my America, other people made the rules I didn’t understand.
Over time, although I grew up in America, I came to realize that your DNA decides your humor, your esthetics and your taste in art. I tried hard to love early-American furniture, pine paneling and the desirability of going to college to find a husband while having a “safe” backup-career.
Still, every time I tried to fake it, I made a big mistake that created a tendency toward casual self-destruction.
It took years to trust myself, to realize that getting tripped while going to the blackboard or stabbed with a pencil in the lunch line was a punishment I could survive, but denying who I was simply left me trying to be something I could not sustain. It took years to figure out who I was, make some changes to heal, and become who I was: overly sensitive to the idea of fairness, committed to social justice, and an outsider artist.
And my sense of humor reflects that. I still don’t laugh at other people’s misfortune, fiction or not. I love word humor, clever endings, the underdog doing something surprising and winning.
But every time someone says, “You don’t have a sense of humor,” I smell the whiff of intolerance cloaking the heart of a bully. There is no one sense of humor that is OK, but anything that belittles, shames, or hurts others isn’t funny. Not to me.
Tomorrow: Part II, Saturday’s incident that triggered a lot of thinking.