What’s wrong with this picture? To the uninitiated, quite a bit. A teacher, David Neilan, is handing a rubber duck to a student, Dyer Rhoads. That seems weird. On top of that, there is another student in the background who seems not to be noticing the odd exchange taking place in front of her. Strange. Why wouldn’t she notice? And where is this taking place anyway? The principal’s office? Why is there a rubber duck in the principal’s office? Really strange. Right?
Well, no, not really, not at Waynflete at least. Anybody who has been a part of the Upper School in the past 17 years will recognize this scene as one of Mr. Neilan’s triumphs in his obsession with handing people random objects just to see who will take them. This obsession has gone on since well before he arrived at Waynflete in 1997. In fact there is a rumor (well there will be, once I get it started) that Mr. Neilan was driven out of his former school by colleagues who were sick of him handing them useless things.
If that were indeed the case, then his old school simply lacked a sense of humor.
Fortunately for Mr. Neilan, that is not the case at Waynflete. My wife Melissa knows something about Waynflete. Besides being married to me, she has lived Waynflete through the experiences of our two Waynflete “lifer” children, their friends, their friends’ parents, and the many faculty whom she has come to know over the years. Melissa understands the School as well as anybody could who isn’t present on a daily basis. Whenever she is asked about Waynflete, one of the first things she always says is, “ Waynflete is a school with a sense of humor.”
Now what could she mean by that? Perhaps she has noticed that humor abounds. For example, instead of being annoyed by David Neilan’s obsession, we indulge him and celebrate his occasional triumphs with him. And take this picture of the new water bottle filling station that our environmental group and Ross Burdick lobbied for in the hope of keeping us well hydrated while reducing the number of plastic bottles we consume. Even before the station was fully functional, Mr. Mini saw an opportunity to amuse himself by labeling it as a chocolate milk dispenser. He quickly discovered that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who found the sign funny, and those who were sorely disappointed to find that it was inaccurate.
And then there is Julianna Harwood ‘15, who fills her bottle at the station regularly and claims to anyone who will listen that she is drinking clear chocolate milk, which she insists “tastes just as good as regular” and, according to what James Carlisle has told her, “is better for you.” Since then, the station labeling has been updated regularly to being a dispenser of “Mouthwash,” “Performing Arts Credit,” “Liquid Study Skills,” “Free #shakesyear puns,” “College Recommendations,” and, just in time for Thanksgiving, “Gravy.” Who knows what it will dispense next. After overhearing two of the younger students earnestly debate whether or not the School had wasted its money on a mouthwash dispenser, I’d have to say that humor is the common ingredient.
Fortunately for Waynflete, humor, like clear chocolate milk, is good for you. According to Lydia Maier, Waynflete’s Dean of Student Affairs,
“Humor is an essential ingredient in having an open mind, one that is ready to learn. It is an instantaneous stress-reliever, because it shifts your attention off stressful thoughts and into a fresh new moment of awareness. You gain perspective and come back to your senses, so to speak. A good laugh is a positive stimulus to direct us away from more negative feelings. In fact, researchers are beginning to document serious health benefits of frequent laughter. Just think of the last time you laughed heartily and how it connected you to those involved – even to relative strangers. I especially love those Improv Everywhere pranks on youtube where a group of actors can get a whole subway or store full of employees laughing at the unpredictable momentary shift away from monotony.
My Waynflete classmate Henry Wishcamper ‘90, a great improv actor, wore one of two t-shirts throughout his high school career – one was a plain white shirt with tiny ants crawling all over it and the other was a black shirt with the milky way galaxy with a “You are here” arrow. Speaking of learning, we remember what is funny, so I’ve never forgotten those shirts, and somehow, they also put all of the stress of high school in perspective for me.”
If humor is a key to good health, Waynflete is doing pretty well. And it is a sign of intelligence as well. Not necessarily the step-on-the-rake kind of humor, or when cruelty passes for humor, like when the golf team lured me out onto the links, videotaped my drive, and then played the video at assembly. Not funny. And two of my own advisees were in on it and still seem to think the whole thing was amusing. That hurts. Apparently Carol Titterton thought it was hilarious. Click on the picture of Carol laughing hysterically at me and check out the video of my now infamous drive. I am sure you’ll agree with me that the video is neither funny nor intelligent. Really.
But humor is intelligent when it leaves you seeing the world a little differently. Think Stephen Cobert or John Stewart. Or consider some more local examples. Last fall I invited Lucas O’Neil ‘08 to speak at an Upper School assembly. I introduced Lucas, without informing him in advance, by playing a video of him singing in high school. As if we had rehearsed it, he incorporated his high school performance into his hilarious and meaningful talk. In his talk, he equated living life with doing stand up improvisational comedy, both of which he was doing – living life and improvisational comedy – before our eyes. Students packed my office to have lunch with Lucas afterwards. Click this link to watch the video of when The Lucas O’Neil Show came to Waynflete. Speaking of smart Waynflete comedy shows, in case you somehow missed it, click on this link to watch the latest one, The Spare Time Show with Dyer Rhoads.
After watching Lucas and Dyer at work and thinking about Mr Neilan, the filling station, and the funny things that happen at school on a daily basis, you may be wondering if Waynflete is actually a reality comedy show at its core. Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, I steadfastly maintain that we are more than that, but I do have to admit that we seem very capable of producing countless opportunities to laugh, especially at ourselves. And that is what it means to be “a school with a sense of humor.”
In my mind, that is a very good thing, but do keep an eye out for Mr. Neilan and his silly obsession. We just don’t want him having too much fun.