My kindergarten students, all aged 5, do not understand the economy of language at all. They believe that sentences become stronger with length, when in reality the opposite is almost always true. It begins every morning when I ask them “How are you?”
As a joke, they like to respond with “I’m angry!” It’s not a very good joke. In fact, their inability to grasp the basic rules of comedy is another one of the shameful failings of my students. To them, comedy is simple irony. If you tell them to sit, they will stand. If you say hello, they will say bye-bye. If you tell them to whisper, they will scream. It gets to the point where attempts at levity devolve into insubordination. Or maybe I’m just not a good teacher.
Comedy, to a child, means identifying those things which are outside the realm of the usual, and referencing it ad nauseam. Kids are observant that way. They notice my unusual (to them) skin tone, and the hair on the back of my hands, and the way I cut my hair. This last one is especially sensitive, because I cut my hair myself, and I’m not very good at it.
But I digress.
My 5-year-olds believe that starting a morning by saying “I am angry” is top-shelf humour. And I will grant that it is a clever twist on convention, but the joke loses some of its luster once it has been said by a dozen students, individually, every day, for 60 days in a row. If they were professional comedians, speaking to a fresh audience every day, then perhaps they could be forgiven for the repetition. But as far as I can tell, they all have an audience of one, and that audience has thoroughly gotten the joke.
Until now, I’ve been writing their response as “I’m angry” for the sake of clarity. But the truth is that their answer to “How are you?” is not as succinct as that. Really what they will say is something along the lines of “Very very very very angry angry angry angry angry.”
It has become a game among my students to see who can express the most anger by giving the longest answer. Students will whistle out “very very very very angry angry angry angry” at high velocity, forcing as many verys and angrys into their response as they can until they run out of breath. Oftentimes their words will dissolve into nonsense, with their response sounding more like a buzzing “ve-ve-ve-ve-ve-ve-ve-ve [GASP] ve-ve-ve-ve-ve ang-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g!”
Not to be outdone, the next student will attempt an even longer string of meaningless noise, presumably to demonstrate that they are orders of magnitude angrier than the first student, and therefore somehow the winner of this ridiculous game.
I wish I could explain to my kids that their repeated use of very and angry does nothing to increase the strength of their answer. It’s basic maths:
Very + angry
= (1) + (1)
Very very very + angry angry angry
= (1) (1) (1) + (1) (1) (1)
So why waste your breath?
But it goes even deeper than that. My students don’t seem to realize that such long sentences yield diminishing returns. The more they speak, the more they lose. Like a person who swears all the time moves no one when they swear again, a person who is angry all the time surprises no one when they continue to repeat that they are angry. So I am not phased by young children repeating “very” and “angry” to the point of collapse. But I do think that I would become truly alarmed if one of them were to simply say, “Teacher, I’m angry.”
I will admit though, that as tiresome as this ritual can be, my writers’ room of 5-year-old comedy writers do occasionally strike it lucky. It’s usually a case of infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, but as their English vocabulary grows, so too grow their possible responses. You see, once each student has worn themselves weary from their marathon of verys and angrys, I will humor them by asking why they are so angry. Here, their tiny excited eyes will dart around the room, and they will begin naming names. “Because of Zack!” they will say. Except of course, they will say the real names of the students in my classroom. “Because of Kenneth! Libby! Jamie! Milo!” The more names they can call out, the better, as if to cast their net of anger wide. It’s a tease to their friend, and you can bet that when the friend’s turn comes around, they will list the original child as the source of their ire.
More recently, however, they have started becoming more abstract, shaping their responses around words they have heard recently. Once they learned the word “frog,” they began saying, “Angry because Michael Teacher is angry frog!”
When they learned the word ambulance I was informed that they were angry because “Michael Teacher is ambulance!”
And sometimes, on an unexpectedly harsh day like today, I was served with the deeply cutting response, “Angry because of Michael Teacher’s haircut!”