Who’s up for a quick dash through the cemetery of painful memories? Neither am I. But I’ve been working on a new story that requires me to revisit some very painful moments of classroom and relationship embarrassments in order to achieve the necessary subtextual authenticity needed to make the story really funny.
As I’ve discovered, pain is funny. Men in pain is twice as funny. The simple mathematics of comedy. The reason why that should be true evades me, and probably something I should take up for deep, philosophical consideration at a later date.
So, I’m strolling through the burial ground, checking for the stench of a truly unsettling episode of embarrassment that I can reshape into comic motivation for the main character I’m writing in the new work.
One especially fertile patch of ground is where I buried the emotional turmoil of my one and only unrequited schoolyard crush. From fourth grade to high school, that emotional entanglement provided plenty of debasement. I can trace my development as an expert black-belt, grand master, poobah in emotional self-defense to that imaginary relationship and all of the episodes of humiliation that flowed from it.
Moving around the vast acreage of interred memories, I wandered over to the stale earth I’d shoveled over that particular series of situations. The smell was as pungent as ever. The rich offal of those terrible feelings would make for some very authentic character development. Why waste it? Writers, I’m told, use everything, leaving nothing sacred untouched.
It was fourth grade and it was my turn to be health monitor. In fourth grade back then, there weren’t a lot of ways for teachers to provide leadership opportunities. This was the teacher’s way of making each student special, if only for a few minutes. There wasn’t much to the role except to follow the teacher around with a clipboard and a pen. She’d give each student the once over, nodding, smiling, having the health monitor put a check mark in the boxes indicating that the inspected student was neat, tidy, appeared to be in tolerable good health. All generally positive.
My turn in the rotation for that responsibility came and I was delighted to be the slightly off-center of attention as the teacher moved up and down the rows of desks, examining my classmates. It was a secret joy just to look on the object of my affection, having been deputized into exercising that right and responsibility in my role as health monitor.
We reached the last desk in the row where the object of my affection looked at me with sad, welcoming eyes. It’s a look that I’ve since interpreted as the kind of humble gaze we all reserve for undeciphered authority figures before we know for sure that we owe them obedience or scorn. It was sweet, and felt sort of, kind of, maybe somewhat like affection.