Image: Ron Coddington
“Why you gotta be so sarcastic?”
Why? In the two seconds before I answered that query from my student — let’s call her “Julia” — I thought, “Are you seriously asking me that? You who walks into class late every day wearing earbuds and looking at her phone? Who I have to scold repeatedly about texting in the classroom? Who has already plagiarized part of an essay? Who snickers and rolls her eyes during discussion? Who groans with annoyance when I insist she lift her head up off the desk? Who …?”
I could've kept going but the class was waiting for me to say something. To my own surprise — in a clear and sincere voice (so unlike my own) — I half-bowed my head and said, “I'm sorry, Julia, for my sarcasm.”
And class proceeded.
It was like a dream where instead of falling or being hit by a car you fall into a soft, soft couch.
I like my teaching persona — comfortable, familiar, jokey, confident, easygoing. That's not how I am in most of the rest of my life. I have a parenting mode, but I'm not so happy with it: I tend to sigh and hesitate before speaking, make disapproving faces, and continue speaking despite signs of weariness from my kids. And I have a husband mode, which my wife knows, and I'm afraid that's not my best self, either.
One thing all of my modes and personae have in common is a sense of sarcasm. I do my best to avoid snarky rejoinders when I’m teaching yet they pop out uninvited.
My sarcasm lives at the back of my mouth and it's ugly. Some people hide their teeth or breath with their hands; I should hide the sarcasm. I'm trying to think of a moment where my sarcasm saved the day, or put things right. What is sarcasm, anyway? If my sarcastic rejoinder is funny — if it makes us all laugh — it's a nail I hit with the hammer of my wit. But how many of my cracks are actually like that? Maybe one in 100?
Let's go back to what prompted Julia’s question.
We were two class meetings away from the midterm. I had written the date on the syllabus. I had written the date that morning on the board. I had printed at home a canary-yellow sheet for each student listing the “Big Dates” — of the midterm (TUESDAY!) and the later exams. The night before class, I had emailed all the same information to my students.
Although Julia had come in late, she was seated when I began handing out the canary-yellow sheets. I told students to review it, and then I returned to my desk and asked if there were any questions. One of Julia's classmates, Ronald, sitting next to her, asked: “You already gave us this information, right?”
Ronald: “Nothing new, then?”
Ronald: “So why we do we need this paper, too?”
Me: “Just to make sure.”
That’s when Julia called out, “Wait, when's the midterm?”
And I replied: “When? ... It's whenever you read what’s in your hands!”
If she had said “Oh!” or had gone silent at that point, I wouldn't have given my response to her another thought — just continued seeing her as hopelessly rude. I hadn't been tallying my previous shots of sarcasm in class. All semester I had — like a reckless Greek warrior — been letting them pass through the barrier of my teeth.
However, Julia, my enemy, had noticed. And now she wanted to know: What was it with me and my sarcasm?
If I could replay that morning 100 times, I probably would have erupted 98 times with either the same crack or some other sarcastic variant. Some of her classmates would have sympathized with her, a few with me, things might have gotten more tense, and Julia and I would have been derailed for the day. Once uttered the sarcasm “puts me up a tree,” as Tom Waits sings it, and there I would have been sitting all day — fuming, discombobulated.
I remember a baseball player, Jim Bouton, who said, “It never hurts to apologize, even if you don't mean it.” I didn't like the insincerity of his sentiment. And yet — having insincerely apologized to Julia in class that day — I keep coming back to the feeling that I did have something to apologize for.
My sarcasm helps me release steam in the moment but that doesn’t really compensate for the problems it creates later on. Because I have to explain to students — often students whose first language is not English — that I was joking, that I didn't mean what I said, that I meant the exact opposite. From that moment on, my students are unsure if I ever mean what I say.
But wasn’t I just giving a snarky answer to a stupid question?
“Stupid?” One of my classroom goals, which I tell myself and my students, is for them to ask me anything whenever they have a question. Sarcasm is a punch back — proof I didn't mean what I said. They know now they have to be careful: Ask the wrong question and I might mock them.
So I have a new resolution for the fall: Cut the sarcasm.
Julia, forgive me. And I mean it this time.