One of the first memories I have of visiting Hillbrook School, where I now work as Head of Lower School, was learning about the rituals and traditions of what is called “Flag” during my initial tour of campus. On Monday mornings, the whole school community (children, faculty, parents, etc.) comes together to share announcements, sing Happy Birthday to those celebrating that week, and start the week. It naturally struck me as a beautiful way for a community to mark time together through connection and celebration. And then I learned that at the end of Flag there is the invitation for children to tell JOKES, and I fell head over heels in love with the school.
In her book Voice Lessons, social-clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel writes,
“The first time you make your baby laugh is a delight. But the first time your child makes you laugh out loud is cosmic: a reward for your years of toil and a reliable bellwether of the quality of his life ahead…Laughter is our consolation prize for the indignities and cruel plot twists we all endure, beginning in childhood…it is the best relief valve for our culture of relentless striving, and children learn how to use it by watching you.”
If you’re not familiar with Hillbrook, some of what’s written below will be idiosyncratic to the rituals and rhythms of our school culture (and you should come visit!). That said, much of it is transferable to all children and their development. It is such a joy to watch children try on humor through joke-telling, and a privilege to reward them with our laughter. I find that there are a few recurring archetypes of joke experiences, and every time one of them makes an appearance during Flag I get a little giddy.
The one where the joke’s not really funny.
This happens almost every Flag, and I know there are people (mostly grown ups) in the audience who just don’t get (yet) why this archetype is the greatest of them all. I often get asked why I let kids go to the microphone to tell a joke that doesn’t make any sense. I do it because in that moment, the act of joke-telling isn’t about me or any adult, it’s about the risk that child is taking and the reward they deserve for that risk (the applause and appreciation of a crowd). The unfunny joke reminds me of how wondrous and mysterious child development is. When those 5-7 year olds (because that’s usually the age range the non-funny jokes come from) get up in front of 400+ people to introduce themselves and share a joke….they don’t know it’s not funny. Honestly, most of the things we find funny don’t really make sense to them yet. As their brains develop, the intricacies and nuances of language are just beginning to sprout. Most humor, and especially most jokes, are based on knowing these subtle nuances and double-meanings of words and phrases. In spite of that, these children have learned a few critical things:
- Making people laugh with you feels good. It feels good to them and it feels good to you.
- Words and language can be used to communicate needs and to elicit emotions (like joy and delight), this makes words powerful.
- Jokes (and humor) have a rhythm to them. There is often a question posed, and there is a punchline. The punchline is what makes people smile.
- Anyone can tell a joke to anyone (or hundreds of anyones at the same time!)
So they stand up and introduce themselves to all of the Hillbrook community, and tell a joke. And every time they are rewarded for their efforts. And I promise, they all learn how to tell truly funny jokes eventually. Stick it out with them. In the meantime, don’t shut down their non-funny jokes. They are trying on a lot of behaviors, and their motivation is to delight and captivate you. A laugh is a small price to pay in exchange for the gift they are giving you by trusting you with their developing sense of humor.
The one where they refuse to tell me their joke before going to the microphone.
This usually happens towards the beginning of the year, when the routine of needing to “practice” (read: pre-approve) their joke with me before going to the microphone isn’t fully understood yet. There have been a handful of time over the years when a child has flat out refused to tell me their joke before going to the stage. They look at me like I’m a thief, like I’m going to steal their joke or am cutting in line by not waiting to listen to it at the right time. Eventually I can usually get them to practice, but they still look at me like I just don’t get how this Flag and joke-telling thing works. Which brings me to….
The one where they practice one joke with me and then tell another one from on stage.
Like the two archetypes before it, this one also stems from a not-yet-fully-formed understanding of how jokes work. They seem to think that once they tell a joke, they can’t repeat that same joke at the microphone. They’ve used it up! So somewhere between whispering to me a joke and when they get to the stage, they invent a NEW joke (usually unfunny or nonsensical, see above). Common themes of invented jokes include: puppies, kittens, chickens, cookies, and anything with the knock-knock format.
The one where they try to tell the knock-knock joke with the banana & orange and botch the delivery.
I’ve been an educator for nearly 15 years and this happens multiple times every single year, even at schools that don’t have Flag and don’t do jokes! The joke is supposed to go like this:
Ugh! WHO’S THERE?!
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana!
Kids love this joke, and even very young children understand it. There’s suspense. Confusion. Frustration. And the inevitable dawning of comprehension and ensuing hilarity. It is an automatic home run. So naturally, they want to give this gift of extraordinary humor to the Hillbrook community at Flag. They want to be the deliverers of such hilariousness! Who wouldn’t?
But almost always, in their eagerness to get to that moment where they bask in the glorious laughter and appreciation of the audience…they switch the fruits. They start with orange (instead of banana). You can see a little furrow of confusion on their face as they realize that something is off, but they can’t quite put their finger on what. Sometimes they even get to the end and sort of mumble through an uncertain “Banana…you glad I didn’t…say…orange?” And they walk off looking at each other like “Why didn’t that work quite right?” Nevertheless, the community always applauds and cheers.
The one with the chicken that crosses something to do something else.
I admit, I don’t particularly like this joke. However, there is something comforting about it. It’s like a warm blanket or a comfort food. It shows up when you need it and it’s always there to fall back on. Because, at the heart of it, getting up to tell a joke at Flag isn’t really about funny. It’s about community. It’s about exemplifying our core values through a shared experience. I find that more often than any other age group it’s our older students who most often pull out the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke during their last years at Hillbrook. I know it’s not because they’ve run out of ideas or sources. I like to think it’s because they are rehearsing the parts of Hillbrook that are most beloved to them through laughing at Flag and semi-funny tried and true chicken jokes.
I invite you to watch for and delight in these archetypes at Flag throughout the year. If you aren’t fortunate enough to join us every week, I imagine many of these archetypes play out in front of you from the children in your own life, and now you know to look for it. These are little morsels of childhood, clues to where their brains are growing and signposts for the road ahead. I am sure there are more I have missed and will continue to uncover in the years ahead. Jokes remains my favorite Hillbrook tradition because no matter how bad your case of the Mondays is, you can come to Flag knowing you will be treated to a display of courage, humor, risk-taking, delight, teamwork, and joy. Flag, and the tradition of jokes, is about belonging – and that’s why we show up and laugh and applaud and cheer no matter what.