Sunday was April first and I was reminded of a rainy April Fools’ Day at the end of Dye House Hill. My sister Martha-Jean and I had run all the way to the bus stop in order to play a joke on our friends.
As we stood in the drizzle, Martha-Jean pulled a small plastic bag from her pocket. The bag contained whole cloves from our mother’s pantry. Taking a clove from the bag, she told the other children at the bus stop that they were candy and instructed them to put them into their mouths and bite hard. Ever the cohort in crime, I nodded in agreement, while the kids jostled to be the first to bite into a woody brown morsel. Soon, the group of children were gagging and spitting as the oil from the cloves hit their tongues and stuck in their teeth. Curiously, everyone laughed and thought it a fine prank. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why they weren’t angry, but to them it was harmless and humorous, and no one was the worse for it.
Children love practical jokes. I don’t mean bullying, or picking on someone smaller, or weaker, or less intelligent. I mean the kind of fun where everyone involved has a hearty laugh. When my children were small, April Fool’s Day was a hugely popular holiday. I remember one year in particular, when they were quite young. The kids had heard their father tell stories about growing up in the Midwest and knew he had experienced several close encounters with poisonous snakes. Knowing how much their daddy detested reptiles, they drew and cut out paper snakes and placed them around the master bedroom while he showered. Then they sat at the kitchen table, snickering over their Cheerios, awaiting their father’s reaction.
Their dad reentered the bedroom, saw their handiwork, and not wanting to disappoint them, ran through the house screaming“Snake! Snake!” as if he were terrified. The children chortled with glee, and yelled, “April Fool!” delighted that they had tricked their daddy, and he winked at me over his coffee, equally delighted that he had pleased his little ones.
I might be wrong, but I think teaching children to have good-natured fun with each other is an integral part of their development. When Gabe was still only a baby, he found great pleasure in the absurd. While dressing him, I would put a sock on his head instead of his foot and he would convulse with giggles, relishing the unexpected. Ashe got older, he picked up on more subtle humor, noticing the asides and double entendres on Sesame Street. Now grown, he is witty and a bit snarky, and although he would rather plan a harmless practical joke, he doesn’t mind being the brunt of one.
I’ve heard parents object to joking with children, fearful that they will injure their self-esteem, but I think that by teaching them fun and fair teasing, we can teach our kids that it is okay to laugh at themselves. True- some areas are out-of-bounds. I never joked about our children’s physical characteristics, or did things to make them appear stupid, or humiliate them. I never joked about things that the children felt were important. I never mocked them, or made fun of them. A joke is only a joke if everyone laughs.
One of my favorite practical jokes was a long running gag that I played on Paul C., who was a close friend from college. I was an RA in the dorms and Paul was my supervisor. He was a huge Kung Fu fan who not only practiced the art but religiously watched the television show that starred David Carradine. In the opener to the show, the Kung Fu master teases his young student, nicknamed “Grasshopper” and tells him to take the pebbles from his hand. The student makes an attempt, but the master quickly swipes them away before the boy is able to remove them. The teacher explains to his protégé, “When you can take the pebbles from my hand, then you will know it is time for you to go.”
Paul, who by then was a grad student, had been part of the resident life staff for several years. We teased him about being a professional student, often telling him it was time for him to move on. One day, when I picked up a message from the RA mail cubby, I had an idea. Placing a few pebbles in Paul’s cubby, I left a note, “Grasshopper, it is time for you to go.”
When Paul found the pebbles and message, he had no idea who left them, or how to respond. I waited several days and again left a few pebbles in his mailbox. Again, it drove him crazy that he did not know who left the cryptic message. For months, I snuck pebbles into his cubby, and he never guessed it was I. To this day, I cannot look at little white pebbles without thinking of Paul and the fun I had.
In most instances I am indeed the mischievous perpetrator, but yesterday, I completely forgot it was April Fool’s Day. I was in Nashville, visiting my daughter Abby and her husband Johnny, when my cell phone rang. The caller was Gabe, who has a job as a resident director at a conservative university in Florida. He sounded upset and asked if I was too busy to talk.
Although my children are grown, I am determined to be there for them, no matter what. “Of course I‘m not too busy,” I answered. “What’s going on?”
Haltingly, Gabe told me of a college prank gone wrong. “Some kid left a bag at my door,” he explained. “I won’t even tell you what was in it, but it was gross.”
I remembered what pranks were like when I was a college student. They easily could be carried a few steps too far.
“The kid who left the bag showed up, laughing at me, and I lost it,” Gabe went on. “I’ve just had it with their stupid juvenile stunts. I got mad and threw the bag at the kid, and it hit him in the face.”
“Uh oh,” I thought. Gabe usually has better control over his temper, but I know he’s been working long hard hours. “Maybe he’s been more stressed than I knew,” I mused.
“The Vice President of the college is on his way to see me. I think I really messed up this time. I may lose my job. I mean, I hit a student!” His voice was flat, discouraged, worried.
My mind went into instant Mom mode. In a nano-second I took stock of my finances, calculating how much it would cost to fly to Florida and help him move back to New Hampshire. Before he finished his sentence, I had figured out how to rearrange the apartment to make room for his stuff. He would need support now, not chastisement. There would be time to talk out alternatives to violence later.
“You know what I’m going to say when he gets here?” Gabe asked.
“Gabe, don’t make things worse,” I thought. “What?” I said aloud, dreading his hotheaded response.
Sometimes I think I should have raised puppies.