In the 8th grade, I was voted class clown, and was also frequently castigated by teachers for disrupting class or commenting incessantly. High school was not much different, and I still found that I was not much liked by teachers in classes I found less interesting than others, since I used conversation and unruly actions to combat boredom.
My AP Calculus teacher once told me, “You would be more successful in this class if you closed your mouth and opened you ears and eyes.” He continued, “You do care about this class, and your sarcasm and attitude aren’t fooling anyone.” My cheeky (but accurate) retort, that his toupee wasn’t fooling anyone either, left me with a detention slip in my hand and some time to think. It was true: my use of sarcasm, critical attitude, and unnecessary comments derive from a lack of understanding and an attempt to conceal my emotions or frustrations.
In Brazil, this criticism rarely gets me anywhere, not to mention my sarcastic humor doesn’t translate well into Portuguese, so I often find myself laughing alone at my own jokes. The comfort provided with fluency in a language also opens the possibility of lazy conversation or observations; so now, before I speak, I question the function of a comment. Does the favorite observation of many Brazilians, “It’s hot”, progress any conversation or shed light on a real concern? To avoid superficial and limited conversation, I have become an observer rather than a contributor to the conversation, which at times is extremely frustrating, but at others has been an integral part to learning the most.
A number of months ago, I watched in anger as a family member tossed a coke can into a pile of others on the ground, instead of simply dropping it in in the trash can right next to them. Poised to criticize, immediately thereafter I saw a man come up and put all of the cans into a plastic bag and walk away. I realized people were not throwing their cans on the ground out of laziness, but were instead sparing this man the embarrassment of digging through the trash to retrieve the aluminum cans he can then exchange for a few cents at a recycling center.
So, when I feel my eyebrows furrowing and myself inhaling in preparation to make a sarcastic comment, or one of frustration that is actually demonstrative of misunderstanding, I remind myself to shut my mouth and open my eyes, and see what I can learn through silence.
Don’t you dare tell my Calculus teacher, but in the end, he was absolutely correct.