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Don’t Worry, Be Silly


I recall a glorious Vermont October day, many years ago, the blue sky thick enough to stir with a spoon. My wife Wendy and I were strolling down a remote dirt road with our daughter Jen and granddaughter Quinn.

The rumble of a rapidly approaching truck disturbed the peace.   Quinn, 3 or 4 at the time, rushed to her mother and threw both arms around her leg.   

Jen said, “Don’t be scared, Quinn.  Remember, what’s mommy’s job?”   

Quinn grinned. “To keep me safe!”

Quinn and I had quite a close relationship.  Around that time Quinn referred to me as her “best friend” – perhaps the most glorious compliment I’ve ever received.

I said, “So then, Quinn, what’s my job?

She instantly replied, “To keep me silly!”

And so it was.  Silliness was our frequent milieu, although in the intervening years she has become slightly less silly and I have become slightly sillier.   I suppose it’s a life stage thing, as she completed her senior year in college and is now enrolled in law school.  I became a senior and am now enrolled in Medicare.

I think silliness is among life’s finer gifts.  The inability to be silly is a sad affliction.

As a new school year approaches, I’m reminded of the great importance of silliness in education.  I know that many teachers read Yellow Scene and I hope this post finds kindred spirits.

As a head of school I frequently trafficked in silliness.  I recall many instances, including one particularly theatrical one.  Our Upper School mounted a production of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town.  I was invited to appear in a cameo role as the minister in the wedding of George and Emily.  I as minister is silly enough, but I had plans.  As I performed the brief ceremony, straight-faced and appropriately somber, I began wiggling my ears.  Poor Emily and George lost it, although the audience was none the wiser, as only the couples’ backs were visible.

These post-retirement days my sillies are primarily with my younger grandchildren, 12 year-old Maddie and 8 year-old Jack.  Their responses are usually eye-rolling, with an oral rating of, “That’s not funny, Paul.”  “Paul” is a completely separate story, perhaps for another time.

School needn’t be grim and teachers needn’t be needlessly serious.  Besides, what’s the point of spending all day with kids if you can’t be one yourself now and again?  Conventional “wisdom”would have that kids must respect authority and that acting in a childlike or silly fashion breaches the necessary boundary.  I suggest that it is just the opposite; that children intuitively recognize the insecurity that requires some adults to rigidly maintain the trappings of authority.

“Silly” gets a bad etymological rap, oft equated with “frivolous,” “unintelligent,”  “stupid” or “foolish.”  Silliness is none of that.  It is a natural response to a world fraught with stress.  It is a needed antidote to tension. It is a wonderful equalizer, allowing children to see a human dimension that strengthens the learning relationship.

From court jesters to Shakespeare’s “fools” to brilliant comics like the late Robin Williams, silliness is a mechanism through which truth, love and identity are revealed.  It plays no less a role in the classroom, whether on the part of unfiltered joy of childhood or emotional openness of adulthood.

So, to you teachers out there:  Keep a red nose in your desk drawer.  Dust off the whoopee cushion.  Wear bunny slippers on pajama day (women teachers too!).  Read from a history text in your best duck voice.  Dance with your students. Dance without your students.  Make groaningly bad puns or initiate a weekly rhyming day, when every sentence must include a rhyme.

If, at the end of it all, your students (or family members) remember you as the one who “kept them silly,” you can take satisfaction in a job well done.

I’d love to hear your stories of silliness in school.  Add in comments or email me at: [email protected].  If I compile enough, I just might publish a really valuable guide to great teaching!


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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