Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Love the Smell of Whiteboard Cleaner in the Morning

"I love the smell of white board cleaner in the morning..."

No, I don’t; it actually stinks; it’s probably completely toxic and likely kills brain cells and will give us all cancer 20 years from now after we’ve been breathing it in (even though we try not to breathe for a good fifteen minutes after the boards are cleaned). But the point is that this line cracked my students up when I delivered it before class, standing by the door.

It was not only meant to be funny, however, but also to educate. I didn't actually plan to say it; it just worked out well, as things sometimes do.

“Do you understand what that means?” I ask as the kids file into the classroom.

“It means the white board cleaner smells?” someone asks.

A literal interpretation was to be expected.

Perhaps, I think, I didn’t ask the question in precisely the right way. I was referring to the cultural allusion I made, but my class isn’t there yet. Let’s see where this has to begin.

I smile, then cough and wrinkle my nose. “Well, it does smell horrible. I’m being sarcastic when I say that I love it.”

“My grandma says sarcasm is the lowest form of humor,” another student pipes up. “She hates it and she will freak at anyone who uses sarcasm around her.”

We nod, we chuckle, and we discuss for a minute how sarcasm is usually--grandma's opinion aside--very clever and incorporates other ideas, such as understatement. I have to imagine that this girl’s grandma would probably not get me. Sarcasm can be fun, and I always appreciate fun, but sure, it can also be mean. I personally don’t use mean sarcasm—not at school, not at home, not ever. There is nothing mean about commenting, truthfully, however, that the board cleaner smells awful. Because it does.

This reminds me of something. “Did you know,’ I ask, “that some people just don’t understand sarcasm? They are, in a way, missing the sarcasm chip in their brains.”

“Like some people don’t understand satire?” a student asks.

“Yes, just like that. Some people never realize the difference between truth and twisted truth, as seen in sarcasm or satire. But, be careful; I don’t want you to confuse sarcasm and satire. Satire can be sort of sarcastic—I mean, sarcasm can be funny, but it doesn’t really have to be. So, too, satire can be funny, but sometimes it’s just sick and weird.”

There is, I know—and this is a scientific fact—a certain portion of the population that doesn’t understand satire, doesn’t recognize it as what it is—an exaggeration meant to point out how stupid something is. Is this inability to recognize satire genetic? Is it a matter of conditioning? 

I know that students WILL be tested on whether or not they can recognize satire (at least, this will happen on the AP English exams). Recognizing satire is a life skill (like swimming!) that I want them to have. If they don’t have it naturally—some people are born with it, as I believe I was. I love satire; in fact, the more absurd something is, the funnier I’ll find it—then I hope to at least increase the chances that they will eventually notice satire.

I get back to what I really want to say: “Okay, so I told you that I love the smell of white board cleaner in the morning. But I really don’t. What I said was actually, though, an allusion to a famous film. Anyone know which film I was referring to?


That movie is probably much before their time, but I want to them to know it and see it, at some point.

“What I said was a riff on,  ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning,’ actor Robert Duvall’s famous line in Apocalypse Now. That’s a really famous 1970s film about the Vietnam War, based on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, “Heart of Darkness.” Which you should read. Write that down; put it on your Amazon wish list. In the meantime,"--I turn on the SmartBoard--"watch this clip."
(I just had to sub in a new, much longer clip. The dialogue to which I referred begins approx. 9:10, but trust me: the entire clip is worth watching. Horrifying and absurd.)

Some of my students, most of them, dutifully write down the name of the book. I love to recommend books.

“Guess what we’re doing? We’re going to see Apocalypse Now. You need to see that film,” I say. 

Sudden lesson plan change! The clip won't be enough. My students need to really understand all of this—satire, allusion, Vietnam War, Joseph Conrad, appreciation for fine acting.

Movie, movie,” my American Lit class starts chanting.

I wave my hands in the air, stopping the chanting. “Tomorrow, I'll bring in the movie. Today, we're talking about literary terms. What do we have so far?


“The difference between sarcasm and satire! And, the similarities!”


"Understatement or, uh, overstatement (hyperbole)."

Yes! I write the terms on the just-cleaned white board. I’ll have to clean it again, before the next class comes in. That will work out perfectly.


  1. Wish I were 17 again. I also wish that "Apocalypse Now" were required viewing. Very important film.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks, Duncan. I remember seeing the film when I was a junior in high school. I can't say I loved it, but I was really glad I saw it/ I'm still glad.



  3. The people who regard sarcasm as low humour are usually guilty of some kind of hypocrisy that earned the sarcasm. The fraternal twin of satire. I think is a marvelous thing to make sure students recognize it. Grandma. Another person who thinks epigrammatic, bumper sticker safe jingoisms constitute legitimate arguments. Getting your students to recognize the limitations of such arguments would be a massive achievement.

    [goes back and finishes second half of post]

    Satire and sarcasm, ah, n/m you were going there anyway. I really should finish posts entirely before starting to write. :)

    There is no way you could possible leave out Catch-22 if you want to teach about satire and war literature was your vehicle. Did you ever include it?

  4. Why yes, I had Catch-22 on the reading list. The kids hated it while they were reading it (summer reading), but when I explained they could have really opened the novel anywhere and it would have been just fine (flipping around), they were stunned, but seemed relieved.

    Later, they were happy they read it. If I ever teach that book again, I will do so in class, not out of it (no time, though). But I don't think I'll be teaching, so it doesn't really matter for me...but good advice for others.



  5. Sarcasm; It comes from the ancient Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning 'to tear flesh'

    I enjoy satire but I don't enjoy being the victim of sarcasm-it hurts!

  6. I agree--we can always appreciate satire, but to enjoy sarcasm it shouldn't be personally directed at anyone. Impersonal sarcasm, though, can be very funny.