I was sitting in front of my F Bell Ancient History class as kids came in from chapel. It was the morning of a quiz of some heft, so the students were a little hyped up, asking each other questions as to this type of statuary or how Osiris was normally portrayed, etc. I told them that they could have a few more minutes to review their notes. As they dug in again I saw one young man, an excellent student and a well-liked classmate, cavorting in his seat, if such a thing is possible. After a few seconds it hit me – this young man was doing the chicken dance. Let me repeat myself – the chicken dance.
At 8:30 in the morning. In room 239. Prior to a history quiz.
Immediately I began to wonder how he got from Tut’s tomb, et al., to the chicken dance. I could tell he was playing that annoying tune in his head as he flapped his elbows, so he was “all in.” I would not let myself jump to the conclusion that it was just random. There had to be some sequence of events, or maybe even a simple starter moment, that led to this odd performance. So as they began to take the quiz, my mind raced with ideas as to how the chicken dance had come to Royster 239.
Perhaps he came to school in a carpool and there was some advertisement on the radio that contained the chicken dance song. Perhaps he was using the motion as a way to relieve some stiffness or soreness in his arms. Perhaps the plug for the Happy Club’s “turkey trot,” which has been made at every chapel and after every lunch for a week now, had put this young man in the world of edible fowl. It’s not such a leap from turkey to chicken. Throw in a duck and you have a Thanksgiving delight! No, none of these theories seemed likely or even sufficient. There must be some back story, I concluded, so I resolved to ask him after class was over. I think my exact words were, “Billy, the chicken dance?”
He was utterly unaffected by my question. It seemingly did not strike him as odd that I should ask. He looked at me directly, and with total honesty replied with the three magic words that reverberate through the Royster hallways every day.
“I don’t know.”
I have heard this response often enough to accept it, but in this case the behavior in question was so ridiculous that I was forced to follow up. “Really?” He searched his memory for a few seconds and said, “I just kinda’ felt like it.” I wished him well as he went on his way to Algebra.
There’s actually something very important going on here. This is a very smart young man. As I have said before, I dislike intensely the use of the word “smart,” but in this case I guess it applies. Somehow the melody had been planted in his brain in the recent past. It just bubbled to the surface at that precise moment. We could get all into left brain versus right, the function of the cerebral cortex and such, but the short version is that the adolescent brain seldom travels in straight lines. It’s why we stick to teaching subjects like Latin and Geometry. It’s why we spend as much time as we do on the periodic table of the elements. Adolescent brains, especially those lodged in the male skull, crave straightening out. Declensions and CPCT (corresponding parts of congruent triangles, for those of you who have forgotten geometry) and noble gases vs. halides all help to discipline the unruly noggins of 13-year- olds. We owe it to these folks to try and straighten them out a little.
But not too much. It’s a neat but difficult trick to help young people think more clearly and in a more linear fashion without suppressing the ability to be creative, even fanciful. I want this young man to be able to give me a timeline for Ramses II, but I also want him, at his age, to break into dance at the weirdest times. It’s good for him and it’s very good for me. To jump three hundred-odd years from the Bard of Avon, I quote from my favorite Robert Frost poem, Birches;
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open . . .
Frost goes on to describe swinging a birch tree as a way to get away, “good both for the going and the coming back.” Well, there’s nary a birch tree in sight from room 239, so I’ll have to rely on the antics of an eighth grade boy to take me away for just a moment. Many, if not most, people dealing with the unpredictability of young adolescents find it tiring and even unpleasant. I’m proud to be a member of a middle school faculty that finds such moments delightful and even refreshing.
How about the hokey-pokey next time?