As a student reads the beginning of a scene where Nector, who is literally standing, comes figuratively crawling back to Marie, who has literally just been on her knees, my eyes glance down a few lines and I see what Marie is going to do and I shake my head and quietly chuckle, one of those stifled-guffaw chuckles, an involuntary quasi-giggle that doesn’t interrupt the reading.
I’m laughing not because what’s happening in the story is funny, but because these characters are about to do the very kind of thing people like them will do. They’re about to be themselves. So I guess I’m laughing in appreciation at how well Erdrich has made this surprising next move inevitable, or these characters’ inevitable behavior surprising.
I’m also laughing because Nector and Marie have become two old friends of mine, and their antics never fail to amuse me.
I do this sort of thing too often in class. Sometimes, for instance, I laugh out loud at something the students find disturbing, but I’m laughing at what an odd disturbing thing this is or what an odd time for it to happen or at my disbelief that the writer ever thought of such a disturbing event.
But this time when I quietly laugh, I glance up and see one of my students smiling. She’s looking at me, but the smile is not for me, but for the fact that I’m laughing at a line that hasn’t been read yet.
I think she’s smiling at the fact that, while her classmate’s voice drones through the unwanted task of reading aloud in class, I have fallen into the text and come back up laughing – a sort of unplanned, public literary baptism. She’s smiling because she has caught her teacher enjoying his life’s work, even at this late stage, even in this cold classroom at 7:27 a.m., with a gang of tired teenagers trying patiently and respectfully to weather the first of the day’s seven classes.
She’s smiling because she knows I’ve been “going over” this book in class for at least 20 years and you’d think I’d have it memorized by now and I’d be sick of it, but look at this ol’ coot – he can’t even wait for the freaking punch line.
Maybe she thinks I’m losing it, that senility is setting in, that I’m some demented crackpot on a bus laughing at the voices in his head while all the other passengers quite sanely dread going to work.
But I hope she’s smiling because she has caught her teacher whistling while he works, being surprised, again, by the joy his life’s work brings him, and as she smiles at this oddity, she envisions a time in future years when her work will give her a similar joy.