It was a big day when my high school classmates realized I was funny.
I’d been half-napping during pre-calculus, head on my desk but still faintly hearing as our teacher—youngish, squeaky-voiced, motherly—told a story about making drinks with her husband. The moment the word “milkshake” registered in my ear, I jerked my head off the desk and blurted, “Did all the boys come to your yard?”
My reference to the hypersexual, ubiquitous R&B song had the whole class roaring. Our teacher tried to stifle her laughter while sputtering about how she thought I was one of the good kids. I tried to play it cool, all the while drinking in my peers’ laughter, metabolizing it into self-esteem in real time.
They treated me different after that. One football player would yell, “Laura, wake up and say something funny!” whenever class got dull. He stopped being rude to me and would shut the classroom window for me if I got too cold. I was on my way to being cool. I was the funny one.
I’ve always been a performer. I was the precocious kid saying the darnedest things during the children’s sermon at church, to the chagrin of my parents and the delight of the church ladies. I made up parodies to toy commercial jingles and sang them to my lunch table friends in fourth grade. At summer camp talent shows, I performed fifteen-minute standup routines that campers would still quote to each other years later. Without humor in social situations I felt awkward, boring, invisible. If I made people laugh, maybe that meant they liked me.
My first semester at Calvin, I was terrified—so I was loud. In the dorms, dining hall, social events, I made outrageous jokes with feigned confidence, making sure everyone knew who I was.
“You seemed so cool and comfortable,” floormates told me, much later, when we discussed our first impressions. “I was intimidated by you. You seemed like you already knew so many people.”
Didn’t they know I cried most nights because I didn’t know how to make friends?
Making friends, it turns out, meant finding people I didn’t have to be funny around—those I could trust liked me even when I wasn’t confident or cracking jokes. An evening of goofing off in someone’s dorm room could turn into a deep and vulnerable discussion, and I wouldn’t be scared I was too dull for them to care about.
In the English department, I felt like an imposter. It seemed like my classmates had read all the important works of literature and had all the insightful thoughts about the world, and I just pretended I was into F. Scott Fitzgerald because I saw The Great Gatsby in theaters. And when had these people had time to memorize the entire works of Flannery O’Connor?
Junior year, my friend Kate convinced me to go on the writer’s retreat. Some kids, I knew, brought their novel drafts to work on; I was just trying to finish my next writing assignment on time. All the professors I’d been trying to impress were there—profs whose poems I didn’t understand, whose award-winning books I’d grown up reading. One night they announced a haiku contest. It was a beautiful, snowy evening, so I tried writing some pretty lines about snowflakes and frost on windows and birds taking flight. A classmate came by, took one glance, and said, “No, no, you need a surprise at the end—an image that shocks people.”
I thought for a minute. Then I turned to Kate and whispered, “I’m going to write one that sounds like it’s about sex but is actually about poop.”
Kate gave me a pleading look, but she knew me too well to think she could change my mind. Later, a delighted professor read my haiku to the group to raucous laughter:
Crumpled jeans on floor
Cool touch, a moan, a shudder
A sigh…..and a flush.
I tied for first place.
Nowadays, at work, I still worry about fitting in, and I don’t feel totally comfortable until I can make people laugh. Thoughts like maybe I’m not smart enough to be here pop into my mind on occasion, but at least I can be the funny one.
In the evenings I return to the house I share with three other Calvin girls, friends who’ve known me for years and have seen me at my best and worst. Some nights we hang out and drink wine and crack jokes, and I’ll tell a crazy story about the cute guy who came into my coffee shop. Other nights, we just sit, quietly doing our own thing, and I know I can just be.