“Our main project this semester,” said my high school psychology teacher, “is changing your behavior. That’s what this is about. Human behavior. The why, the how, and the when of human behavior. We’re going to be looking at motivation. Intrinsic, extrinsic. We’ll be looking at what Carl Jung and Skinner and Freud tell us about behavior. Is it innate? Is it nature or nurture? Something we can teach? We’ll explore dreams. We’ll explore the subconscious. The id and the ego, desires and needs and wants. I want us to understand, to explore, and to expand our private models of the world.”
Mr. Underwood loved his stuff. He was a man uncomfortable with his height and so he slouched, bent over a podium, his hands gesturing wildly even when he wasn’t speaking. He ranted. He told bad puns. He was a little bit crazy. He name-dropped famous psychologists and researchers like they were old friends. He chose people at random to answer questions that even grad school students would stumble over.
I unfortunately spent the class doodling or writing the lyrics of Brand New songs in my binder.
Looking back, I realize how much I missed out by not paying attention in Mr. Underwood’s class. I chit-chatted with the girls. I bullshitted my essays. I never did the reading. I know as much now about Carl Jung now as I did then. It’s sad, really, how certain important bits of knowledge simply passed right over my head. In many classes. Here I am, years later, wondering why I can’t answer eighty percent of the questions on Jeopardy.
Obviously there are different types of knowledge.
Still, if there’s one class I really wish I could take again, it would be my high school psychology class. And if there was one specific project in that class that I wish I’d taken better advantage of, it was the one that Underwood called, “Five Behavioral Changes.”
Basically, you’re in charge of your behavior. Sure, there are outside factors that play a role, but in the end it’s your choice to behave or feel a certain way at any given moment. What Underwood wanted us to see was that altering common behaviors in your daily life can have an astounding effect on our mental health and your perception of the world. The assignment was to pick five new behaviors and to actively incorporate them into your life for a few weeks, then write about the results.
Something really beautiful could’ve happened.
Here’s what I did:
- I tried listening to only classical music while driving
- I tried eating only fruits and vegetables for a week
- I wrote controversial statements in chalk on the sidewalks around school
The immediate problem with my participation level is the fact that I only did three things. Not five. So for whatever concluding write-up I had to do about the experience, two of my five behavior changes were totally made up. Being a fan of fiction, the bullshit came easily, but the fact remains that I was only hurting myself by being lazy.
The classical music led to boring drives (no offense, Mozart). The fruits and vegetables left me hungry. The controversial chalk statements washed off in the next day’s rain before anyone could see them. The idea was for people to write their own statements on the sidewalks, too, with the pieces of chalk we left behind. Didn’t happen.
I could’ve picked up an instrument, I could’ve volunteered at a homeless shelter, I could’ve gone on a hitchhiking road trip across America. I could’ve really produced some positive changes. Who knows?
The point is, I never forgot the assignment, even if I overlooked it at the time. Change five things about your behavior. What would you change? Try cooking at home more often. Try reading a book without reading the back cover. Take more walks. See what happens. Do it for a week. Do it for a month. Soon enough, you’ve created change. What’s the saying, that it takes thirty days to create a new habit? Well, give it a shot.
I think the assignment was a great idea. I wish I’d seen that earlier.
Thanks, Mr. Underwood, for the inspiration.
And sorry for talking so much during class.
I think one of my favorite words is “hafta.”
As in, “I hafta see this movie” or “I’ll hafta ask for the day off work.”
It used to be, “I have to.”
We used to say, “Going to.”
Now we say, “Gonna.”
As in, “I’m gonna make it big someday.”
Or the dreamers, they used to “want to.”
Now they “wanna.”
As in, “I wanna travel.”
“I wanna see the world.”
Some people “should have.”
Most likely, they “shoulda.”
The more formal of us “oughtta.”
“Did you” has turned to “Didya.”
“Doing” lost the G.
We’ve lost many Gs.
We’ve traded velar nasals for apostrophes.
“Goin’, goin’, gone.”
We’re trimming back.
“Until” is “Til.”
“Around the corner” is “Round the corner.”
“Do not know” is just, “Dunno.”
As in, “With lotsa shifts in the language, I’m gonna have a helluva time teaching English in the future.”
Adaptation is key.
You hafta keep up.
If you wanna know what we’re sayin’.
You’re a kid again. Let’s say you’re _____________ (age) and it’s your first day of school. After scarfing down a/an __________ (food) for breakfast, you hop on the __________ (vehicle) and hurry along to first period English class.
The __________ (adjective) teacher has a game for the students to play. “Games in school?” you question such a thing. “Please. I’ll believe it when I __________ (present-tense verb) it.” The teacher proceeds to introduce you to Mad Libs.
Mad Libs is not exactly a game, nor is it a puzzle. It’s a mix between a __________ (noun) and a __________ (noun).
You’re given a series of fill-in-the-blank requests with no explanation of their purpose. Is this a test, you wonder, or some other _________ (adjective) form of torture? As you __________ (present-tense verb) in the blanks, you think of __________ (adjective) examples. In the space for ‘body part,’ you __________ (present-tense verb) and write: __________ (body part).
Eventually the truth is revealed. Your examples are parts of a story. Suddenly you’ve got this __________ (adjective) creation in your hands. You’re __________ (gerund verb) hysterically at your desk. What madness! You’ve never felt so ____________ (emotion).
What makes the result of the Mad Libs so appealing? The unknown, perhaps. The absurdity. The __________ (present-tense verb). You’ve taken a/an __________ (adjective) story and made it __________ (adjective). You did. With your words.
It shows children they are creators. It shows children they can __________ (present-tense verb) anything. Words are powerful. A/an __________ (adjective) word can make you ____________ (present-tense verb) while the image of a/an __________ (noun) can change your opinion of __________ (historical event) forever.
Mad Libs lets children know they can be __________ (adjective). It encourages them to experiment with __________ (plural noun) and is meant to inspire creativity whenever they __________ (present-tense verb). It teaches them the power of words. It inspires them to try new __________ (things). They’ll look back and think: Wow, I really could have __________ (past-tense verb) anything.
This isn’t an activity only for children or teachers. If you’re a __________ (job title), then think of other ways to incorporate Mad Libs into your life. This is less about the __________ (activity) and more about the philosophy.
Leave blanks in your plans. Improvise. __________ (present-tense verb). Experiment. Don’t live a life prewritten. There is magic in the not knowing. Try new nouns, seek new adjectives, experiment with new verbs, like __________ (gerund verb). Before you know it, your life will become a whole lot more __________ (adjective).
Trust me when I say __________ (poignant closing statement).
What follows is an e-mail from my younger sister inquiring about my opinion regarding her upcoming high school experience.
I’ve decided to answer those questions here, putting my remarks in [brackets].
“Hey Chrissy! [only my sister can call me Chrissy] As you know the school year is right around the corner and I’m super anxious. I know high school is when some people REINVENT themselves or whatever [“or whatever” is the best way to describe what happens to you in high school]. But there is so much more to think about that I can’t even think about one thing at a time [welcome to your first taste of real life]. I am overwhelmed with all the new things that I will have to get used to… New school, new people, more freedom [as well as a job, paying for gas, dumb boys, and pre-calculus]. I really want to make new friends since I’m kind of lost with friends [lost without friends or you lost your friends on a hiking expedition?]. And since I want to make NEW friends, I kind of want to REINVENT that part of my life. All i want is for people to like me [the curse of the human condition, my dear sister, just remember to be yourself]. And when lunch comes around, who do I hang out with? [hang out with classmates first, they’ll be the first people you talk to and you’ll have something to talk about] I mean, I’m not going to sit by myself and eat. That’s sad [the trick is not to sit alone and eat, but to walk around and eat, and people will think you’re going somewhere]. Do I just go up to someone and start talking throughout the lunch period, it’s only thirty minutes… [you can try, and since this isn’t a shady dive-bar, there won’t be any negative assumptions]. And what is it about the juniors and seniors being the upper class men and the freshman and sophomores being lower class men? [it’s been that way for eons, but don’t worry, you’ll be upper class soon enough] Are they mean to a freshman like me? [they’ll probably just ignore you] Will they be rude? [only if you bother them or touch their cars] Should I stay as far as I can from them? [if you can] And what do you pack in your backpack? [books, doodling paper, Twizzlers, and one nice pen] Do they tell you at orientation? [they tell you nothing valuable at orientation] What do you do at orientation? [sit in the bleachers and size up the competition sitting around you] Do you introduce yourself to your teachers? [nope, they’re probably too hungover to remember names, anyway] At orientation, do you have time to hang out with your friends, if you have any? [if I remember correctly, the school staff will just fill your head with a bunch of information, then set you free to do as you like] Did you go to school on the first day with a friend? Or did you go solo? [I went solo every morning, but if you meet someone who takes the same route as you, befriend them] Sorry there’s so many questions… [you’ll have plenty more, I’m sure] You don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to [well, I did].”
Good luck, sister. High school for me wasn’t all that bad. I played the quiet card, keeping to the fringes of a variety of social groups, never an outcast but never in the spotlight. Part of me wishes I’d been more outgoing and memorable, but high school is the beginning of a long process of figuring yourself out. You’ll hit some walls. You’ll make some breakthroughs. You’ll find out which subject you’re passionate about, you’ll find a new hobby or two, and you’ll probably kiss someone at a party. Everything will be new and strange and uncomfortable and exciting. You’ll change your styles, you’ll get a bad haircut, you’ll cry and you’ll laugh and you’ll hate some teachers and love others. You’re going to drink beer and probably meet people who smoke cigarettes. In the end, no one will judge you if you try these things, just don’t make them into bad habits. You’ll learn how to drive and your car will become your second home. DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE OR I WILL STEAL YOUR CAR. Please don’t get into any accidents, but I did, so know it’s probable and just go slow on slippery roads. You will fail a test. You will ace an essay that you spent the entire night writing the day before it was due. Maybe you’ll ditch some classes, but don’t ditch too many. Do it at least once. Mom caught me the one time I did it, so be sneakier than I was. You’ll have your heart broken, you’ll go all goo-goo-eyes for someone else, life goes on. You will go to Prom. You will gossip and probably be gossiped about. Be nice. Be fair. You’ll have a locker but you probably won’t use it. Appreciate art class. Pay attention in math class. Stay awake in history. Aim for the Advanced classes, but don’t feel bad if you don’t take them, they just count for college credit. Study for the SAT and take it more than once, if you can. I got an 1180, which is okay, but you can do better. Don’t fight with Mom about stupid things. You’ll argue a lot, probably, about things like staying out late, the clothes you wear, the friends you make… I’m not saying she’s right about everything, but she’s only looking out for you and respect the fact that she went through a lot of the same situations as you. Go to her for advice. Keep her informed and she won’t pester you with questions. She is your greatest resource. Don’t hate school. It’s the last stretch of free education that you’ll receive and after this, you go into debt to learn. Join a club. Join a sports team. These are good ways to make friends. Eat a lot of pizza, take pictures of your life, keep a journal, and always make sure your behavior comes from a place of self-love, not the need to please others. You come first. They come second. Most of them, you’ll never see again after high school. Enjoy the ride.