Last fall, at the start of their first year, Teagan Nam experienced a scary situation at school.
There was an anonymous report that a student at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Maryland brought a gun and ammunition to school in a backpack. Someone called him. The school immediately closed.
The student was confronted in class and then fled as police were on the way. “I was in the classroom right in front,” Teagan says, “so I could see out the window, they were taking the student out.”
No one was hurt and the student was quietly arrested and expelled. But sitting in that classroom – not knowing what was going on – was traumatic.
After texting their parents and having a minor meltdown — “I kept thinking like ‘I’m going to die'” — Teagan found himself turning to humor. “To clear my mind, I just started making these stupid little jokes.” The jokes became memes which Teagan posted to Instagram, in real time.
“I heard someone summon a demon in the girls’ bathroom,” reads a message.
“I can’t be the only one who saw that tractor beam”, jokes another.
Memes with bright neon backgrounds aren’t meant to be funny, but rather, they’re the kind of thing meant to elicit a smirk or just a “like” from a friend.
And it wasn’t just Teagan posting. Classmates and friends did too. It was as if everyone was using laughter to deal with a fear-filled reality that students across the country, sadly, know all too well. Teagan’s reaction that day became the focus of a podcast they created called nervous laughter — and now it’s one of the big winners of NPR’s fourth annual Student Podcast Challenge.
Turn a moment of panic into an opportunity for jokes
The Instagram memes and jokes didn’t just stop after the lockdown was lifted and normal high school life resumed. They lasted for weeks. Everyone was talking about them.
Much of it was inside humor that only students go for. For example, there was an account that only showed brick walls around the school – another of only cinder block walls (the two accounts later found themselves in a virtual duel.) school had up to 366 subscribers.
Teagan sometimes uses writing and podcasting to make sense of teenage life, and was so intrigued by this phenomenon that they began working on what would become nervous laughter.
They started by asking friends about the experience. “Most of the kids seemed confused and scared,” says one of the students interviewed in the podcast. “A lot of people were trying to defuse the situation with humor.” Another student adds, “It was something lighthearted that we could all laugh about.”
“Needless to say, this seems like an odd reaction to the event — but it’s not unheard of,” Teagan says in the podcast. “People laugh when they’re nervous all the time. And in such an anxious situation, teenagers are bound to turn to humor.”
When the coping mechanism hides a real emotion
The podcast is called nervous laughter, because sometimes, Teagan says, humor isn’t just about the punch line — it’s about that cathartic release. “Instead of just laughing — like there’s something funny — with a nervous laugh, there’s something underneath,” they explain. “You don’t necessarily laugh because something is funny or because you’re having a good, relaxed time, you laugh because you’re anxious and trying to tone that down.”
The more Teagan talked with his classmates and friends — the clearer it became that they were using humor in this way — as a shield. Teenagers, Teagan says, are emotional creatures. But, “we tend not to want to show it because we think it makes us look uncool, I guess, or vulnerable.”
Memes and jokes offered a way to connect – without that vulnerability.
“I think it kind of brought us together in this weird way,” Teagan says. “All these people who’ve been through this really scary thing are coming together acknowledging how scary it was, not being brave enough to really talk about it, but giggling about it. Like, ‘That was really weird, wasn’t it wasn’t it?”
Here is the end of their podcast:
“When we joke about tragedy, the laughter is a shield against something much more painful and much more honest and real,” Teagan says. “Maybe it’s worth the risk, all of us, to lower our shields, open our eyes, drop our plastic smiles and speak the truth.”
If you’re looking for the college winner of the Student Podcast Challenge, click here.