Remember Mad Libs? That word game you played as a kid where you filled in a word based on what part of speech it was without knowing the context of the rest of the sentence?
Mad Libs are always just a little bit scary for a middle school English teacher—and that makes them all the more exciting for a middle school English student, as we all know exactly what goes on in their little turd minds: Hmmm…what can we get away with? (Of course I mean, “With what can we get away?” but how ridiculous does that sound?)
But dammit, Mad Libs teach a ton about the parts of speech and how to use them, and besides, they’re just fun.
So one Friday afternoon back when I was a middle school teacher, I took the plunge. I allowed my students to do Mad Libs.
You see, not only was it Friday, but it was also 2:30 in the afternoon on a beautiful, sunny, spring-like March day. After weeks of snow, we were all in glorious moods as we listened to the birds chirp and felt a gentle breeze blowing into the windows of our double-wide “mobile classroom.” (I loved the way they made us call it that, like the guy I dated who lived in a trailer and made me call it “Sweet 51” instead of “Suite 51” or the even more accurate “Lot 51.” Although I suppose if we’re talking semantics here, “dated” is the wrong word, too, because a guy who lived in a trailer that he called Sweet 51 felt that he was too good for me…okay, what was the question again?)
Anyway, Mad Libs were in order if only as a means of celebrating the break in the cold weather.
After giving my students about 10 minutes to complete the first set, I asked if there were any volunteers who wanted to read aloud Mad Libs that had turned out particularly good. I knew I was in trouble when two of my boys jumped up, tears of laughter in their eyes.
“Is it appropriate for school?” I was quick to ask. This wasn’t my first rodeo; I’d taught middle school English for about 5 years. I never gave an assignment that wasn't appropriate for school, but you'd be surprised what middle schoolers can do with seemingly innocent writing assignments--so I always double-checked.
One of them looked away. “Um…yeah. Totally. We didn’t use any…bad words or anything.”
I sighed. “Alright,” I said, placing just enough of a warning tone in my voice, “but if you’re questioning whether or not a part is appropriate, then it’s better to just not read it.”
“Not questioning anything,” the second boy assured me, and I swear he gave me a Boy Scout salute.
I was wary, but decided against saying anything else, since all of my Mad Libs threats always came out like this: “Okay, there’d better not be anything inappropriate, or else I’ll…”
I mean, seriously, what the hell was I going to do if a Mad Lib was inappropriate? Call the kid’s parents and tell them that he’d used banana one too many times? Shit. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place (the latter being an example of an inappropriate term for Mad Libs), and those little bastards damned well knew it.
So they read it, and I’ll admit, the Mad Lib was funny. For all the wrong reasons, yes—but still, I had to hand it to them. It was funny.
“Okay, okay,” I said when the laughter had died down. “I think it’s time we lay down a few ground rules.”
There was a huge groan from the classroom. “Awwwwww, WHY?” several of the kids asked.
“Because that was the first one, and they’re already sounding perverse.”
The boys who had just read hunched down, not wanting to attract any further attention from me. It would mean facing the wrath of their classmates if I put a stop to Mad Libs because of their story.
In the meantime, one of my girls—we’ll call her Theresa—one of my dear, sweet, innocent little girls who probably still played with Barbie dolls at home—looked up at me. “Which words are not okay to use?”
I knew she wasn’t being a smartass; she simply didn’t know.
“No nuts,” I said, lifting my chin in defiance at the ones I knew understood what I was talking about—particularly, the two boys who had just used nuts in every single “plural noun” slot of their Mad Lib.
“No nuts?” Theresa asked, confusion written all over her face in the form of a furrowed brow. “Why not?”
I could see the boy who had just read his Mad Lib start to giggle, and I shot him a look. He snuffed it out pretty quickly. “Because, well…” I started.
"Not even, like almonds?” she persisted.
“Almonds is okay,” I responded quickly, feeling saved by the clarification. That’s when one of my boys couldn’t hold it in any longer and let out a snort. I didn’t turn his way to admonish him because—oh my gosh, who could blame him?
My sweet little innocent Theresa just looked more confused by my answer. She shook her head. “O-kay, then what about cashews?”
“Cashews is fine,” I replied, nodding my head.
“Hazelnuts?” she asked.
At this, I paused.
But then I shrugged, because seriously, what could I say against hazelnuts that wouldn’t dig me into an even deeper hole? “Okay. Okay. I guess hazelnuts will work.”
The boys who had only moments ago been trying to avoid my glare looked up at me, eyes alight with excitement. “Really? Hazelnuts is fine? We can use hazelnuts?”
Oh, for fck’s sake, I wanted to say. But I didn’t, as I dearly loved my job and didn’t want to lose it.
“Fine. Use hazelnuts. But only once—and Hazel can’t be possessive. And you’re definitely banned from using balls again,” I said, widening my eyes in a challenging glare toward them.
That’s when Theresa let out her own little snort. “Well, duh,” she said, dissolving into fits of giggles.
Holy shit. (Which also, incidentally, wouldn’t have been appropriate. )