Last fall, at the start of their junior year, Teagan Nam experienced a scary situation at school.
There was an anonymous tip that a student at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Md., had brought a gun and ammunition to school in a backpack. Someone called it in. The school immediately went on lockdown.
The student was confronted in class, and later fled as police were on their way. "I was in the classroom right across from it," says Teagan, "so I could actually see through the window, them 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 happening – was traumatic.
After texting their parents and having a minor meltdown – "I just kept thinking like, 'I'm gonna die' " – Teagan found themselves turning to humor. "To get my mind off of it, I just started making these stupid little jokes." The jokes became memes that Teagan posted on Instagram, in real time.
"I heard someone summoning a demon in the girls bathroom," one post reads.
"I can't be the only one who saw that tractor beam," jokes another.
The memes with bright neon backgrounds aren't supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, 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 who was posting. Classmates and friends were doing it too. It felt like everyone was using laughter to cope with a fear-filled reality that students across the country, sadly, know all too well. Teagan's reaction that day became the center of a podcast they created called Nervous Laughter — and now, it's one of the grand prize winners in NPR's fourth annual Student Podcast Challenge.
Turning a moment of panic into an opportunity for jokes
The Instagram memes and jokes didn't just stop after the lockdown lifted and normal high school life resumed. They went on for weeks. Everyone was talking about them.
Much of it was inside humor that only the students go. For example, there was an account that posted only brick walls from around school – another one of only cinder block walls (the two accounts then got in a virtual duel.) The biggest account in the school got up to 366 followers.
Teagan sometimes uses writing and podcasting as a way of making sense of teenage life, and was so intrigued by this phenomenon — they started work on what would become Nervous Laughter.
They started by interviewing some friends about the experience. "Most kids seemed confused and afraid," 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 just laugh at."
"Needless to say this seems a strange reaction to the event — but it isn't unfamiliar," Teagan says in the podcast. "People laugh when they're nervous all the time. And in a situation with this much anxiety teenagers are bound to turn to humor."
When the coping mechanism conceals 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 laughter – like there's something funny – with nervous laughter, there's something underneath," they explain. "You're not laughing necessarily because something's funny or because you're having a relaxed good time, you're laughing because you're anxious and you're trying to alleviate that."
The more Teagan talked with classmates and friends — the more clear it became that they were using humor in this way – as a shield. Teenagers, Teagan says, are emotional creatures. But, "we tend to not want to show it because we think it makes us look uncool, I guess, or vulnerable."
The memes and jokes offered a way to connect — without that vulnerability.
"I think it did kind of bring us together in this weird way," says Teagan. "All of these people who experienced this really scary thing are coming together by acknowledging how scary it was, not by being brave enough to really talk about it, but by kind of laughing nervously about it. Like, 'that was really weird, wasn't it?' "
Here's the way their podcast ends:
"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 taking the risk, all of us, to lower our shields, open our eyes, drop our plastic grins and speak the truth."