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Ridiculous Questions

Trey Reely | January 2010

    You have probably heard someone say “There is no such thing as a dumb question,” or maybe “The only dumb question is one that is not asked. Whoever came up with those sayings is either naïve or an absolute glutton for punishment. There are dumb questions.
     Several years ago my band was at an away game when my drum major began talking to one of the other school’s cheerleaders about the fact that is was their homecoming. During the course of the conversation the cheerleader asked, “Is it your homecoming too?”
     I’ve even asked dumb questions – the dumbest of all when I was in seventh grade. New to the school, I was the only seventh grader in the eighth-grade band. My director announced a chair test on our fight song, and I became a little confused. My music was a second part, so I wondered how she would judge between a second part and a first part because the second part was easier. Somehow, what I was thinking was totally mangled when it reached my mouth, and the question came out, “How do you judge it if our music is too easy?” Of course, as the only seventh grader in the eighth-grade band, I was perceived as a cocky little twerp and never lived the comment down.
     I admit that I feel conflicted when I say there are dumb questions; there’s this teacher part of me that wants students to have boundless inquisitiveness. It also makes me feel like I might be an old grouch who needs to retire. More nobly, I prefer to think if I can make students think for themselves it will make the world a better place. I don’t really want students to be afraid to ask me a question, but at the same time I don’t want to enable their mental laziness.
     I make sure my students know what I consider dumb questions:

• Something they could have answered themselves if they had thought for 10 more seconds.
• Something I just explained, and they weren’t listening.
• Something they could have found posted on the band announcement board.

     It is important, however, to assess accurately whether a question is really dumb. On days I am in a lass-than-chipper mood, it is easy to misidentify a question as stupid when it may actually be a good question, possibly even the first one that a particular student has ever asked. Also, some students actually communicate through questions. I am sure that some come into my office less because they really have a question and more because they just want to talk and a question is the easiest way for them to strike up a conversation. In those cases, I avoid smirking at them and gently tell them where they can find the answers to all their inquiries.
     To show my kind-heartedness, I will, on occasion, tell classes that they can ask any question for five minutes without fear of ridicule. I promise that I will not so much as sneer as I answer their question calmly and thoughtfully. Invariably someone will ask where babies come from; invariably I answer, “pure carelessness.”
     Many questions inevitably come up before auditions. To help reduce questions at this stressful time, I give students a thorough hand-out describing what they are about to encounter. At the end of the hand-out I give them directions for how to handle questions at the event site:

     1. Think really hard for two minutes and figure out if the answer has already been explained.
     2. Find a friend, discuss the problem, and think hard about it for another five minutes.
     3. Find several friends (at least one with some experience) and think hard for five more minutes.
     4. If you and your friends still don’t have the answer, then it is okay to come ask me.

These are the top five questions I find the most irritating:

     “What time is it?” or “When is class over?” Don’t even get me going on these two.
     “Where is Mrs. Thomas?” Mrs. Thomas is the choir director. For some reason the choir students think that I know where she is at all times. I find this inquiry unnecessary for several reasons. First 99% of the time I have no idea where she is when she leaves. Second, students cannot follow her into the bathroom or wherever she went, so they might as well sit down and wait. I have three standard answers to this question: “Let me get the crystal ball out of my desk drawer and check”; “Let me get my x-ray glasses and look through the walls and see”; “She’s in the bathroom. Go right in.”
    “Would it be a problem if I missed rehearsal today?”
    “Are we going outside today?” I’ve had this asked the day before a marching contest.
    “Are we there yet?” Old, but always annoying.

I hope I’ve made myself clear in the column. Feel free to e-mail me any questions you have. Just make them good ones.