Irony can be difficult to explain. I have taught for 26 years, and there were times that I struggled with sharing exactly what irony is. Yesterday, at the school where I am serving as interim Head of School, I received the best example of irony possible.
I arrived at school and checked the humane trap for one of the three woodchucks that we had purposed to catch. On Friday, I had helped an eighth grade student set the humane (and I will continue to use that word, because it is critical to explaining irony) trap with a rind of watermelon tied with twine to the back of the cage. The cagey woodchuck slipped an apple out of the cage the previous day, so this day was to be different: we would trap one of those woodchucks this weekend. We left the trap, but one of my colleagues, let’s call her Amy, was most anxious to catch the critter, but also she has a bleeding heart—or, so it seems. More anon.
Now, Amy’s part in this pageant gave me the best example of irony that I shall ever have: when I spoke with her on Friday, she lamented that the humane trap might catch the woodchuck over the weekend leaving him dehydrated, and that genuinely worried her. So, this is how this all went down: we set the trap on Friday, I arrived on Monday morning to an empty trap, sans watermelon as well, so I visited Amy to learn what might have happened. Apparently, the trapped worked. A student who goes to school on Saturday to feed the chickens, saw the trapped woodchuck and called Amy. Before she left, the student felt bad for the woodchuck sitting in the sun, so she covered it with lids to keep it from the sun. Amy arrived soon after, because she was anxious that the trapped woodchuck–mind you, he’s gnawing away on the watermelon rind–would be dehydrated. In Rhode Island, it is a crime to shoot woodchucks on school property, and it is a crime to catch and release them as well. The only viable option is to drown them. So, Amy, who was so worried about the dehydrated woodchuck who had been stealing from the gardens, picked up the trap, avec woodchuck and watermelon rind, gingerly carried it to the rain barrel, and threw nearly dehydrated woodchuck, the one in the humane trap, in. She then repaired to her classroom to do progress reports.
After an hour, she returned to the rain barrel, convinced that the woodchuck was humanely killed, pulled him out, and left him for dead behind one of the School’s stone walls. Her guilt and her murderous joy were so great that she brought watermelon in for the entire class: she plans to use the rinds to catch the other two woodchucks terrorizing the garden. A trap was set that afternoon.
As she told me this story, I said, “Amy, I cannot imagine a better example of irony: are you telling me that you rushed down here on Saturday, because you were worried that the woodchuck with the watermelon rind would be dehydrated, and you wanted to drown him as quickly as possible to save him from suffering? Wow! I can imagine no better example of irony!”
A common definition of irony is the following: “a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.” As I listened to Amy’s story, I could not help but feel as if I had been transported back to Athens to watch Medea or Oedipus lachrymose expression of their plight.