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Uncle Miltie's Inservice Special: The Teacher as Stand-Up Comic

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Amid all the furor over our problems in public education, a lot of suggestions for improvement have been put forward. One idea frequently mentioned is that teacher training has to be upgraded.

I'm not exactly sure what the pundits mean by this, but I do know that teachers today need a lot of help in developing techniques for coping with difficult "audiences." Kids in the classroom are becoming as tough to handle as drunks in a Las Vegas nightclub. That's why I think someone like Rodney Dangerfield ought to give inservice courses for bombing pedagogues. Attendance probably should be mandatory. I, for one, would welcome the opportunity to sit at the feet of the masters. I am in awe of their legendary put-downs and have lived a rich vicarious life through Jack Carter's squelching of a homicidal lush at the Copa, or through Alan King's demolition of a carousing conventioneer at the Nevele.

The course might be called, "The Teacher as Stand-Up Comic" or "Remedial Nightclub Techniques." The Collected Dean Martin Roasts would be an ideal text.

This training is not one of the so-called frills that budget slashers are forever complaining about--it's an absolute daily necessity. For instance, just this morning, in the middle of my third-period sophomore English class, one of my students roused from his lethargy and said, "You know, Mr. Janko, you're boring us."

There it was--a perfect opening. What Jackie Mason wouldn't have done to that upstart. Venom-dipped words leaped to my lips: "You call me boring? Why you're so boring that ..." But my poor powers failed me. "You're so boring that ... What?" The moment fled. Maybe I am boring if I blow set-ups like that.

Of course, a large part of my problem is the fact that many of the dullards recumbent in my classes don't even know when they've been skewered through the vitals with an exquisite verbal riposte. It's awfully hard to insult someone with a vocabulary of a 12th-century Franconian swineherd's apprentice. For example, a few days ago, I pounced on a resident churl after perusing his bedlamite's homework. "Life is a battle of wits, " I quipped, "and you're unarmed."

"Touche! A hit, a palpable hit!" But my victim neither winced nor squirmed nor cried aloud. In the fell clutch of circumstances, he, with Orphan Annie eyes, stared stolidly ahead, barely registering sentience. I knew then that my barb had lost its way in the miasma of his consciousness, and my motmost juste had probably emerged as: "Leaf a bottle uvnits, ind yer underarm." Clearly, something was lost in translation.

But even the "better" students will stumble over the meaning of "wits." And "unarmed," used in a sentence without "gun" or "knife," can only be part of a metaphysical paradox best left to Mr. Duns Scotus's honor ' class down the hall.

But if mere words are losing something of their pizzazz, teachers still have potent weapons of physical humor used in some of the old vaudeville turns.

I remember one of Milton Berle's routines on the Texaco Star Theater. An unwitting guest star would wander onstage, kvetching, "I can't go on. My makeup is ruined."

"What did you say?" Uncle Miltie would ask, lines of antic cruelty creasing his face. "What's the problem?"

The audience knew what was coming.

"My makeup. My makeup," the poor sap would cry.

"Makeup? Makeup!"

At that, a stooge would dart out with an elephantine powder puff and pummel the victim into a fluffy schnitzel ready for the skillet.

One of my recurring failures as a teacher is rerun on the penultimate day of every term. Bruno Wanderlust or one of his clones will inevitably amble to my desk, his face a mask of studied insouciance. Understand that he's been absent 53 days, having celebrated Mick Jagger's birthday, the Brownings' wedding anniversary, the vigil of Saint Wilgeforte, and all the fast days in the Iroquois calendar.

"Can I make up the work?" he snarls. Of course, it's useless to tell him that anyone who's missed my lecture on the stage schtick of Henry Irving is doomed, or that no student can hope to pass who hasn't heard my heterodox ruminations on the maxims of Colley Cibber.

Bruno persists. "Can I make up the work?"

You have to admit, only Uncle Miltie's best shot will work with a guy like this. But wait till next year! I'll be standing, as usual, at my desk, wearing plaid lederhosen, a Ronald McDonald tam cocked raffishly on my severe brow, the Garter rampant on my breast--if that's where Garters are rampant.

"What did you say?"

"Make up the work. I want to make up ..."

Famous last words. I strike with serpentine swiftness, and the offender disappears in a nimbus of chalkdust! Cyrano, eat your heart out!

And I'll do it, too; that is, if I can get the technique down. After all, what do I know about the subtleties of zonking curvacious Las Vegas cuties with bladders, or about throwing custard pies at superannuated crooners?

That's where the expertise of the old-time comics comes in. What's the best way to hold a lethal eraser? Do you swing wide or thrust home forward? On which foot do you pivot? And what about the follow-through? There's a science to everything. And I'm willing to put in time practicing. After all, I never thought that learning to be a good teacher was going to be easy.

Vol. 03, Issue 14, Page 18

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