I spent a four year stint teaching sixth grade in Cicero, Illinois. I mostly loved the job-- great kids, great colleagues-- but horrible administrators. I'll save that story for another time.
I spoke this morning with a friend and old colleague, who, like me, was guilty of having a Master's Degree (and being more expensive), and was laid off. She was letting me know she was using me as a reference for a teaching job she was applying for. We talked about old colleagues that we'd talked to recently. It reminded me that the old colleague I miss the most is my friend Paul Nudd.
Paul and I became friends almost instantly when I came to his school. One of the other teachers said, at lunch, "I knew the two of you would find each other before long."
Paul is, like me, a little offbeat. He was the art teacher, and also a respected artist. We were, on the face of it, very different. He was born in England, and came to the States at an early age. I was born in Berwyn, Illinois. I was then in my early forties, he in his late twenties. He's a White Sox fan. I'm a Cubs fan. But what we shared was the belief that life was only going to be as fun as we were going to make it.
I can't remember who started it. Paul was generally sarcastic and humorous with the kids, so it was probably him, but one day, out of the blue, as he brought his art materials in and got set up, I kiddingly castigated my students for not giving more respect to the man who had invented the question mark!
The students were incredulous. Paul, who missed his calling as an improv artist, spun a tale, off the cuff, of his travails, creating a story of false starts and dead ends, toiling until he came up with question mark that we know and love today.
Fortunately, none of them recognized the joke from "Austin Powers," and it became one our regular routines for several years.
I took to telling the kids that "Mr. Nudd has suffered for his art... and now it's your turn." This, of course, I'd shamelessly cribbed from a Monty Python record.
One of our running gags was that Paul had been the third man on the moon-- never mind that he was born long after the moon shots ended.
"Everyone knows who the first man on the moon was?"
Occasionally, a student would know that it was Neil Armstrong.
"And who knows who the second man on the moon was?"
"It was Buzz Aldrin. And who was the third?"
"It was Mr. Nudd!"
Stunned silence, disbelief. The first time we told this one, the kids pointed out that he was too young. He responded by telling them that he was the first baby on the moon.
This joke became elaborate. Paul contrived a tale of being chosen, at the age of 18 months, to be the first baby in space. They'd fitted him with a special spacesuit. I dug up a picture of "David the Boy in the Bubble" to bolster the story, telling the that it was Mr. Nudd in his special spacesuit. I also found a picture of President Gerald Ford holding a baby. We printed up copies of that picture and kids got Paul to sign them, apparently not noticing that the baby in the picture was distinctly Asian.
Our most elaborate hoax took place on April Fool's Day one year. We sowed the seeds-- having staged conversations in front of the kids where I expressed concerns that my teaching certificate might not be valid because there was a class I missed in teacher school.
On April Fool's Day, Paul welcomed my students first thing in the morning into my class instead of me, warning them that whatever they'd been getting away with before, it was all over now-- he was in charge. I was waiting in the teacher's lounge. I came into the room sullenly on the pretext of having to collect my coat and bag to go home. I turned and angrily told Paul that I knew it was him that had told the school board that my certificate was invalid-- that he'd been coveting my job all along, and this was his way of getting it. As I backed out the door, I told him, in the style of the old "Guy Under the Seats"-- a running Chris Elliot bit from David Letterman's show-- bitterly telling him that I'd be watching him, watching him....
The look on the faces of the kids was priceless. You could have heard a pin drop. One of my favorites, this tiny, bright girl named Donaji sat literally slack-jawed. It really messed with them, because they knew that Paul and I were great friends.
For our part, Paul and I were struggling to keep our faces straight. We'd pulled it off better than we ever dreamed.
I went to the teacher's lounge for a few minutes. I went back to the classroom, cracked the door open a little and in a high-pitched evil voice said "I'm watching you Nudd! I'm watching you!"
The jig was up at that point. Paul, the kids and I were laughing heartily. They loved it. That group ended up being one of the smartest, nicest and fun groups of kids I ever taught.
We had a couple more of them. One day, at the beginning of the school year, as Paul came into the room to teach art, I sternly told the students that Mr. Nudd was deserving of even greater respect. I told them that the school board had eliminated the entire budget for art supplies for the year, and the to assure that they'd have art supplies, Mr. Nudd had sold one of his kidneys on ebay. Lickety-split, Paul grasped his side, grimacing, bent over, walking gingerly as if in great pain.
Later, as we regaled the sixth-grade lunch with our tales, Paul pointed out that we just might have crossed a line there. We were so ashamed.
There were a lot of other jokes, but right before I left that job, there was one more really funny thing. One day, I was walking past a stack of the New City, a "free" paper in Chicago. I noticed that its cover story was about ten "up and coming" Chicago artists. I chuckled, thinking I'd grab a copy of it, and rib Paul-- ask why wasn't he on there.
Well, the joke was on me. He was one of the artists featured on the cover.