Thursday, March 01, 2007

He's Suffered For His Art-- Now It's Your Turn

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?"

Random guesses.

"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.


kim said...


Your blog entries are like seperate websites. Luckily, they are funny.


Chris said...

Fun teachers like you made life bearable. I'd say maybe 10% of my teachers exhibited any sense of humor at all. It's too bad. It seems to me humor can be a great teaching aid, or at least a good way to keep kids paying attention.

lulu said...

Are you sure you want to quit teaching? I think you need to come teach with me!

Erik Donald France said...

Epic hilarious story. Good God! Quite a bit different from Half Nelson (chuckling).

Natalie said...

Sounds like a great co-worker and friend. You guys were good, really good. Much funnier than my sixth grade (science) teacher who thought it would be a good idea to bring in a tape of his vasectomy for science class. He also told lots of rather racy and sexist jokes to the male students. He wasn't back the next year. Or like my other teacher in sixth grade who failed me on my reports about two historical figures from the 1770s because the assignment said one was supposed to be a president (note that she assigned me this time period and Washington wasn’t elected until 1789). You guys would have made sixth grade much better.

barista brat said...

i was laughing and smiling while reading this post!

what a great story, and i KNOW those students will continue to tell the stories of their two favorite teachers.

Tenacious S said...

Wow, Paul's stuff is really cool. Bravo to both of you for making education fun. And I thought you should know, with the chili tonight we had Smack My Ass and Call Me Sally hot sauce. It was yummy1

JR's Thumbprints said...

I wish I could pull these types of tales on my students; unfortunately, they're so brain dead it wouldn't be worth the effort.

Mob said...

Hmnn, not sure I 'get' the art, but he sounds like quite a dynamic fellow, and the hijinx stories are priceless.

I had a pair of teachers during junior high who circulated the story that they were sisters, regardless of the improbability of the story, and stuck to it throughout the year, shamelessly ignoring any anomolies the children might find when questioning them about their 'family'.

Johnny Yen said...

I completely agree. A little sense of humor goes a long way. Unfortunately school administrators have a special operation to have their sense of humor removed.

Boy, we'd both really be popular with administrators then, wouldn't we?

Yeah, I try to stay off the hard stuff while I'm working. Okay, at least until noon.

Oh My God. A tape of his vasectomy? I hope he didn't have any appointments with his proctologist.

I have seen a lot of "stupid teacher tricks" in my day. I could cite a number of them, but my favorite was a Chicago Public Schools teacher who complained that a 1st grade read all the time. This was an African-American teacher talking about an African-American student. It really pissed me off. I guess it would be much better for him to be gangbanging or some other productive thing.

Thanks! I run into old students occasionally and they seem to still like me. I must have done something right.

Details! Tell me the recipe for your sauce!

I truly do not know how you do it. I can only deal with this place because I know I'll be able to leave at the end of the school year, or maybe even before that. And your students are ten times more difficult. I salute you. Although reading your blog, I've seen that you've got the occasional quip in here and there.

Yeah, it's a little strange for my taste, too. He's very respected in the art community here in Chicago, especially for how young he is (I think he's 32 now). Tony Fitzpatrick, a big Chicago artist, who's done a lot of album covers (The Neville Brothers, Lou Reed, Steve Earle) has actually bought his work.

When I worked at another Chicago school, there was a teacher with a last name similar to mine, and kids constantly asked if we were brothers. He was African-American, and I'm white. We, of course, told them yes.

Dale said...

Why were my teachers all more interested in torturing us rather than making us want to learn and entertaining us like you? Sounds like a load of fun and a great friendship.