Friday, June 23, 2017


Zollo and I are sitting behind Lenny and Carl.  It's the first day of tenth grade and this is Chemistry with Mr. Kramer.  Class hasn't started yet.  Each desk accommodates two people.  Zollo and I shared one.  Lenny and Carl shared another.  The classroom is tiered so Zollo and I sit a step above Lenny and Carl. This is the way the science classrooms were laid out.  I knew Zollo from before, though I can't remember how.  The important thing is that because we went to 74, we did our ninth grade at Cardozo.  We were veterans.  Lenny and Carl went to 67.  They started Cardozo in tenth grade.  They were rookies.

I am giving a ton of grief to Zollo and Zollo is giving a ton of grief right back to me.  Lenny and Carl are laughing hysterically.  It's as if we were doing some vaudeville act on their behalf.  Then the class actually starts and we settle down, though that part I just assume.  All I can remember is those first few minutes before class.  I believe the pattern repeated for the next several days, perhaps even for the rest of the semester.  Eventually Lenny and Carl joined into the banter.  Soon after that first day, Lenny and I became friends.  One of the reasons is that he so readily laughed at my schtick. (The spell checker doesn't like the first "c" in schtick, but I'm going to leave it in because, after all, it is my schtick.)

And now a little aside to demonstrate that this sort of thing is itself learned behavior.  A few years ago I had a discussion group with three former students.   They were international students, two from China, one from South Korea.  They were very good students who always did the assigned work and were eager to learn.  They liked it very much when I would joke with them, which happened mainly at the beginning of our meeting.  They smiled easily and genuinely enjoyed that part of our interaction.  My purpose in starting the group was to see if I could get them to be more creative in their own learning.  So, in accord with my inclination, we read oddball stuff to get at creativity from many different angles.  Our method was for one of them to write a blog post about the topic beforehand and for the others to comment on it.  This was to get everyone ready for our discussion.  One week we covered humor and schtick.  Nicole's post on this showed her usual thoroughness, but it lacked any insight into the topic.  She could have tried to be funny in her post.  But she didn't.  Either it didn't occur to her to do so or she didn't know how.  I had hoped she'd try to imitate me in some way, but that didn't happen.  In my comment on her post I wrote one of my rhymes, trying to be both humorous and descriptive of the dilemma. You can't teach schtick one-two-three-zing, where the people learn to do it in one 90-minute session.  It takes lots of practice.  (Regarding the need for practice, think about the work of Anders Ericsson.)  I hadn't realized it ahead of time.  There are some things I do with essentially no effort.  Making humor in context is one of those things.  But I've been doing it for such a long time that I've forgotten all the learning that went into becoming proficient in this way.

Back to that time at Cardozo.  One of those things in school I never quite figured out is why you call some people by their first name but with others you use their last name.  And to make it weirder, this is not uniform.  Some people use the first name.  Others the last name.  For example, in the TV show Homeland, Carrie Mathison is always called Carrie but Nicholas Brody is often called Brody, even by his wife and by Carrie too, yet Abu Nazir studiously refers to him as Nicholas.  In my little story above, Zollo is the last name. I've always thought of him that way, not by his first name.  Many people called me Arv or Arvan and sometimes a short form of my first name, Lan.  Which name is chosen reflects a personal preference.  When I would talk with Lenny I would always address him using his first name (Lenny itself is a bit of a nickname on Leonard while Lanny is my full name and is not short for anything else) but when I would make reference to him when talking with somebody else I'd often use my little nickname for his last name.

I think the nature of the humor is tied to the name that is used.  After tenth grade I kind of lost track of Zollo.  He was into biology and I was not.  But I developed quite a similar relationship with Schulman; indeed it was even more intense this way.  The banter we had is what nerds do, the analog to trash talk between athletes.  Schulman used to call me a patzer, a definite put down.  It means a poor chess player, surely a correct description now, perhaps not such an accurate description then (meaning I was okay as a chess player in high school).  Schulman and I gave each other a lot of grief.  But it was all friendly.  With others who weren't math guys, there still was joking around but the humor had a different tone and was directed at other things, not ourselves.

One advantage that high school affords is that you have a different cohort of kids in each class, so you can get friendly with a variety of other kids.  If I were a stand-up comic, which I'm not, you'd say I was playing to a variety of audiences.  It's not exactly the same thing but I thought it similar enough to make the comparison.  In the process you develop a sense of taste about what stuff will work with pretty much everyone as well as where to modulate what you do for that specific context.  I wasn't always a jokester.  Sometimes I'd just engage in polite conversation.  But frequently I was going after a laugh even if much of the time that was done on autopilot rather than via extra exertion.

In history class in tenth grade I sat in the back of the room with Lenny and Lauren.  I think it was the only class I had with Lauren, though I'm not sure of that.  What I do recall is that we had these rather irreverent conversations that got a bit wilder as the term wore on.  At first she was more observer.  After a while, she participated fully. I want to say that some of this happened during the actual class session, though maybe that is my mind playing tricks on me.  In several classes where I got to sit in the back of the room, I have the sense that some of these sort of conversations took place during the actual class session.

It didn't happen in tenth grade geometry with Miss. Chinn.  She sat us by alphabetical order and I had the front right seat in the classroom.  I really don't like to sit in the front row.  I'd rather take it all in from the back.  Plus, because I'm rather tall, if I sit upright I can block the view of the person behind me.  Then too, if you are goofing off its easier for the teacher to spot you when you're sitting in the front.   There was a bit of all class banter in that class, but nothing like what I did with Lenny and Lauren in history.  Something similar to that did happen in the first semester of English with Mr. Marcus.  He was a younger teacher and gave the kids a bit more freedom.  I sat in back of the room with Elihu and a few others whom I can't recall now.  Elihu was intensely political at the time and he ultimately became the vice president of the student organization, with Larry as president.  Larry was another who was quite political at the time, though he wasn't in this English class.  Elihu steered a lot of our conversations and much of his humor centered around Lenny Bruce.  Ultimately, I read How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, so I could keep up in these discussions.  It was a bit too risque to be a part of the assigned curriculum, but it's good for kids to read some edgy stuff and then to talk about it with others.  So I enjoyed being in the back of the room with Elihu and the others, even if that all ended by the second semester when Mr. Stark took over from Mr. Marcus.

I want to now fast forward to senior year, second semester.  School for graduating seniors is always a bit iffy.  In my teaching now I refuse to teach in the spring because I get too disillusioned by the senioritis that infects many of the students.  Something like that happened when I was a student.  I was probably more serious about the academic content than many of my classmates, but I was far from immune from senioritis.  For example, there is the story about how one day Billy and I skipped Calculus so we could drive to Flushing to buy Falafel.  There were other shenanigans of that sort as well.  It is two other classes that I want to make note of here, each where most of the students were still paying attention and doing the work.

One was Jewish History with Mr. Seretan.  It always seemed weird to me that such a course would be offered in a public school, but it was a popular class, with a classroom full of students. I'm guessing that everyone in that class was Jewish; I know that many of the students in school were Jewish.  But here I'm not really interested in the subject matter.  This is the class I remember where the banter came from many people and where the casual discussion and class discussion most seemed to merge, an ideal I'd like to replicate in my own teaching but have never been been able to do so.  Perhaps that class will remain unique in my consciousness.   It had a more interesting social dynamic than most because in the fall Seretan was the coach of the It's Academic Team, which I was on, and we were quite successful, appearing on TV 3 times.   This was NBC in New York City, so something of a big deal. The upshot is that experience created a you-can-get-away-with-murder like environment.  While we didn't do that we did take our liberties.

The other class was English with Mrs. Nissenfeld.  I sat in the back of room and found a group of people there to banter with.  So in that sense the experience was like in tenth grade with Mr. Marcus.  But Mrs. Nissenfeld was a very experienced teacher.  The freedom she gave us, I believe, was her compromise between keeping us engaged and managing the senioritis.  (On the work front, I recall a group project where we had to do a book report and in-class presentation on Kafka's The Trial and our group had at least one meeting at the main public library in Jamaica to do the research for that.)   The group I was part of in the back of the room, which overlapped but was distinct from the group that did that project, had Billy in it.  Since he was already my friend and was quite a playful guy that fact made it easier for me to know the others, who were new to me.  I want to make special mention of Cliff, a very sweet guy and a big fan of then contemporary rock and roll.  I think his favorite was Loggins and Messina, but he also liked Elton John and Seals and Crofts.   In retrospect, getting to know Cliff was useful because I was quite ignorant about rock music and you really had to know something about it for college or, if not that, then you had to know how to go with the flow and let others set the agenda about what we listened to.  Cliff was extremely forthcoming in talking about his passion, while I went with the flow.   I don't remember too much of what else we talked about, but I remember it being fun and enjoying the interaction.  I wish I had gotten to know him earlier in my time at Cardozo.

* * * * *

I've spent this post talking about the banter I had with other kids while in high school, not considering at all what happened outside of school.  There was a lot of banter then too, much with still other kids.  So I could go on describing that, but I won't, at least not in this post.

We have a tendency to think of school as work and after school as play.  For me, those distinctions are false.  The two are jumbled together.  Further, it is important to note that I was not a class clown.  I really was quite a good student.  So the type of play with other students that I've considered above is not something that competes with the formal learning.  It facilitates that learning.  If there is one message that I want to get across in this piece, it is that play and work need to integrate.  The work part will be better that way.  In my experience it is much easier to do that in horizontal relationships, student to student, than it is in vertical relationships, student to teacher.   Let's observe, however, that such student to student interaction does support a goal that the teacher should want too.  The student needs to drive his own learning.  That is reinforced by the student engaging in banter with his classmates, which happens without (much) adult supervision.

The other point I want to make, and I really can't emphasize this enough, is that these are valuable life skills learned by this type of play with schoolmates.  It provided a solid foundation for me throughout much of my academic career.  I see kids now, the ones I teach, and a lot of them don't get this.  They are too wrapped up in the game of gaining credentials.  There is nothing on the resume that says you are good at banter, no authority figure to certify that.  But it is so valuable.  We say in college that we teach communication skills.  I mentioned Ericsson earlier so I want to repeat this here.  Being good at communication is a matter of practice, a lot of practice of the right sort.  We might intrude on occasion with the student to redirect that practice.  But our intrusions are no substitute for their practice.   This is learning by doing.  There has to be quite a lot of that.

One last issue is whether communication of this sort really requires humor or if you can learn to communicate with warmth and empathy without learning how to be funny.  I am the son of Sidney, so am not neutral on this point.  Even without that bias, however, part of the idea is to learn how to make the interaction enjoyable for the participants, so they want to come back for more.  One obvious way to do that is to make it fun.  For me going from fun to funny is not a stretch at all.  I am the son of Sidney, true, but I think his views should be universal. 

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