Smith: The comic genius of an adolescent
I see that Don, a guy I knew in high school, has 17 Facebook friends and no profile picture. It’s hard not to draw conclusions from this.
I wasn’t close friends with Don, but I had several classes with him. I remember him as kind of a pudgy kid with thick round glasses, sort of a Shrinky Dink ’80s-era Roger Ebert. However, rather than this look causing people to ask him his informed opinion on the newly released “Scarface,” it made him the subject of some teasing.
As I was generally on the same side as he in the bully arrangement, I could commiserate with his life. Yet Don didn’t seem to be too bothered by it all. He was quiet but not defeated, cheerful but hardly the class clown. Yet, despite his apparent normalness, he was singlehandedly responsible for two of the funniest moments of my high school career.
Incident No. 1: We’re in English class, and it’s poetry month. We’ve been broken into groups and assigned a poem to read aloud to the class. As we’ll be reading together, we’re supposed to rehearse. But you know how that goes. Don’s group has been given Poe’s poem “The Bells,” best known for the repetition of the word “bells” and his creation of the word “tintinnabulation,” easily the coolest word I learned in that four-year span.
Here’s a little excerpt from “The Bells.”
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“To the swinging and the ringing/Of the bells, bells, bells/Of the bells, bells, bells, bells/Bells, bells, bells/To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!”
So you can see where, quite easily, a group of five high schoolers with scant rehearsal time could get a bit thrown off by all those bells. In fact, you may even be able to imagine one such student being off by an entire “bell” or two. And that’s just what happened. Don somehow was one full bell behind, such that when the others had paused after completing the dense bells paragraph, Don let out one extra, lonesome, fully committed “bells.”
And it was hilarious.
To me, anyway. There was this perfection in the timing of it. It was like having the funniest person in the world in class with me, executing a genius-level prank. I don’t know if Don did this on purpose or not, but it remains a highlight of education for me. Heck, I still love poetry as a result. And bells.
Incident No. 2, however, leads me to believe that Don knew exactly what he was doing.
We’re in driver’s ed class and are learning basic first aid. The class is being taught by the baseball coach, which is just the way these things go. Throughout grade school, I’ve been taught various subjects by equally various sports coaches. I learned U.S. history from the football coach. To this day it’s hard for me to recount certain key moments in the history of our nation without thinking of it in terms of “scrimmage.”
So, the coach who will be in charge of sending a bunch of 16-year-olds onto the open road in rolling death machines is teaching us about first aid.
“What do you do, then,” he asks the class of bored teenagers, “if someone gets impaled on a fence post?”
This was a trick question, as we’d recently covered an entire chapter on this and had learned that in case of an impaling, attempts to un-impale were the wrong approach. Still, nobody quite knew how to handle a question of this magnitude.
“You dig up the post and put the person in the car with the post sticking out the back window,” he said. “And hang a red flag on it.”
This, to 14-year-old me, was comedy of an almost spiritual proportion. But, as the old saying goes, a prophet is never accepted in his own homeroom.
Don’s tormenters, the kids who would purposely sit behind him just so they could say, “Edgar, this is your tummy, Edgar,” were not amused. I think someone actually smacked him in the back of the head. But I looked at Don at that moment and saw an artist who was pleased with his work. Don was smiling, knowing that he’d crossed all boundaries of the expected and created a work of comedy genius.
Now it’s 30 years since we’ve graduated, and Don has gone on to experience his dose of three decades of the realities of adulthood. I wonder if knowing the pure joy he brought me in high school would make a difference to him.
I guess, if he accepts me as his 18th Facebook friend, I’ll find out.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.
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