Pretty much anything passes for higher education these days. Enterprising institutions routinely offer intellectually challenging programs such as cosmetology, astrology, thimble repair, linen folding and bikini waxing. But hey, if it’s at a university, it must be rigorous, right? And these academic pursuits, let’s not forget, do lead to jobs, a concern that college students ranked first, second and fourth in a recent survey of desired outcomes.
Coming out of high school, I too was in search of a job, a career that would make my family proud and let me show off my true talents. So naturally I applied to clown college. I conducted extensive research, talking with guidance counselors, reading the viewbooks and underground accounts of campus life, consulting the U.S. News rankings and other magazines touting the “best values” in clown education, visiting campuses and chatting with current students (not the mimes, of course).
The standardized exam, called the Comic Reasoning and Performance test, was especially tough. Ostensibly designed to test only your clown aptitude, it did pose questions that presumed an existing knowledge of clown history and culture. I sensed an inherent bias toward those who had grown up in a clown family or had somehow been exposed to clowns, in a good way. I did well enough, scoring in the 80th percentile, though at that point I knew the most elite bastions of clown education might lie beyond reach. I wished I could have opted for the CRAP prep course or hired a personal admissions consultant, who purported to know all the clown-admissions insiders and whose advice came at a reasonable $150 per hour, but family funds were tight.
By comparison, the application form was a breeze. It asked a bunch of hypothetical questions, such as, “If given the chance to travel with a top circus troupe or to corner the Long Island Bat Mitzvah market, which would you choose?” It also required you to write an essay that asked which clown, living or dead, you’d most like to share a cotton candy with. I’d read in online discussion forums that it’s best to stay away from hackneyed choices such as Bozo and Clarabell. I instead chose Krusty.
As I’d feared, I failed to get into my reach school, Ringmaster U., but my admission to Jester College came with a partial scholarship and my choice of housing among the finest on-campus tents. I figured my mediocre CRAP scores nixed my Ringmaster bid, but I later discovered the school has a strong tradition of admitting children of alumni — Ringers, as they call them. I never really stood a chance.
My first year was predictable, largely because of the general education curriculum. We all took the same courses, such as Rodeo Responsibilities, Props and Pratfalls, and Legendary Clowns of the Western World. Electives allowed us to explore our personal interests in topics like unicycling and stilt aerobics. Some required courses were oversubscribed, shutting out students and leaving them to doubt that they’d be able to graduate on time.
Even with my partial scholarship, I still could barely make ends meet. I landed a work-study job custom-fitting floppy shoes, a commitment that absorbed 20 hours a week. My performance began to suffer as a result. I couldn’t get my lapel flower to squirt straight and my “mime trapped in the box” routine evinced a more rectangular than square orientation. Even worse, while plowing a pie into a classmate’s face, I dislodged his foam nose and knocked his derby askew, thus exposing a rubber chicken’s beak. Shame and scorn fell upon me.
Perhaps my major downfall, however, was my inability to find myself. Clown elders spoke of creating a personal brand, a professional identity that would set me apart from legions of other performers. Should I be Sinisterio the Dark Clown? Take a more playful approach and bill myself as Quacky the Six-Foot Duck? How about Moody the Contemplative Clown? Brainy the Intellectual? Nothing seemed to fit.
Nor did I assimilate with any of the clown cliques — the jock clowns with their acrobatics, the pothead clowns, the earnest ones who formed study groups. I was a loner, a sad clown who didn’t need tears painted down his cheeks. The Office of Clown Counseling and Retention offered some consoling advice: when you flop, get back up and keep dancing. They tried.
Eventually, alas, I failed. My CPA, or Clown Performance Average, dropped below 2.0 thanks to D grades in poorly chosen electives — Hobos of the Great Depression and Combating Coulrophobia. I became yet another clown dropout, a lost soul destined to forever wonder how many smiles I might have engendered. I can’t blame the system, really; generations of successful alumni testify to the college’s ability to pump out performers. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I just wasn’t clown material.
I harbor neither regret nor bitterness. I have moved on, though I do keep tabs on former classmates via Facebook and the alumni magazine, which I receive along with calls and letters seeking donations. On some level, I suppose, I am an alumnus. And a part of that experience will stay with me. I may not be a graduate, but I’ll forever be a clown.
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This marks the debut of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
A public university in Italy transitions to English-only instruction. Meanwhile, some Israelis worry that institutions there have moved too far in that direction. Can universities be both “international” and “national"?
U of All People in 2017 has finally become a small, selective institution, maybe because so many of the faculty have left. Been terminated. Whatever. Y’know, they ought to call it U of No People. After the most recent round of pay cuts and layoffs this fall, here’s how it is:
The opening gong sounds at 10:30 these days, rung by Prof. Fritz O’Levy-Smith, ever since the state cut the bell out of the school budget. It’s nice to wake up later, even though the dorms have been sold to Amscray Realty, and we have to sleep in the old abandoned train depot. After O’Levy-Smith rings it for a while, we all assemble in Morraine lecture hall -- the only one left -- while O’Levy-Smith marks us down in a ratty attendance book. That takes about thirty minutes, which is okay, since all the periods have been shortened to half an hour. During that time, Eric and Junker get high in back, and Jasmine cuts herself. Then it’s time for chemistry lab.
Only our chemistry teacher, Adjunct Instructor Showentell, got laid off last month, and O’Levy-Smith doesn’t really know much about test tubes. Or what to do with a Bunsen burner, though the school sold them to pay for chemicals, which got stolen from the supply room because we also sold all the locks. So instead we sit around and talk about baseball. O’Levy-Smith is a Cubs fan.
Eventually, O’Levy-Smith gets up to ring the gong for third period, then hurries back to his American lit survey. That was what he was originally hired for, before the layoffs started. Last semester, we read some Dickinson and Whitman, but now we’re doing the oral tradition because we’ve run out of handouts. Luckily, O’Levy-Smith has a good memory; still, it’s mostly poetry, which I’m not crazy about — or poets, either. “I mean, who earns less money than a poet?” I mention in class, and Scott shouts, “A professor!” Mr. O’Levy-Smith sort of smiles and cuts class five minutes short so he can go to the bathroom before the next period.
The next class is P.E. aerobics, which a while ago was sort of like high school, when Coach Kern gave jock-strap checks and made us run laps. But O’Levy-Smith is a fun gym teacher and doesn’t even make us change. Plus, he’s into all kinds of sports that we never did with Coach Kern, like hacky sack and mixed wrestling, which he demonstrates on Jasmine now that she’s stopped bleeding. Her friend Margie wants her to go to the Wellness Center, but it’s been boarded up since last April. Anyway, O’Levy-Smith is a fine instructor when he wants to be, and in Phys. Ed. his motto is “Learn by doing.” After getting Jasmine in a reverse-something-or-other, he flips the situation and doesn’t even seem to mind when she pins him repeatedly.
Next is lunch. No food in the cafeteria, naturally, but everyone’s either bought stuff from Tony’s snack truck or stolen a bag of chips or something from the 7-Eleven across the street. Halfway through the period, we look over at O’Levy-Smith and see that he’s crying because he has nothing to eat. Sarah R. takes pity and tosses him some of her tuna fish sandwich. Junker offers to share some of his addies. After that, O’Levy-Smith perks up a bit.
With the cutbacks and all, we have only one class after lunch, and that class is college math. Nobody likes math. O’Levy-Smith would be the first to admit that he doesn’t, either. It’s supposed to be a combined algebra-trigonometry-statistics class, plus remedial. Mostly what we discuss is fractions, and how you can’t divide something by zero. “Like the school budget!” cracks Timothy. For that, Timothy gets a visit to O’Levy-Smith’s cubicle, where I hear O’Levy-Smith won’t let him leave until he forks over a penalty fee.
O’Levy-Smith is faculty adviser to the foreign film club, the Latino/a Association, and the Spanish club, but all the after-school activities have been canceled. O’Levy-Smith does some after-school tutoring — “on a freelance basis,” he says -- with a few takers. When Christopher asks if he can pay in food, O’Levy-Smith says sure.
When I get back to the train depot at 1:00, the cops are there to evict us. A guy from the U of All People Administrative Oversight Committee meets with the squatters to tell us our student loans have run out. Well, I’ve heard that before, which is why I hold down three jobs, but my old roommate, Chet, looks worried. He tells me there’s a rumor of further cutbacks at school, and that just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh till I almost puke.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
"In order to comprehend better, the children have to be close to the man who is speaking, to see every change of his facial expressions, every motion of his. I have observed more than once that those passages are best understood where the speaker makes a correct gesture or a correct intonation."
--Lev Tolstoy, “The School at Yasnaya Polyana”
In my first semester teaching English in a community college in New York City in the early 1990s, Dara Wong, from Hong Kong, always sat in the front row, right by my desk. She was eager and asked a lot of questions, but when I was speaking or reading aloud I would notice her watching my big chin and I would reflexively scrunch my neck or slouch. Seeing her eyes I wanted her to meet my eyes.
One afternoon she peered so hard at me as we were reading a short story I figured out she was looking at my mouth. I must have made a face, because she immediately said, "I need to see you pronounce."
"Ah!" I said.
One night a few years ago my wife and I went to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the French movie about an editor at Elle who is stricken with "locked-in syndrome." He is almost completely paralyzed; the doctors and therapists find he can communicate only by the blink of his left eye.
In a situation that seems to debar any possible comedy, it takes the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), or the wit of the director, Julian Schnabel, to clear the air and make us laugh. When he awakens into consciousness and sees two beautiful women hovering over him, gazing expectantly at him, he thinks (we hear his thoughts) something like, "Am I in heaven?" Put to rights by his earthly angels, one of the women trains him to use an alphabet board (she recites the most commonly used letters in French until he blinks at the one he needs); the other teaches him speech therapy. Both activities are agonizingly difficult and tedious for him, which the therapists both understand, but they are ever-patient and relentless.
Finally, he asks for his publisher to send someone to take dictation. He wants to write a book — the story of what we are watching. His scribe is of course beautiful (all the women in his life are beautiful). We see from his perspective how his hazy one-eyed vision flutters and focuses on each beauty’s mouth: lips, tongue, throat, all perfectly gorgeously demonstrating one sound after another. "This is torture!" thinks poor Bauby, who, we realize, is a modern-day Tantalus, so close and yet so far from his old customary womanizing.
In the theater during this scene I heard a few nervous laughs; I admit I laughed loudest, and my laughter wasn’t nervous. My wife glanced at me, and I shut my mouth and smiled.
Comforting myself that, though based on a true story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is only a movie, and that one of its purposes is to have us identify with the impatient stricken hero, I certainly identified with him. How many times have I been just like Bauby, squirming, groaning, trying so hard to communicate but making incomprehensible sounds, in the presence of attentive, demanding attractive women. There, on the screen in front of us, were my last couple of years’ experience trying to learn Russian.
I would like to hide from myself and from my wife that one of the compensations for the grueling thousands of hours of learning Russian on my own has been those several dozens of hours with my tutors.
But back to our mouths. I watch theirs and they watch mine.
To speak Russian involves a contortion of any English-speaking person’s mouth. We must make ourselves conscious of what have become reflexive actions. We can feel the errors of our mouths as surely as we can see the lack of precision in our drawing. We hear the wobbling, sloppy pronunciation as surely as we see our shaky imprecise hand when we sketch a work of art at the museum. That vowel that one of my Russian tutors called "61" (an idea that helped me with my handwriting of it — forget about the loops! Write a miniature 61 and you’ll have the Russian vowel pronounced from the back of the throat and with pursed lips: “ih” [ы]). I don’t have the vocabulary or oral-agility to spew Russian, so I must slow down the way I would were I relearning a baseball swing or basketball jump-shot. My mouth can handle the move this way and that, but certainly not in and out and over there. And so I study Dina’s mouth — she has good teeth; I peer into Albina’s — she’s wearing lipstick today!; I notice Katya’s wearing dangly earrings! I watch and I imitate, even though I can’t see my own mouth. I feel it.
"Say something in Russian," my friend Jose told me when I got back from a trip to Russia. I am accustomed to speaking Spanish to Jose’s wife, but as I wound up and twisted my mouth into the delivery of an easy Russian phrase, Jose laughed. "Everybody, look at Bob’s mouth!"
And so we look deep into the mouths of our tutors and teachers, not the way one of my former dentists did. She looked in my mouth the way I look in the fridge — wincing, expectant, disappointed. She was not looking at a human being. She would say, as if speaking of car parts, the serial numbers of which she imagined I knew, "The seven’s in trouble. Number twelve's okay, after all, but let’s see how it’s doing in six months." My students and I, however, have a thing going on.
I don’t mind now when they peer into my mouth and avoid my eyes.
"I listen and look," says Irina, meeting my eyes and smiling, and then refocusing on my lips.
I admit in the classroom, or almost anywhere now, I usually like any attention I can get.
I admit it was also a pleasure, while taking my Russian lessons in St. Petersburg and New York and California, to gaze at the tutor’s mouth, to watch her pursing lips, her rolling tongue. Even when I was tired, even when I couldn’t think of the words I already knew, even when I was tongue-tied, even when I couldn’t get that sound right, even when I left a syllable out of the common greeting or glued together two distinct consonant clusters, even when I mistwisted vowels into round and pure Spanish, I could look at and appreciate a pretty mouth.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.