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).