What Goes For Big Laughs Among English Teachers
HEREWITH, WE LAUNCH a new series of old cartoons. Back in 1983, when I was on the headquarters staff of the National Council of Teachers of English, I was persuaded to draw cartoons for a Plan Book that would be sold to all and sundry among the Council’s usual clientelle. In a moment of legendary weakness, I agree to participate in the project but only if other staff members helped me come up with the jokes. That way, I wouldn’t have take the rap for the whole production—just the drawings. So that’s what happened.
The cover of this tome appears nearby. I like a lot of the drawing—the silhouetted “students” in the distance and the typography (which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find again)—and also the posture of the abused teacher, the way he fits into the chair, the turn of his right foot, and, particularly, the way the fingers of his left hand worked out. Nifty, I thought to myself when I finished it. But I must admit that the perspective of the desk top is all wrong. Sigh.
The design of the Plan Book was calendar simple: each month was introduced by a full-page cartoon, followed by four pages, one for each week in the month. And each week’s page was topped with a thumbnail-sized cartoon about teaching and teaching English in elementary and high schools. Among the first of the book’s pages is the one for a September week. We won’t show any more full calendar pages like this: we’ll show only the cartoons from those pages.
Many of the cartoons you’ll see were born on a couple balmy afternoons when a small group gathered over the wine bowl for gag writing sessions. (“Gags,” that’s what jokes are called in the argot of the trade.) We gagged for most of two afternoons, and some of the results you’ll eventually see. Those who bear some of the responsibility, then, include Mark Anderson, Paul O’Dea, Bernie O’Donnell, Holly O’Donnell, and Susan Clark of the National Council of Teachers of English staff, plus Carolyn Estes (Prairie High School, Frankfort, Indiana) for the question and answer gags and my daughters, Kit and Jill, and their mother, Linda, for insights into the elementary classroom.
This September page introduces one of the few continuing characters—the severe-looking man with an extended chin and a veined nose. He’ll show up a few more times as we wend our way, but apart from his appearance, he has no distinct personality. The same holds for a couple other continuing characters whom we’ll meet later.
Before we leave September, here’s the full-page cartoon introducing the month. The full-pagers generally had something to do with the month or time of year. September is the beginning of the school year when teachers meet the scholars. Note that, ever correct politically, some of the kids are racial minorities.
The teaching staff was represented in the Plan Book by as many women as men. (I haven’t counted them, but I think that’s true.) This one, another continuing character, is distinguished by her hair-do.
I love this joke, but maybe you have to be a former classroom teacher to be aware of all the subrosa nuances. Nuances? In this gag? Eh.
THE SMALL CARTOONS on the tops of the weekly pages fall into four groups, exemplified here (going clockwise from the upper left): “general” (any and all topics), a cartoony representation of some common grammatical term, homework excuses, and “Answers you (an English teacher) always wanted to give to Questions you always get.” All are common classroom experiences.
Except maybe the grammar stuff.
A split infinitive—in case you’ve forgotten—starts with the infinitive (to walk) and intrudes something (to slowly walk). There. Don’t you feel better already? One is supposed to eschew split infinitives, but I find them very friendly and use them all over the place to happily entertain myself.
My little split infinitive critter doesn’t actually illustrate the grammatical circumstance. He’s split, but a split infinitive has something between its two halves. I’ll do better next time.
The balding bespectacled teacher getting the homework excuse is another continuing character, but he appears only in the homework excuses cartoons.
When I was teaching English in high school, every time I uttered that antique advisory—You always takes the plural verb—I also muttered to myself what the scholar is saying here. The homework excuses get more and more extravagant as the months fly by. The representation of a squinting modifier seems more accurate than the split infinitive. Here (in case you’ve forgotten everything you learned in an English class) is an example of a squinting modifier: Mary said during the meeting Jo acted like a fool. “During the meeting” squints because it could modify either “said” or “acted.” Did Mary say it during the meeting? Or did Jo act like a fool during the meeting?
Geez. I’m surprised I remember. Actually, I don’t: I had to look it up in my duty grammar book.
Our next full-pager introduces the month of November. I’m not sure this is a joke. It is a slice of truthiness, though—a vision of what a classroom of students might be thinking when the dreaded “Shakespeare” unit is introduced.
Then we have an assortment of our usual gang. The homework excuse is highly dramatic here—exaggerated and therefore comic; and the dangling verbal is actually dangling (off the end of the abbreviated “November”). A dangling verbal, or modifier, in case your memory has deserted you, is a modifier that has no word in the sentence which it can sensibly modify. Here’s one: After eating a hearty supper, the dishes were washed. The dishes didn’t eat a hearty supper but that’s the only word in the sentence to which the modifier could apply. It can be fixed like this: After eating a hearty supper, we washed the dishes. See how complex and intricate?
I like the frustrated alarm depicted in the homework excuse teacher. His hands are just right. And the kid wanting to know about his ‘F’—his outstretched arm/hands are nicely expressive, I ween. I suppose, about the last cartoon, that English teachers listen to poetry rather than music when they jog with a headset on. (Robert Frost is quoted; but you knew that, right?)
Next, we come to Christmas. Every holiday vacation, you’ll remember, was usually clogged with homework. Book reports due when classes resumed after the holiday. Teachers faced somewhat the same problem as their students: usually teachers had term papers to grade, and they often had enough accumulated over the fall months to heap up for grading during the holiday vacation. It was enough to drive a person to drink. And that’s why our hapless English teacher is sitting here, in December—on the cusp of the holiday—mentally turning holiday chores into holiday cheers.
I like the picture. It has a lot of tiny refinements that I dote on. The finger on his forehead with a line not quite completed: I look for these opportunities and delight when they come along. His sprawl, legs extended, pants wrinkling a little. Nice. And he looks so relaxed, so submerged into his easy chair. So comfortable.
IN THE NEXT PAGE OF WEEKLY CARTOONS, we encounter the first of a 2-panel cartoon—running across the top of the page. This records for posterity one of the verbal exchanges that inevitably takes place in any social situation in which an English teacher finds him/herself. Everyone expects that you’re judging their lack of command of the grammar of the language—which is what the guy in the first panel assumes. Heh, heh. That’s the cliche situation. The teacher’s response in the second panel is not the standard response but many of us were tempted to say exactly that.
Instead, we were likely to smile and say, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ll watch it for you.”
We also record here the first racial minority to appear in the Plan Book. There are several more as we’ll see later. The high school I taught in had virtually no racial minorities on the faculty even though it was, technically speaking, an inner city school with a huge African-American population. The vice principal was African-American, but he was alone.
Next, another of the month division pages in the Plan Book, this one starring our peevish-looking professorial type in a little drama that gives life to the old expression applied to English teachers as “custodians of the language.” On the second tier (in case you’ve forgotten the fundamentals of the highschool English class you were sentenced to), he’s eliminating redundancy: “In my opinion” and “I think” are the same statement. But you knew that, eh? I know you know it.
Two of the cartoons at hand in our next display are in two of the repeating categories—excuses for missing homework, and answers you always wanted to give to questions you’re always asked. The kid typing on toilet tissue is another of our attempts to keep the classroom characters diverse.
I typed term papers in somewhat this fashion when in college. I used a roll of teletype paper, borrowed from the campus newspaper office. I’d grab one of the books I was consulting and find things to quote; I’d subsequently footnote the quotes in the finished paper after connecting them with some sort of narrative. I’d just type merrily along, quoting from book after book, rolling the teletype paper into the typewriter as I typed. If it was a 12-page paper that was due, I’d stop quoting and typing when I had filled 12 feet of the teletype roll. I’d tear it out of the typewriter, cut all the quotes apart, arrange them in what seemed to be a logical order, and then write (type) sentences that would connect the quotes. Worked fine.
My bodiless head character returns to illustrate “irregular verb.” His trousers are irregular. Ha.
At the top of the next page of weekly cartoons, we have another quick-witted response to questions teachers are always asked and yet another excuse for not doing homework—plus a long, horizontal cartoon that was printed across the tops of two of the week pages in the Plan Book. “Writing across the curriculum” refers to a pedagogical theory that recommends teaching writing in all subjects, not just English.
As I mentioned before—when we began this expedition into the class planning book I cartooned for years ago—every month of the Plan Book began with a full-page cartoon. And near here is February’s. The month, in this instance, has nothing to do with the gag, a visualization of the meaning in how a student raises his hand in response to a teacher’s question. But you don’t have to be a teacher (or, in my case, an ex-teacher) to recognize the types. While each picture is ostensibly funny in itself, the series builds to the final picture as a punchline.
Next, we have another month division page in the Lesson Plan Book.The grumpy teacher and a snotty kid. I like the drawing, but the joke resides in the words.
IN THENEXT ASSEMBLAGE OF WEEKY CARTOONS are two “Homework Not Done Excuses”; dunno why. Maybe I was running out of the other gags. There is one more of this series, so we’re not quite done—even though, judging from the teacher’s diminished posture in the lower right, it looks like we might be.
Otherwise, the gags are, as usual, English-teacher oriented.
All three of the continuing cartoon categories appear in our next exhibit— the Answers You Always Wanted to Give to Questions You Always Get, Homework Not Done Excuses, and the little nebbish talking head, who, in this appearance, doesn’t quite speak. Or does he?
This is the last appearance for all three of these joke-types. After this, the comedy must go on without the comfort of the familiar (so to speak).
I’m happy to see that facial expression plays a role in all of these. I particularly like the teacher collecting the homework. Peeved, exasperated—maybe just a little desperate. After all, he’s been coming up empty-handed for weeks.
And the hair-do of the little girl in the first cartoon is very up-to-date for 1983, the year these cartoons were printed in the Lesson Plan Book.
Here’s another month division page, this one, for April (the cruelest month according to Robbie Burns). The picture here could be of Shakespeare, the month of April allegedly being his birth month. Could be but isn’t. Just a poet with his insides on display for us all to marvel at.
The text showing through appears to be copies of pages of a rhyming dictionary. What poet would be without one for his/her innards?
Otherwise, it’s a collection of visual-verbal puns. Wot fun, eh?
Next up, more spot cartoons from the individual week-by-week pages of the Lesson Plan Book. On this display, we have a two-panel cartoon stretched across the page. I like the teacher’s expression in the second panel, and the little bubbles of vaguery over the kid’s head in the first.
Cursive handwriting is no longer taught in many schools these days. Since everyone will be communicating via typed messages on the Internet, why learn to write at all? They all learn to print but not to write cursive. Sad.
Our cranky professor is back in the first cartoon of this culling, but he is merely there and says nothing.The joke belongs to his comrade. “Petrified nominative” is a part of speech I think I invented (or else surreptitiously stole from someone else); I used to throw it out in those endlessly esoteric conversations English teachers love to have about grammar. And I like “subject-verb disagreement”: the characters are just too charming and accurate for, er, words. So I should stop here, eh?
NO SUCH LUCK. Here’s a little quiz for you. (Well, we’re back in the classroom, kimo sabe—site of many many quizes.) This is the October monthly division page, but the month has nothing to do with the so-called jokes (or vice versa). How many of the characters (authors and/or their creations) parading by can you name? I particularly like the combination in panels 7 and 8. Who?
Another month division page, this one, a commemoration of the countless reports teachers are required to make, all time-consuming in professional lives with little time to spare. In the Navy, we “gun-decked” such reports—that is, we found ways to dummy-in the reports without actually doing what was requred. Once I received notice that I hadn’t, lately, been submitting my “fan blade” report. We were supposed to inspect all fans in our “spaces” to be sure none of the fan blades were bent (and therefore dangerous). Exasperated, I grabbed a handful of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper from the wastebasket—discarded documents of one sort or another—wrote a memo saying “attached is my fan blade report,” stapled the handful of sheets to the memo and shipped it off. Never heard from anyone about it, one way or another.
I like the treatment of the heap of paper. Just enough individualized sheets to suggest thousands more.
Across the top of our next visual aid is a 2-panel cartoon—about computers in the classroom, a fairly new venture in 1983 when the Plan Book was produced. Across the bottom are two enactments of the cryptic notes English teachers were wont to scribble on student compositions. “Frag” means “sentence fragment”; “sp” indicates a spelling error. (But you all knew that, eh? Your incarceration in high school English class must’ve “took,” as they say. So—just to test you—what is a sentence fragment? One without a verb, usually—or, sometimes, even a subject. Like the one I just typed.)
I particularly like the body language of the Frag kid; and the facial expression on the Sp kid.
The first of the next four cartoons dramatizes the notation English teachers are likely to make on a student composition next to a sentence that is “awkward” in construction or meaning. Then we have a student’s dramatic enactment of a piece of poetry. Next, the deployment of a stereotypical image of a football player. The “W” on his chest was probably my dim recollection of my short 5-year career as a classroom teacher at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas.
Finally, more drama—on the face of the teacher who tried to teach the difference between “lie” and “lay.” I like his face and body language.
Next, we approach both the end of the school year and the end of this exposition with the monthly division page for the month of June. Because school usually let out early in the month, we don’t have any weekly planning pages after this division page.
Clearly, it’s the end of the year. The principal is thinking about the teacher getting all her grade cards turned in (the old IBM punched variety), and the teacher is day-dreaming about how she hopes to spend the coming summer. The joke—such as it is—is in what the stacks of books are thinking: someone (alas, the teacher) has to log them all in, making sure every kid has turned in his books by checking the nameplate inside the front cover against the class roster. More work for the teacher before she can adjoin to the beach.
The last page in the Lesson Plan Book I devoted to a little autobiographical insight. I like this strip. It’s authentic, for one thing, drawing on my experience as a classroom teacher. I taught seniors, which means at the end of every school year, they all left, and most of them I never saw again. Sob.
I like this strip for another reason: as an example of comic strip storytelling, it exploits the medium’s capacity for small bore drama by timing the speech and linking it to action with a somber final panel. Lights out.