Underground Humor and Pranks Part I

Considering the public’s expectation that schools are supposed to be serious centers of learning designed to develop students’ knowledge and intellectual skills, sometimes high schools can have a collection of “characters” who create an underground of humor and lighthearted fun. Especially as I think of RHS during my years there, from 1967 – ‘95, the staff and students generated many pleasant recollections that I look back on fondly because they still amuse me.

Since I had experience teaching at only one other school before RHS, I don’t have much to compare RHS to, but it would be wonderful to think that every high school has a few amateur comedians and creative practical jokesters to generate chuckles, and sometimes outright hilarity. Some of the best incidents happened because any sizeable group with a wide range of ages generates many different mindsets and experiences. 

One of the first strange situations happened in the late ‘60s because of a “student” named Jake Sweeney – except there was no such student, at least not in the school. Almost my entire career was B.C. – before computers. All functions depended on paper and blackboards, but the boards were actually green, except no one called them “green boards.” On Friday of the first week of “Jake Sweeney’s enrollment,” his name was called on the public address system during homeroom to report to the office. No one else was called to report to the office, and I for one wondered how Jake could have gotten into trouble so quickly.

For successive weeks, Jake was called to the office every day; how could one boy create so many problems? Before long, we teachers were asking each other if Jake was in any of their classes – no, no, no. The guidance counselors did not have any enrollment papers or anything else about him. Jake was a phantom student. Our conclusion was that one of the students filled out an enrollment card for a fake student as a joke. Or maybe Jake came the first day of school and the whole experience was too much for him and he never returned. In any case, he faded into oblivion.

During my first few days at RHS, a seasoned teacher in the English Department, Ann Leach, was asked by the principal to show me around and help me get oriented. One morning we were standing in the teacher’s lunchroom; she was expounding about something while holding a styro cup under the coffee pot spout and pressing the handle down. The cup was defective with a hole in the bottom, and she continued to look at me rather than at what she was doing, while coffee was running very close to her shoes. I was so convulsed in laughter that I could not get a word out and just tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the wet floor. She was a very serious person, and I don’t remember her reaction – probably not amusement.

A colorful, lively person, Jane Braden, taught Spanish at the high school. On April 1, 1970, she decided it was a good day to play a joke on Principal John DeLong. With the aid of her student teacher, Marietta Marano Lipps, the two of them arrived at school very early with a crockpot full of taco meat and all the fixings. They decorated his office with Mexican restaurant “art.” Anyone who was in the vicinity of the office that day was well aware that April Fool’s Day was being celebrated in an odiferous manner. Marietta’s commitment to the system as a Spanish and English teacher continued from that time until her retirement 35 years later.

The timing of more pranks and humorous situations are a blur in my memory, but all would have been from the ‘70s through ’95.

Sean McGuan, chemistry teacher, was successful at convincing at least one person that he had an identical twin brother. I doubt that he chose April 1 to do it because it would have been a give-away, but he made sure that he greeted one of our school secretaries one morning on his way through the office so that she’d remember he was there. Then he must have quickly ducked into another small room down the office hall and changed his shirt. He went back to the counter and asked her what room number Sean McGuan would be in.

The remaining details about the conversation were discussed thereafter by most of the faculty. I don’t pretend to have them memorized but do know she looked up at him quizzically and said something like, “Uh, uh, YOU are Sean.” He replied, “No, I am his twin, and I need to see him before classes begin.”

I believe she replied, “I have known Sean for a long time, and he never mentioned a twin.” From there on, he pretended to be perturbed with her enough that she gave him the room number. I don’t know the follow-up from there but assume she asked quite a few people whether they knew if Sean had a twin.

The teachers’ lunchroom was quite the venue for people who were able to make quick, hysterical comebacks from what had begun as normal comments.

Paul King, social studies teacher and coach, had long struggled with being overweight and went on a successful diet and lost many pounds. One lunch period some of us were congratulating him on his newly achieved health efforts. He responded, “Thank you; furthermore, the pounds I lost were made into two sets of luggage and a train case.” His friends’ response was immediate and loud; I for one lost a couple of pounds laughing.

Before typing Paul’s story, I felt I ought to ask him if he had any objections to my including his wit in this account. He assured me he did not, but added, “Unfortunately, I have since put all the weight back on plus some, so you can mention that I could now add a steamer trunk to the collection.”

Maybe creative comebacks go with coaches’ territory, but Ron Shafer was one of our head football coaches and came up with a classic. Same venue: Teachers’ lounge on a hot day in May. Many of the men, Ron included, had switched to short- sleeved, button-down cotton shirts. I was sitting at the table opposite him and commented that it was that time of year when one could tell which of the men had a lot of chest hair. Ron’s response was “Yes, that would be me; in fact, I am this way all over my body. When I get into the bathtub, Kathie comes in with the Comet can and sprinkles it on me, and I spin around in there scrubbing the tub like one immense Brillo pad.”

After this image ingrained itself into our minds, I doubt I was the only one who had a hard time pulling myself together enough to go back upstairs to instruct kids about anything. Try as I might, suddenly nouns and verbs were just extremely funny, and none of the students could figure that out.

Even though Ron passed away many years ago, there is a follow-up to this story. As I had done about Paul, I asked Kathie if writing Ron’s story would be objectionable to her. The response from her when I mentioned “Brillo pad” was “What was that about?” It seemed he had never shared this with his family.  She asked me to email the account to her and shared it with their kids. In hindsight, I would bet that most of us present on “Brillo Day” told our families about it immediately.

For those not familiar with the coincidence in this whole scenario, Kathie had been Ron’s wife; several years after his untimely death, she married Paul – nothing like one creative spouse after the other. What has it been like to have had TWO funny husbands? Ask Kathie.

Certain conversations in the teachers’ lunchroom accidentally turned into laugh sessions, one of which I was responsible for because of my ignorance about football. It isn’t easy to teach in high schools when one holds great disdain for the sport of football, as I often learned. Once shortly after Chuck Reed and I were married I asked him to explain the sport to me, since I’d managed to get through my formal education by paying no attention to a gridiron at all. He wasn’t much interested in the sport either, but he launched into an explanation about “downs,” and that was as far as we got on the topic.

I think My RHS colleagues were much aware of my ignorance but not nearly the extent of it until one day when, on a football Friday, they were talking about Terry Bradshaw and Lyle Alzado. Not wanting to appear totally out of it, I came out with a pretense of being mildly interested with this gem of a question: “Are they juniors or seniors?”

Following all the hoots coming my way, Marijane Watson, guidance counselor, answered, “They are not our students. They are in the NFL.” By some quirk of fate, I actually knew what the letters stood for.

Sometimes ignorance can have a long life and become legendary. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was discussing this article with my friends Jan and Carol Benroth. As an afterthought, I said, “I assume Bradshaw and Alzado were Cleveland Browns.” Typical of her kindly nature, with no disdain or surprise at all, she said, “No, they were Pittsburgh Steelers.” (Please notice that I know the correct spelling of “Steelers,” and it isn’t because the computer corrected it). I am now smugly proud that I have never in my 77 years watched an entire football game. I will also stress that in spite of the attitude, I was a loyal teacher and most definitely wanted our team to win. So there!

For those of us who remember TV shows like “Candid Camera” and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in,” we had a practical jokester on the faculty who could have rivaled those shows with what he set up early one morning. Bob Bell, coach, health, and physical education teacher did a unit every year instructing students in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. He would bring in “Resuscitator Annie,” a plastic torso who sported her own specially designed carrying case. Annie was a pale flesh color and looked for all the world as if she had escaped from a mortuary.

The morning Bob was to begin the unit, he got to school early and set Annie on the toilet in the teachers’ lunchroom. The door to the lunchroom opened into a hallway, and the bathroom was immediately to the left and was only dimly lighted. From the hall directly forward, only one table with a few chairs around it was visible.

Bob had enlisted a conspirator, Carol Lewis, for this prank, and because most of us who came into that room were predictable in their timing, there were few guesses about who the “victims” would be. Carol was seated directly facing the door, and I believe I was the first victim. She was holding both her hands up and grasping the fingers on one of them and said to me, “Gretch, could you please grab me a piece of toilet paper; I cut my finger.” With great alacrity, I grabbed the bathroom door and headed for the paper holder and then looked left and saw pasty-looking Annie on the toilet seat. My split-second thought was, “Somebody died in here last night,” and I bolted out the door on very weak knees. Somehow Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho”  was lodged in my brain before I realized I had truly been had.

I was told to quickly sit at the other table, as the two pranksters had planned for a series of victims, who had a variety of reactions but I don’t think as extreme as mine was. Carol has always been one of those able to keep a straight face and pull off jokes, something I am completely unable to do. No day at school was as difficult for me to be serious and go back to grammar lessons as that one was, and furthermore, the hilarity wasn’t over.

The same day at lunchtime, two of the office pages knocked on the door and asked for me. I don’t remember who had started a little joke in which we would answer kids’ questions about whether so and so was there, but it was amusing to us to answer, “No, she left for Chicago.” This type of absurdity is wasted on teenagers; they are too used to anything a teacher says being intended seriously.

I think the teacher at the door said I was on my way to Chicago, and I think the page said, “But I just saw her go in there.” One of the two girls knew me, and said, “Mrs. Reed, there’s a man in the office who said he’s locked out of his apartment and he needs your key.” All occupants in the room heard her, and many hoots and hollers followed. The other girl sensed what was happening and leaned in and told me as I stood up, “It’s your father, your FATHER.”

And so it was. My doddering dad, complete with his cane and plaid flannel shirt, was sitting on the office bench, known as the disciplinary seat. To this day, it is impossible for me to understand how my dad, who really should not have even been driving, found the school and managed to make it through the back and into the office since he had never been there before. I gave him the key, and the pages escorted him out.

When I got home after school that night, I told my husband it was going to be a very simple dinner as I was just too tired to cook. When he asked why I was overly tired, I told him I had done too much laughing, and that was the truth.

Art Linkletter, a well-known personality in television’s early days, hosted a popular show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” The show was done live, and he would ask children questions. Anyone who has had dealings with teenagers knows the “darndest things” don’t end at childhood. More of these mistakes/bloopers/comical incidents from RHS will be examined in a second section in the fall on-line Log.

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One Thought to “Underground Humor and Pranks Part I”

  1. Mary Ann Pizzino Smith

    Loved the Vegas to Ohio story. Made me appreciate what we take for granted. And teacher pranks was good too. I remember as a student we were convinced teachers had no sense of humor. Thanks

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