I guess it really is all about personal perspective.
The other day I delved into the writing and humor of Mark Twain with the high school juniors of my English III class. These are hip, inner city kids; pretty street savvy, for the most part, more than a couple of street hustlers in the bunch. For their myriad educational issues, they usually grasp on to inference pretty well. Subtlety, not so much.
I thought easing them into Twain with one of the great humorist’s funniest and most beloved stories would be a great way to get to know the writer.
Slight detour on that premise.
You may well remember ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ from your own junior or senior high English class. Twain’s masterpiece is about some men and a frog in a mining camp during the California Gold Rush of the 1860’s. The story has been an English textbook staple for years, and is still celebrated in Calaveras County with a ‘Jumping Frog Jubilee’ every May, when people converge from around the world to celebrate the story, Twain in general, and, well, frogs, I guess.
Don’t count on many of my students making the pilgrimage.
Much of the humor in Celebrated Jumping Frog comes from Twain’s characterizations of the personalities he encounters, as well as the local vernacular and dialect. In the story, the narrator (ostensibly Twain) comes to visit the mining camp and then retells a story he heard from a bartender at the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, about an inveterate gambler named Jim Smiley. Twain describes the irascible Smiley as such:
“If there was a horse-race, you’d find him flush or you’d find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it, why, if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first…If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he is bet you how long it would take him to get to—to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”
I should mention here that before delving into the story itself, we had a dandy classroom discussion on hyperbole and exaggeration both topics we had covered before with a reasonable amount of understanding. Based on that discussion and previous readings in class, they seemed to have a very good handle on both of those concepts.
The gist of the story, of course, is that while Jim will bet on most anything, you know eventually someone is going to try to get the better of him. Which is exactly what someone does by engaging Jim in a frog jumping contest and then fixing the outcome by filling Jim’s frog with birdshot, so the frog becomes too heavy to hop.
We never really got to that point.
Instead of reading the story aloud, I played a video of the story being narrated; a little more attention-getting, and with an actor who could actually do justice to the characteristic slang and dialect of the story I thought it made for a much more compelling piece. Plus, it frees me up to wander the class while they follow along, and I can observe what is and isn’t being done.. Seemed pretty simple; watch the video, follow along in textbooks while taking notes, discuss.
I should have known I was in trouble when none of the best lines in the story got a laugh. In fact, not a chuckle was heard in the twelve minutes we watched and listened. Not once did my eleventh graders respond with anything but quizzical looks. And some snoring. Students are always falling asleep here, so that didn’t surprise me.
The discussion following the story? That surprised me.
“Okay” I ventured confidently, “anybody want to share some thoughts on what we just watched?”
“Let’s talk about the humor. What is the basis for the humor in the story?”
More silence. Blank stares added for emphasis. Sometimes with my students you just have to prime the pump and things flow pretty easily. Of course , sometimes the pump gives you water, sometimes you get mud.
“Okay, let’s talk about the character of Mr. Smiley.” I prodded – again.
“That man has a serious gambling problem” said one girl, quite sternly.
“Well, keep in mind…”
“That dude is seriously messed up, man” offered one of the boys, equally as stern. “They got to get him some help.”
We needed to backtrack to our earlier discussion. “Okay, keep in mind that this was 1865, they didn’t see things the way that we do, in regards to ‘gambling problems.’ This is just a funny story. Plus, what did we talk about beforehand in regards to exaggeration…”
“Seriously, man. People who gamble on stuff like that got problems.” Interjected another young man who generally doesn’t add much of anything to class discussions.
“Man, that dude is whack! Somebody’s gonna take him down!” said one of my more street-oriented young men, with considerable emphasis on the take-him-down aspect.
“Look, guys, I hear where you’re coming from, but I think you’re forgetting something. Think back,” I turned and pointed to my chalkboard notes reading ‘hyperbole’ and ‘exaggeration’ “…to what we were talking about the exaggeration in this story.”
“Yeah, Mr. Lucker, but you told us that this guy’s humor comes from making fun of real life so then him writing about this guy and his gambling the guy has a real problem.” challenged another girl. (So this, I thought, is the one thing they actually pay attention to me saying today. Figures.)
“So you guys are telling me that you didn’t see any of the humor in this story? None of the funny things that happen, or that are said? You don’t get that the story is just an exaggerated story of a character in a unique situation?”
“Mr. Lucker, people who gamble like that got issues, man. Serious problems.” Said another one of my alleged tough guys. Murmurs of agreement rumbled through the twenty-four kids in the class.
“Seriously.” agreed one young man.
“For real!” chimed in another.
“Man, that’s stupid somebody gamble like that.” added a girl
“Dude’s got issues and it aint nothin’ funny about it.”
For one of the rare times in my still young teaching career, I was totally baffled and silenced by the overwhelming response of a classroom of kids to something. I have had total bewilderment and no grasping-of-the-concept days before; all the time, in fact, with the student populations I serve. It’s why I am here in New Orleans teaching. I have even had classes all ‘play dumb’ on something to have a little fun at my expense, but these kids aren’t like that and they were taking this story very seriously, and obviously did not want to go down the humor road.
This was a purely spontaneous, visceral reaction shared by an entire group of two-dozen high school juniors. “None of you got any of the humor there, nobody saw anything to laugh about…?” I inquired one more time.
More blank stares, a few head shakes. A couple of kids put their heads down on their desks. Key ‘checking-out-I’ve-had-enough’ indicator.
“Okay. I guess we’ll come back to that story later. For now, get out your books for the book report project due on Friday…” I could only shake my head and move on.
The next day, I encountered another English teacher who also teaches English III– an African-American woman about my age who has been very helpful to me since I came to the school this fall, and who has offered me great insight to our students that I just couldn’t get anywhere else. We were standing in the hallway outside of my classroom, discussing various student oddities and behavioral issues at the school. When I began relating my Twain story, her eyes got wide and she nearly leapt out of her shoes and right at me. “That’s what happened with my kids, Mr. Lucker! They went crazy, going on about how ‘that dude needs some help’ and ‘they need to get him to Gamblers Anonymous’! They did the same thing to me!”
We stared at each other in silence for a moment. “Mr. Lucker” she said quietly, “I guess it’s all they know. Sometimes they just can’t see beyond their own little piece of the world.This is one of those times.” She shook her head, gave an exasperated chuckle. “My kids did exactly the same thing with me, Mr. Lucker. It. Was. Cray. Zee.” She said goodbye, and headed for her classroom.
I just turned and walked slowly back into mine.