Friday, November 14, 2008

High School Prank

My older son's fondness for practical jokes and my younger son's insistence in becoming the 2nd grade class clown made me think of an incident from years ago:

I don't know why we called Mrs. Z. "Wombat" -- most of us probably had never even seen a picture of the Australian marsupial -- but someone had started it years ago and the nickname stuck. It certainly wasn't because she looked like one (she was neither squat nor toothy) and it wasn't because we didn't like her (as relatively well-behaved Honors students, we tended to seek the best out of our teachers).

When we were sophomores, a number of us took the creative writing class that she taught each spring. Based on that experience, I became editor of the school's literary magazine the following year, a position that I held until I graduated.

As juniors, we had her for American Literature, where she introduced us to Melville, Henry James and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. I can still remember deciphering the early parts of The Sound and The Fury with her help, struggling to understand Benjy's point of view and the notion that someone could be castrated as a result of a simple misunderstanding.

So by the time we were seniors, we knew her pretty well. We were used to her habit of color-coordinating running shoes (worn, we understood, because it is tough to stand at the front of the classroom all day, everyday, in heels) with her more formal shirt-dresses and skirts. We respected her place in the English teacher pecking order: not quite as high as Mrs. M., the strict taskmaster we all feared and revered, but definitely higher than Mr. G., who assigned as few papers as possible and had to bar tend at a local dive on weekends just to make ends meet. And we had come to expect her tenuous class management capabilities, knowing that it was fairly easy to throw her off track.

It was, perhaps, this last trait that led us to pull a prank on her on a beautiful spring afternoon. Our class took place right after lunch, which meant that we would straggle in bit by bit, rather than arriving all at once, as we would have if we had rushed into the room directly from another subject. It was not unusual for many of us to be there quite a few minutes before she arrived -- the entire school ate at the same time, and few teachers hurried to start the afternoon early.

Her classroom overlooked the school's courtyard -- a pretty, grassy space between the main classroom building and the elaborate football stadium where we sunned ourselves during lunch in the warmer months. On this particular day, the classroom windows were wide open to take advantage of the balmy breezes. This was well before the days of child-proofing and the nannystate, so there were no screens or window guards or anything at all to prevent a fall from the large second story windows.

One of the few boys in the class (for some reason, the Honors classes were predominately female my year), ran down stairs and out into the courtyard and lay down on the ground under the window. It wasn't his idea -- I don't really remember who thought of it first -- but we all were in on it. He lay perfectly still once he had arranged his body in the sort of crumpled position that approximated a fall from above. The rest of us stood at the windows and performed the role of hysterical onlookers. There was screaming, certainly. There might have even been tears. And clearly enough of us were convincing, because once Wombat entered the room and checked the view out the windows, her face went completely white and although her lips moved, no sound came out of her mouth.

I don't remember much else. Did the boy sit up and wave to end the joke? Were any of us punished? Did we follow it up with something even meaner?

No comments: