Makin’ the grade

A couple Fridays ago, the Winter Carnival Committee held a drawing for their fabulous raffle. And when I say fabulous, I mean fabulous, since the prize was a complete set of Garry Trudeau Winter Carnival buttons. And against overwhelming odds and by sheer fluke, I was the winner.

The odds were against me because they are in all raffles. But had it not been for the fluke, I never would’ve known about the raffle in the first place.

The Thursday before the drawing I went into the Enterprise to pick up my paper and, as I usually do, I shmoozed with Liz Scammell Murray, the Czarina of Subscriptions.

“Hey,” she said, “you wanna buy a chance?”

Then, in the finest tradition of Saranac Lake raffles, lotteries, fund raisers and tag days, I first pulled out my wallet. Then, also in SL tradition, I asked what it was for.

She told me, I said goodbye to the sawbuck as I handed her, and thought no more about it. So imagine my surprise when the next night she called to tell me I’d won. After that, she posted my big score on Facebook, where all sorts of folks congratulated me.

But the peeps who really deserve the congrats are Sharon and Jim Bishop, since the button collection was theirs and they’d generously given it to the raffle.

Jim, Sharon and I have a lot in common. We’re all SL natives and lifelong residents; we’re animal lovers; and we’re now officially Viejos Fartos of Our Home Town.

But there’s one thing we do not have in common, namely organizing skills. They obviously have excellent ones, keeping all those buttons together for 41 years.

I, on the other hand, have none of those skills, and my Carnival button collecting is proof positive: I’ve bought every Carnival button for the past half-century and have no idea what happened to any of them. Some I gave away; some I lost before the coronation; and for all I know, the rest of ’em were ripped off by a neighborhood dybbuk.

But my incompetence with Carnival button collecting isn’t surprising, since I’ve never managed to collect anything but wrinkles and belly button lint. Though Lord knows I’ve tried.

Joke skills …

As a kid, I tried collecting stamps and coins. I had the albums and I loved looking at all the different coins and stamps. But to put them in their proper places eluded me as much as Zorro eluded Sgt. Garcia. Then again, that was just bizness as yoo-jool, since I was (and, sad to say, still am) the most disorganized person I know.

But even in the throes of my worst kiddie chaos, there was one thing I never lost track of — jokes.

I can’t remember when I first heard and started telling jokes, but by second grade they were an integral part of my life, if not an obsession. I sought them from everyone — friends, family and strangers alike.

I didn’t have access to jokes in most of the magazines and books I had (Reader’s Digest being the sole exception), so almost all jokes I learned had to come directly from people. And that came with a built-in advantage: I didn’t just learn the jokes, but I learned how to tell them. At the time I’d never heard the terms “timing and delivery,” but that’s exactly what I was picking up. And along with that, I learned one of the most important aspects of delivery — keeping a straight face.

A straight face was the stock in trade of my favorite TV comedians — George Burns, Jack Benny, Myron Cohen, Jack Carter, Joey Bishop, and one of the greatest straight men, Bud Abbott. Not that I didn’t love guys like Jack Leonard, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, and Jonathan Winters funny — I did. But they were clowns, really — something I had neither the inclination nor aptitude for.

Looking back, I think I was still in single digits when I could deliver the funniest punch line without cracking even a nano-smile.

My ability to be completely deadpan served me in good stead in everyday life as well as it did as the life of the party. Mostly, it helped me navigate and survive the virtual minefield of authority figures I had to traipse through. If, for example, a teacher said something I found silly, if not irredeemably stupid (whether or not it was), no sign of it showed on my pink-cheeked granite visage. I graciously let some less skilled (and luckless) slob take my place as the whipping boy — both my hide and psyche being too easily bruised.

But I learned something else: If I kept a straight face, I could say the most outrageous things and peeps would take it seriously … at least until I winked or wiggled an eyebrow. And sometimes, even then they never caught on. The most unforgettable instance happened in my second semester as a teacher.

…and life skills

Almost all my students back then were straight-on, easy-to-read, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kids. But a gal in one of my classes was a noticeable exception. She was a good worker, always attentive and polite, but I could tell something was bugging her. And I sensed it was something specifically about my class, but had no idea what it was. So I decided to just be up-front and ask her directly.

As soon as the next class was over, I told her I wanted to talk to her and cut to the chase.

“Listen,” I said, “I know something about class is bothering you.”

She was taken aback.

“Um… uh… no, nothing’s bothering me,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “I know you’re having a hard time with something in here, and I’d like to know what it is.”

She thought a second, then said, “How do you know something’s wrong?”

I looked at her, deadpan, and said, “Before I went into teaching, I was a professional mind reader.”

Her eyes got as big as saucers as she swallowed that line — and hook and sinker as well.

“That’s … that’s amazing,” she said.

I shrugged modestly and then asked her what the problem was. And she told me.

She said she liked school, she liked studying, she even liked writing papers, but she hated grades.

“I just wish teachers wrote their corrections and criticisms on my stuff and didn’t put on a grade,” she said.

I considered what she said.

“OK,” I said. “If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.”

She blinked, obviously surprised.

“But isn’t that illegal or something?” she said.

“Only if anyone finds out, and I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “Will you?”

She shook her head, probably too shocked to say anything.

“All right,” I said. “Then that’s the deal.”

And it was … kinda sorta.

I critiqued all her work and didn’t put grades on it, as I said I would. But what I did — that I didn’t say — was I recorded her grades in my role book. Of course.

After the semester ended, I got a hold of her and asked her what she thought she deserved for her final grade.

She thought it over.

“I think I deserve a B,” she said.

“Really?” I said.

She thought some more.

“Yes,” she said. “I think I earned a B.”

“Fine by me,” I said.

Which it was, since I’d already added up her grades and they’d come to a B+.

And just in case you’re wondering, I gave her the grade she deserved — not the one she thought she did.


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