Mr. Nappy, the Artist
When faced with an unruly classroom full of bored troublemakers who don't react well to new teachers, what do you do? If you're humorous author Ira Wood, you make them laugh. Here, the writer who has been praised by the New York Times for his “special gift for heartwarming comedy,” Ira Wood describes some of his unique experiences as an artist-in-residence working in schools.
When I first got to college, I had thought teaching must be the best gig in the world. Teachers got paid to talk. Occasionally they graded papers, it was true, but they only had to show up for classes two days a week, they got long summer vacations, and they never had to wear a tie. Teaching seemed in all ways superior to working for a living—until I attended a sherry party with the chairman of the English department. I’m pretty sure that was the night I decided not to pursue a teaching career.
Some years after graduating, however, it was difficult to avoid the promise of money available for an assignment with an intriguing job title, Artist-in-Residence, as if there were grants for hanging out in my apartment. The theory was that the creative world of public school children, circumscribed by rigid syllabi and teachers who were at best well-meaning dilettantes, would be broadened by contact with working artists.
Poets, in my experience, do particularly well at stints in the schools because children rarely speak in complete sentences anyway. Dancers, likewise, have a reasonably easy time playing music and getting kids to twirl around the room. As a novelist whose own small reputation came by way of an embarrassingly autobiographical novel with frankly sexual material, I doubted I had anything to offer children, but I was encouraged to apply by an arts administrator who assured me that children could learn self-esteem and advanced language skills by interacting with arts ambassadors who sowed the seeds of aesthetic expression by duplicating their creative rituals in the classroom.
I was not naïve. I knew that arts administrators were to education what aluminum awning salesmen were to architecture and that this was pure grant-speak, that I could not possibly be paid for drinking three pots of black coffee and spending an hour on the toilet reading newspapers, which constituted my usual creative ritual. I did think I’d set a fine example arriving in a tweed sports coat with a rawhide briefcase and convinced myself of the educational impact of observing a real novelist at work, an activity with all the attendant drama of sea cows grazing in a shallow river.
Getting the job would not be easy. The pay was first rate at the time, more than double what I made waiting tables, but the interview was like a cut-throat gong show for desperate MFA’s. Here were dancers in leotards, a slam poet in a dashiki, and a cowboy songwriter with a harmonica and guitar; a photographer in a khaki safari vest and bush hat, a storyteller with a cockatoo on his shoulder, and a basket weaver from Nantucket with a leather bagful of black ash splints.
With five minutes allotted each applicant, I knew from the start I hadn’t a chance. I had drawn Number 22 and took the stage only to stare into the weary faces of 50 school principals stealing glances at their watches. I couldn’t have pleased them more if I screamed Fire! and gave us all an excuse to bolt. With that in mind, I didn’t read the piece I had prepared, an insipid story about my cat that in itself begged the issue of my suitability for a job in the schools (his name was Jim Beam)—and I resigned myself to a quick exit.
“I’ve written some plays,” I said. “I’m working on my second novel now. My first one was published by a small press, but we did sell the movie rights to Universal.”
I sensed a sudden stirring, a faint invigoration of interest. “My agent’s working on a deal for me to write the screenplay.”
They began shuffling forward in order to hear. Some even raised their hands with questions. It was as if 50 glazed doughnuts became faces with eyes and ears. It took me a moment to comprehend the change, but the other artists understood. Their expressions cried, Unfair!
I hadn’t pretended to any expertise in working with children, as had been the strategy of their dog-and-pony shows, but I accidently connected with the fantasies of the people who did the hiring. Ambitious bureaucrats whose careers doomed them to remain in public school forever, they unexpectedly had a chance to work with someone who had an agent.
“Who’s going to star in the movie?” one principal wanted to know, while another cornered me in the men’s room: “I’ve got a script Marty Scorcese would love.”
After a spirited competition for my services, I was assigned to a vocational technical high school in a decaying industrial city north of Boston where, according to the buzz of the arts administrators, someone like me “could really make a difference.”
Apparently not to the office secretary, who did not lift her eyes from her keyboard on the morning of my first class, but called over her shoulder to the assistant principal, who sneered at my jacket and tie and walked past me without a word. His name was Mr. Burger, pronounced, in the Boston area, Bur-GAH. Five-foot-four inches tall with a nose like a red bell pepper and a shaved head, he wore a black turtleneck with rolled-up sleeves and swung his fore-arms like nightsticks.
"I picked up some newspapers on the way to school," I said when I caught him looking at the stack under my arm. In truth, I’d planned to kill some time with them in a toilet stall, but a glance at my schedule showed classes back to back. "I thought the students and I might read them together and talk about what constitutes a narrative."
"Did you say read?" I had apparently given Mr. Bur-GAH his second good laugh of the day. His first had been my hair, which I wore in what was called an afro in those days, a large curly mop the shape of a lollipop, but mostly he ignored me, scanning the halls as he walked, like a camera over a bank teller's shoulder. "Just try to keep 'em in the room till the bell rings."
He stood in the classroom doorway as nineteen students made their way to their desks as slowly as was humanly possible.
"This is Mr. Wood," he said.
"Looks like Mr. Nappy-head to me," one student said. “Where you get your hair cut, Nappy?”
“You mean lawn-mowed,” offered another.
"Should we broil him or fry him, Mr. Bur-GAH?"
A flicker of mischief lit the vice-principal’s eyes and his emerging smile built anticipation like a drum roll.
"Have it your way!" He beamed at the spontaneous outpouring of laughter and high-fives. As he turned to leave, he handed me a class list and checked his watch with a theatrical flourish, betting on how long I'd last.
There are students who completely ignore you, who remain collectively deaf to your best intentions and repel your carefully prepared plans. There are students who groan with every request you make, however logical or mundane, and others who gape, as if they had never seen anything remotely like you, as if you were a creature so alien to their experience that you did not register as human.
This class didn't look at me at all. But, at each other, dead expressions come alive with sadistic possibility. I felt like the watchman in A Night at the Museum as the T-Rex and the Civil War mannequins advanced in a conspiracy to send me screaming down the escalator steps.
When in doubt, take attendance. "Carbo, Peter S." I said.
"Fuck you," said a kid in the front row. He wore sneakers the size of anti-gravity boots and sat in the position commonly assumed for a pelvic exam.
"Knott, Daniel. Just say Here, please."
Mr. Knott pointed to his crotch. "Here, please."
"Munson, Robert." No answer.
"Henry Turturo?" No answer. "… called Robert Munson's mother a meat head."
A chair flew back. "You said that?"
The accusation was angrily refuted. "Did fucking not!"
I checked them off. "Turturo, here. Munson, here."
Sneakers liked that. "Pretty good, Nappy."
Now they were on their guard.
"Did you know Pinola means condom in Spanish?"
"Fuck you it does," said a voice in the second row.
"Good morning, Mr. Pinola." Following the filthiest exchange of language ever induced by the taking of attendance, we buckled down to the day's lesson: an improvised version of my original plan, which now involved a dramatic reading of the comic strips.
Mr. Bur-GAH was peeking into the classroom as the bell rang and I was struck by his resemblance to Uncle Fester of the Addams Family. He gave me an astonished thumbs-up as all 19 students left the room in good humor.
Bruce Pinola said, "You gonna be here tomorrow, Nappy?"
"Mr. Nappy to you," I corrected him.
"We love this guy, Mr. Bur-GAH."
Carbo, the sneaker man, too, was enthused, "Tomorrow I’m bein’ Garfield."
Word spread. Kids flocked to my classes to be insulted during attendance and vied to play Geech and Clango Cyclotron. As I headed down the hallway for lunch, Mr. Bur-GAH slipped his fist under my arm pit and steered me into the teachers' lounge with an affectionate half-nelson, a fetid yellow closet of a room crowded with 12 wax-like figures around a formica table.
"This is Nappy, the artist," Mr. Bur-GAH announced. “He kicked ass this morning.”
One bloodless face looked up with a mouthful of egg salad on white. "They're tenth graders," he said. "Let’s see how he does with the seniors this afternoon."
"Jerk-off," Mr. Bur-GAH mumbled. “Don’t listen to him.” He punctuated his admonition with an index finger in my solar plexus. “Listen, after you get settled in…I want to talk to you about this idea I have about a movie set in a high school.”
In the course of my career as an artist in schools, I have been required to teach classes from kindergarten to twelfth grade, to serve school lunches, to supervise after-school detention. I have produced a circus and a musical revue with a former composer for Saturday Night Live; adapted classics as plays to be performed by children who couldn’t read; and invented game shows. I have organized student-teacher conga lines, choreographed dances with special needs students, conducted radio interviews with household pets, and filmed an 8-millimeter movie about making Jello. My most popular turn by far was the invention of Dr. Memory.
Frantic one morning for some trick, however bizarre, to amuse the jaded students of a suburban middle school in an affluent suburb north of Providence, I loaded a shoe box with natural extracts off the kitchen spice rack. Vanilla, grapefruit, watermelon, pomegranate, wheat grass—there were 28 of them in all. My act involved wearing a turban (read: beach towel), blindfolding the students and waving a bottle of extract under their noses while asking them where they were being transported in their minds, and then of course making them write about it. The first classes were difficult, the most skeptical students resistant.
“Yuck puke! Get that out of my nose.”
“The girl before me had boogers!”
“It tickles. You’re making me sneeze.”
The next day, however, I brought in extra towels and turned the troublemakers into my assistants. I added a boom box to the act, playing one of my wife’s belly dancing tapes. With a little encouragement, they were dreaming themselves back to early childhood, to family vacations, and writing about the cities where their grandparents were born. Every class wanted a visit from Dr. Memory.
In six years as an artist-in-residence, however, I could not do one stitch of my own work during any semester in which I was working in the schools. My time off was spent recovering my self image and my inner strength, self-medicating, and amassing ever more schtick so as not to be eaten alive in the classroom. I am more than incredulous that some of our country’s favorite writers have a thriving teaching career and I have no idea how they do it.
In the limited times I have taught at the college level, my students’ agonies, their family problems, their bad habits, idiotic decisions, and insulting opinions, not to mention the demands of reading and evaluating their work, have pre-empted all my energy for writing. The sensitivity needed to say something positive to a puerile and sentimental childhood story; the facility to encourage the one talented writer in the class while remaining mindful of the feelings of the duds; the discipline required to stop myself from rewriting their crap entirely; the tact not to question their choice to become a writer at all; the requisite soundness of mind to admit to myself that any winsome 20-year-old who follows me around like a puppy and tells me my work changed her life is probably under psychiatric care and most assuredly trouble; in short, all the psychological heavy lifting that does not appear on the syllabus, but is incumbent on a good teacher, exhausted the same limited supply of emotional energy I had for my own work.
I made good money as an artist in the schools and had no shortage of assignments, but eventually I returned to the grinding anonymity of restaurant work. I wasn’t teaching them how to be fiction writers, or even, like the poets and dancers and photographers, imparting a watered down version of my trade. I was just an entertainer, a birthday party clown, a kind of Bozo-the-Artist who came into their classes with a new act every week. Frankly, I felt like a fraud.
Although once, decades later, a balding man in his thirties stopped me on the street. “Hey wait!” he had a little girl in hand, probably his daughter, and he ran up to me excitedly. “Weren’t you the guy who came into my classroom one day with a shoe box full of kitchen extracts?” I admitted that I was. “That was so cool, man,” he said to his daughter. “That was one of the only cool things that ever happened in school. What’s your name again?”
I was surprised to find myself reacting with no small measure of pride. “Why, Mr. Nappy, the artist.”