the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

How I Became a Writer as a Fifth Grader

When I was attending elementary school, my neighborhood in Queens was going through “changes,” which was a code word for the “welfare housing” that opened down the block. There was constant talk of drugs and violence in school, and those who could afford it, started sending their kids to private schools. In order to keep the “good kids” at the public schools, local schools started academically advanced classes, where kids like me were pushed, isolated from the drug pushers in the classes down the hall. While this didn’t prevent my friends from being called “honkys” or “Oreos” at the basketball court, at least we received a decent education during school hours.

While I remember my teachers as being a hundred years old, they were probably thirty. Most of them were into the philosophy of education, having gone to teacher’s college, and were interested in “opening up” the educational experience for a new generation, especially for “advanced kids” like us.

I have no recollection how this all started, but somewhere in the third or fourth grade, our teachers allowed us to present our English and Social Studies reports orally – and in small groups working together. We were also allowed to bring objects, photos, even music that might enhance our oral reports, giving the reports a feeling of a multi-media presentation. These teachers were ahead of their time understanding the next generation – maybe the arrival of Sesame Street had made them appreciate the importance of visual stimulation to capture a young person’s mind.

This is where I became a writer.

I had no interest in personal expression. Much like I started blogging for the practical reason of flirting with mommybloggers, my goal in school was to use writing to create a entertaining smoke screen.  The problem needing solving: five of us had to do a joint report on some dull, serious topic (remember – we actually had to go to a library and do research back then!)   So, being an advanced student, I quickly realized that if I wrote some entertaining script that had nothing really to do with the subject — but captured the teacher’s imagination – we could sing and dance our way to an A+, and the teacher would never notice that we copied the reports out of the World Book the night before.

A tradition was born. For several years, I was the king of the “sharings.” These stories – done during our oral presentations, were more like one-act plays, usually movie parodies (I was into Mad Magazine) – and as time went on, they became increasingly elaborate, spectacles as complicated as the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies.  These plays had songs and dancing and even “shootings” happening in the middle of the classroom.   I cannot believe that any teacher would let an elementary school kid do this today.  The school system would get sued by a parent.   Maybe, at the time I was there, the local public school was so happy to have any students that weren’t drug dealers, that they just let us do whatever the hell we wanted.

These sharings always took place in some imaginary locale created right in the classroom — there were scenes in discos and Vietnam.   My friend Rob and I once dressed up like Minutemen in Boston for a sharing on “The American Revolution,” tap-dancing while singing “Muskets and Defense” to the tune of ‘”Jingle Bells.”

This tradition continued up to high school, until it was time to study for the SAT — then all of a sudden everything got serious. At Columbia, writing term papers were a bore. You were never allowed to sing and dance while handing in the paper, even when it was for a dramatist like Shakespeare, who would have appreciated the effort.  Instead of having fun doing sharings, I sat by myself in the library and made up bullshitty “psychological literary analysis” stuff about Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth century snooze-fest “The Faerie Queen” instead.

These early dramatic works of mine were thought lost for the ages, but through some miracle, my father looked down on me this weekend from heaven and whispered in my ear, “Look in the back of my closet.” Hidden behind a slide projector was a folder which contained nostalgic stuff from my elementary school years that we hadn’t noticed before, including all of my famed elementary school “Citizen of the Month” certificates. Also included in the file was a five page “script” for one of these elementary school sharings.

I really don’t remember too many of the details about this sharing, but from looking at the “cast list,” I assume this is from the fifth grade. Our assignment apparently was to research totalitarian regimes of the Twentieth Century (pretty heavy for fifth grade!)  And what better way to explore this important historical and political theme of the horrors of the Twentieth Century than a light-hearted movie “parody” of the 1970’s classic movie “The Sting?!”

I won’t feel bad if you don’t read script. I was in fifth grade at the time. I’m mostly publishing it for my childhood friend Rob, who played the Paul Newman role. He should get a kick out of this. When I first discovered the script I was excited.  At last, I had proof of my genius.  Why was some dopey Hollywood producer telling me that my script doesn’t work yet.  Who the f**k is he?!  Doesn’t he know who I am?  I am like Mozart – I was writing brilliant scripts in the fifth grade.

But then, I read the script. Ooh boy, it is awful… and it makes no sense at all. NONE. How in the world did our teachers let us get away with this crap?!

Note: In the movie, the Paul Newman character is named Henry Gondorff. For some reason, I name him “Alfred Dreyfus,” the French Jewish artillery officer tried and convicted in 1894 on baseless charges of treason. Why? I have NO IDEA!

The following is copied verbatim:

The Sting 2

Johnny Hooker – Neil
Alfred Dreyfus – Rob
Alexander Slavsky (the Communist leader) – James
Snyder – Scott
Harold Mane (Snyder’s assistant) – Bobby

Music from “The Sting.”

Hooker runs in breathless.

Hooker:  They killed Luther, my best friend, the person who taught me how to be a con artist. That STUPID Communist organization. (to you) Hi, I’m Johnny Hooker. The place takes place during the Deppression. The Communists have all the money, especially the Communist organization that killed Luther. AND I’m going to get them back, but How? I’m going to put on the biggest con and get all their money. I’ll need a pro to teach me how, but who? I remember Luther once told me about someone, Alfred Dreyfus. I’ll go to him!

Exit. Carnival music. Hooker and Dreyfus enter.

Hooker:  So this is your hideout, a fun house, no one would look here.

Dreyfus:  It is a good hideout. Now, Hooker, you didn’t come here for a friendly visit, why did you come?

Hooker:  Well, you know Luther was killed by the Communists, I’m going to get them back by putting on such a big con that I’ll get all their money. I want you to teach me the big con.

Dreyfus:  Well, first you have to go to the Communist organization… (makes believe he’s still talking to Hooker as they walk out)

Hooker enters.

Hooker:  Now, I’m suspose to go to the Communist organization. Uh-oh, there’s Snyder and his assistant, Harold Mane!

Snyder catches Hooker, pushes him to the wall and bangs his head.

Manes:  We got you now, you can’t escape.

Hooker punches Snyder in the stomach and then the neck and runs out.  Hooker enters again.

Hooker:  So this is the Communist organization!

Slavsky enters.

Slavsky: You wanted me.

Hooker: Who are you?

Slavsky: I’m Alexander Slavsky, head of this organization.

Hooker:  My name is Johnny Hooker and I want to join your organization. I also want to get rid of someone.

Slavsky:  Who?

Hooker:  Alfred Dreyfus.

Slavsky: Any member of our organization can apply for someone to be killed. But how would you like him to be killed?

Hooker: Any way.

Slavsky: Oh, wait a minute, we’re having a Communist meeting today, will decide there.

Hooker: Wait, Dreyfus is just outside. He thinks I’m getting a drink of water. We better capture him.

Slavsky exits and enters with Dreyfus.

Dreyfus: Get off of me!

As Dreyfus goes in, he picks nose to Hooker. Hooker does back. They all sit. Snyder and Manes come and sit.

Hooker: Snyder and Manes, your Communists!

Snyder: We joined to apply to kill you, Hooker.

Manes: Let’s kill Hooker now!

Slavsky: One killing at a time. First, the Dreyfus case. Now for the question “how to kill him.” I say put him in a concentration camp, the Nazi Germany way!

Snyder: I agree!

Manes: Why don’t you kill him the Cuban or Spanish way!

Hooker: Put him in a labor camp, the Russian way!

Dreyfus: Why don’t you just give me hard labor like the Chinese?

Slavsky: I have an idea. Each person will tell about their punishment and then will choose. First me and Snyder will tell about ours.

(Nazi Germany report)

Manes: I’ll tell about my punishment.

(Cuba and Spain report)

Hooker: I’ll go next.

(Soviet Union report)

Dreyfus: Could a prisoner tell about a punishment?

Slavsky: You could, but it will probably not be used because it’s the prisoner’s choice.

(China report)

Snyder: Okay. Hands up everyone! I know that Dreyfus and Hooker are putting on a con. Hooker, you have to leave, thanks for telling!

Dreyfus: You squealed!

Dreyfus shoots Hooker. Manes shoots Dreyfus.

Snyder: Okay, let’s go Slavsky!

Slavsky: But my money is there!

Snyder: What’s more important, your money or your life?  Manes, take care of the dead bodies, I’ll take Slavsky to headquarters.

Snyder and Slavsky exit.

Manes: Okay guys, their gone, you can get up now.

Hooker and Dreyfus get up.

Dreyfus: Well, kid, you put on your first con.

Manes: The money’s over in the chest.

Hooker: Give it to charity. I’d only lose it in gambling.  At least we gave them the sting!

Walks out slowly as music plays.

The End

31 Comments

  1. Shelli

    I love the “picks nose at” parts. This cracked me up. I bet I could find similar things in my mom’s storage. How hilariously embarrassing would that be? Not that yours should be embarrassing. Just mine would.

  2. Kay Dennison

    I like it — what an imaginative boy you were!

  3. Backpacking Dad

    Dude. They made this one.

  4. Undomestic Diva

    I tried becoming a writer in the 7th grade and the school called a “social worker” to my house. Bitches.

  5. Jesse Luna

    That’s a great little scriptlet. Focuses on memorable parts from The Sting and tries to blend it into the assignment. I bet there were a lot of laughs as you presented it.

  6. Megan

    Haha, this all sounds just like “Rushmore”! Except you didn’t go to the private school.

  7. headbang8

    I want to see the Citizen of the Month Certificates. Preferably incorporated into your blog header.

  8. vodkamom

    WOW!!!! I was a fifth grade teacher for 10 years, and LOVED IT. My first year, I had an amazing group of kids, who WROTE and directed a MUSICAL about the revolutionary war. It was fantastic, and I STILL talk about that. (As do their parents.) It was kids like YOU who inspired me, encouraged ME and helped me help you.
    kudos!!!!

  9. Finn

    Oh, wait a minute, we’re having a Communist meeting today…

    LOL! I love it.

  10. churlita

    So funny. I went to one of those “Free to be You and Me” schools in the 70’s and they pretty much let us do whatever we wanted. It was great until I moved to Chicago in 5th grade and realized that I was so groovy, I didn’t know anything. OOps.

  11. Miss Britt

    “Oh wait, we’re having a Communist meeting today”.

    hehehehhehehehehe

  12. always home and uncool

    I give me credit to Mad Mag for making me what I am today. Sorry, honey.

  13. Neil

    Always Home — hey, glad to see another Mad Magazine lover. Seriously, when people ask on blogs “What book was the most influential in your life,” — if I were honest, it wouldn’t be the Bible or Tale of Two Cities — but Mad Magazine, even though it wasn’t really a book.

    I should really buy an issue today to see if it sucks now. And I just read on Wikipedia that it now has ads inside! Mad Magazine with advertisements! Am I the only holdout?

  14. Tracy Lynn

    I always forget about the Communist meetings.

  15. Caveman

    You wrote ‘The Sting 2’?…I love that movie!

  16. Memarie Lane

    You’ve got some girly handwriting there, mister.

    My husband has twin cousins that are extremely talented artists. They are so good that they skated their way through high school by drawing pictures for the teachers in the margins of their papers and tests.

    Then they started University and had no idea how to even write an essay. They each gave me a paper to look over for them, and they were TERRIBLE! I basically explained how to write a basic essay, how to research, what to research, all the very basic stuff most of us learn in junior high. After about three hours of instruction they looked at me blankly and said “I think we’ll just draw in the margins again.”

  17. mp

    damn, I’m running out of time reading blogs today so I have to come back first thing tomorrow morning..cause this is going to be great.

  18. 180/360

    How great that you found these. It just goes to show that some things never change. 🙂 And I was thinking the same thing as Headbang8- you should totally make that your header.

  19. better safe than sorry

    you must be the ultimate pack rat!
    even then you knew how to write a hollywood ending.

  20. Neil

    Better Safe — exactly, steal the ending from another movie.

  21. AnnieH

    Again, you had me at Johnnie Hooker. Can’t top that.

  22. Nat

    Whoa… I think this is better than some spectacular Hollywood messes I’ve seen of late.

    In fifth grade my teacher was a nun. That’s all I need to say about that.

  23. piglet

    i like it.

  24. Pamela Detlor

    I love that the Communist Organization had Communist Meetings. I think if a fifth grader wrote this today he would be in the guidance office for his fixation on violence. As far as I’m concerned it is WAY better than the new Keefer Sutherland flick, “Mirrors.” Wish I’d dropped $13 bucks on your screenplay instead!

  25. christine

    I’ve read half of this story,and will return to it after my salsa lesson. Here’s a link to The Poem on the po-co.
    http://tinyurl.com/6lvvp4

    We have a lot in common. I started writing around the time you did. I can’t wait to read more of this post, but my dance class awaits.

  26. mp

    I really love it…I love The Sting, one of my all time favorite movies.. and you guys really did a good job..I think it should be on the big screen 🙂

    My FAV line of the performance:
    Slavsky: Oh, wait a minute, we’re having a Communist meeting today, will decide there.

  27. CK Lunchbox

    Hilarious! I got started writing in the 2nd grade when with my entry into my school’s short story contest. My submission – The First Story of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

    Given its theme and favorable portrayal of Ronald Reagan, the judges at my ultra-conservative Baptist church school had no choice but to select it as one of the winners. As my reward, I got to meet the author of Danny and the Dinosaur, Syd Hoff.

    I love reading your blog.

  28. followthatdog

    Fantastic. What a great historical piece from one of my favorite bloggers.

  29. melanie

    I stopped writing plays in the fifth grade… or was it the sixth? there is actual video footage of my scripts being acted out by my siblings and the costumes i made. LOL.

    director, writer and costume designer. it all became too overwhelming as I was too picky.

    fun stuff dear. thanks for reminding me of my “playwright” days. :kisses:

  30. Annie

    Johnny Hooker is a wonderful name! It is so cool you found these!

  31. apathy lounge

    When a state-wide teacher’s raise was predicated on an ersatz “competency test” (which turned out to be a ginormous essay) I knew I had nothing to fear. I may not be able to do higher math or remember the Periodic Table, but I can damn sure write. I hear ya, Neil!

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