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: 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: 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.
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.
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.