Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Miss Smart's English Class"

(Note: Read the entry "The Return of Hobart Pumpernickel" before reading this story.)

It was another typical school day in Clemont High. One of the things that made these typical days more interesting was Miss Smart's English class, where the students did anything but English.

One of the more prominent students in the class was Peeved Matchklinger, known for his stories, poems, brilliant insight into poetry and, most of all, jokes which were said to be some of the worst in the world.

Sitting next to Peeved was Opart Pumpkinpickle, known all over Clemont for his idiotic tests based on happenings in the school. Opart was not the boy's real name, but everybody used it because no one could remember what his real name was.

Some other students in the class were Rootie Tootus, who spent the period sniffing glue, Whatda Heck, president of the Class of '69, Witty Goldenboig, whose jokes were almost as bad as those of Peeved, and Jowl Saltpepper, who got A's on book reports without reading the books. (The roll book also lists a student named Pret Zell, but since he has not been to class in six weeks, it is assumed that he has dropped out.)

Since it was Wednesday, the class knew that Miss Smart would have something special for them to do. On these rare occasions, the class got to read a poem and analyze it. The excitement was so great that three students fainted as soon as Miss Smart started to hand out the dittoed poem.

"Today," said Miss Smart, "we will read a poem from The Moose, the magazine that I am advisor to, and I can tell you that it is up to the usual standards of The Moose. It's..."

"Morbid!" said Charvey Makeups, who was about to push Mark Shoestringman out the emergency window.

"Well... yes, it is," said Miss Smart, "but I was going to say that it was written by one of your fellow students. The poem is called 'Spitting' and it was written by Opart Pumpkinpickle."

Opart groaned. The poem was the eighty-seventh in a series. The first was "Whistling," which was followed by "Singing," "Dancing," "Humming," "Running," "Jumping," ""Glooping" and others too numerous to mention.

Miss Smart read the poem to the class and then asked the students what they thought the deep inner meaning was.

"Obviously," said Peeved, "it's just what it seems to be. It's about a man who has been spitting all his life, even though he knows it's a bad habit. Then one day it pays off when his house catches fire and he puts it out before the fire department arrives."

"I disagree," said Clark Carmel. "I think the spitting represents the man's attempts to rid himself of his troubles, but he finds that they are always there, like the saliva in his mouth. Finally, he sees that even troubles can be helpful."

Dynne Ledofsky raised her hand, was called upon, and said, "Why do we have to read this dumb poem? Why can't we read one by Larrienne?"

"No," yelled Charvey. "I think we should read this. When it comes to poetry, Opart Pumpkinpickle is another Ronald Reagan."

"But Ronald Reagan doesn't write poetry," objected Witty Goldenboig.

""Like I said, Opart is another Ronald Reagan."

"Thanks a lot, Charvey," said Opart.

During this entire conversation, Miss Smart had been asking the class to be quiet. She finally got their attention by tossing her desk through a window. "I think we should ask Opart if he wants the class to analyze his poem."

"I hate poetry," said Opart. "Can I go home and watch The Fugitive?"

"Yeah," said Whatda Heck. "Why do we have to read any poems at all?"

"Because I want to," said Miss Smart.

"That sounds like a dumb answer," said Whatda.

"No," said Peeved. "That's a Smart answer!"

The class groaned.

Suddenly, Arc Rosenblerb woke up and said, "Hey, Miss Smart! Are you related to that guy on TV, Get Smart?"

"Yes, he's my third cousin," said the teacher.

This brought new life to the class. Everybody started to discuss TV shows, just as Mr Slider, the assistant principal, came in. "Don't mind me," he told Miss Smart, "I've just come to take a nap."

"He really comes because he likes the designs on the ceiling," whispered Peeved.

The class sat in silence for ten minutes, waiting for Mr Slider to fall asleep. The silence was broken when Rootie dropped his loose leaf as he was getting a new tube of glue. Miss Smart walked over and told him not to sniff it while Mr Slider was there, so Rootie got up, took the administrator by the coat and tossed him out the door. Then he sat down and began sniffing.

Finally, the bell rang, ending the period.

As the students raced out the door, Miss Smart announced there would be a test the following day on the first eight hundred pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (She had given them more than enough time to read it, three days.) Nobody cared. The class was over for the day. They would worry about the test two minutes before the start of class the next day.

Miss Smart sighed. "I should have joined the Peace Corps," she thought to herself as she left the classroom.

The Return of Hobart Pumpernickel

Following the popularity of Hobart Pumpernickel in Mr. Lerz's World History class in my sophomore year, it was inevitable that Hobart would return when the new school year began. This time, however, there were three venues for Mr. Pumpernickel's mirth: Miss Schwimmer's American History class, Mrs. Cox's Spanish class, and Miss Hart's English class.

From October, 1967 through January, 1968, not a week went by without a Hobart test turning up in one class or another. Like Mr. Lerz, all three teachers were willing to devote a bit of class time to reading them aloud. (In fact, it was not until I delivered a test to Mr. Lesowitz's math class that Hobart's efforts were rejected. Despite cajoling from my classmates that he read it, the teacher said, "This is a waste of our time" and tossed it in the wastepaper basket.)

As the first half of the school year was winding down, I realized that I had worked myself into a rut. Questions were becoming repetitive and I was producing tests simply because it had become part of the routine. So I stopped. Cold turkey. Much to the dismay of Hobart's fans, there were no more pages left on teachers' desks.

Reprinted from Isn't This Ridiculous?, "published" in 1968:

One day in February, when I had nothing better to do, I wrote a story about my English class entitled "Miss Smart's English Class." (Clever title, isn't it?) I took the story to school and showed it to Miss Hart, Miss Smart's real-life counterpart. She read it to the class. The class liked it. Hobart had struck again!
Soon, there were more stories. Three superheroes, the Snap, the Crackle, and the Pop, made their debuts, along with Hobart Pumpernickel, Master Detective. (No relation to my alter-ego. In the stories, Rob Boozakis uses the pen-name Opart Pumpkinpickle.) In two plays, King Hobart and his Knights of the Lunch Table fought the evil Queen of Harts and her Knights of Evil, and the staff of the school's illiterary magazine. The Moose, had adventures with their advisor, Miss Smart.
Not satisfied with just writing stories, I produced an issue of The Moose and two issues of the Clemont Boracle, the school newspaper. I made up a Regent's exam about all the stories, presented the Hobart Awards in Miss Hart's class, and held graduation ceremonies at the end of the year.
Mr. Pumpernickel's fame spread throughout the school. He was not only listed as a member of the staff of The Muse (the real-life Moose), but he also had a short story printed in the issue. Hobart's birthday was even noted during the school announcements one morning.

As you've probably inferred, everyone and every place in Hobart's stories had their names changed "to protect the innocent and keep the guilty from suing me." For example, Elmont, New York became Clemont (pronounced CLEE-mont) New Pork and Mrs. Cox became Mrs. Clox. Transpositions changed Gerry Hariton, Alan Ginsberg, Dan Raider and yours truly into Harry Gerriton, Ginsy Alansberg, Ray Dander and Rob Boozakis. Some were word plays, such as Gary Hecht and Bob Szel becoming Whatda Heck and Pret Zell and Miss Schwimmer becoming Miss Sinker (who would remind her students that they would either "sink or schwim" in her class). And then there were the totally off-the-wall ones, like Steve Machtinger becoming Peeved Matchklinger and Harvey Jacobs becoming Charvey Makeups.

During the remainder of my junior year, I wrote more than two dozen Hobart stories -- tales of students who gained super-powers and battled super-villains, detective stories that parodied Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, and recountings of actual events that required little, if any, exaggeration. All were warmly received and they set the stage for senior year... and a future blog installment.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hobart Pumpernickel's Tests

As I mentioned in my prior posting, Hobart Pumpernickel first made his mark in the world of Elmont Memorial High School by making up tests about what went on in Mr. Lerz's World History class. Following (and with explanations where necessary) are a sampling of those questions.

1) Mr. Lerz does not like England because a) James Bond is supposed to be better than American spies b) the Queen didn't send him a Christmas card c) Rolls Royce engines are used in MIGs d) the Beatles have more money than he does.
The correct answer is c. Rolls Royce sold engines to the Russians for use in their fighter planes which, in turn, could be used against us in a war. Therefore, England was not a true ally of the U.S.

2) Mr. Lerz knew a) a woman who flew B-17s in World War II b) Mrs. Richard Kimble c) Abraham Lincoln d) the man who solved the riddle of the Sphinx
The correct answer is a. It was not until 1977 that the women of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) were recognized as military personnel rather than civilians. Prior to that, their service in ferrying bombers across the Atlantic was all but ignored... but Mr. Lerz made sure we knew about it.

3) According to Mr. Lerz, Columbus had a brother named a) Irving b) Lerz c) Bartholomew d) Hobart.
The correct answer is c. Yet another little known bit of history that was added to the curriculum by Mr. Lerz, the career of Christopher Columbus' brother.

4) Mr. Lerz got rid of his dog because a) he doesn't know how to make Gravy Train b) his son was sick c) cats kept chasing it up a tree d) it kept taking the newspaper and giving it back to the newsboy
The correct answer is b, but I don't remember what his son being sick had to do with the dog. What I do remember is we often heard that the dog was a Basenji, a breed that came from Africa, which did not bark like other canines.

5) According to Mr. Lerz, the greatest general of all was a) Grant b) Lee c) Motors d) Principles
The correct answer is b. Mr. Lerz would regularly tell us that the South would rise again.

6) Mr. Lerz says he has $10,000 in a) yen b) green stamps c) Confederate money d) apple turnovers
The correct answer c. In light of the previous answer, he obviously wanted to be prepared.

7) Mr. Lerz had a buddy there when a) MacArthur returned to the Philippines four times b) King Kong fell off the Empire State Building c) the Indians wiped out Custer at Little Big Horn d) a train wreck freed Richard Kimble en route to the death house
The correct answer is a. According to Mr. Lerz, General MacArthur's historic march up the beach was done four times so that the newsreels and photographers would get the perfect shots.

8) Mr. Lerz's brother was a) rented to Avis by Hertz b) loaned to NASA by General Electric c) sold by his mother to the New York Mets d) given to the Indians for Manhattan
The correct answer is b. I don't recall that Mr. Lerz ever told us what his brother did for GE, but it was something the space program needed done.

9) Mr. Lerz says that Richard the Lionhearted did a stupid thing. What was it? a) He died. b) He got married. c) He changed his name to Lerz. d) He lost his Ice-Blue Secret.
The correct answer is a. As Mr. Lerz explained it, Richard, sans his chain mail, was walking around a small, virtually unarmed castle his army has besieged when he was shot by a boy with a crossbow. The wound eventually proved fatal.

10) When Mary, Queen of Scots, was being executed, the axeman had to make two chops because he didn't go all the way through the first time. When she heard this, Barbara said, a) "Who was Mary, Queen of Scots?" b) "Was she still alive at half-time?" c) "Will this be on the final?" d) "Did they have an intermission?"
As you already know if you've read the previous installment about Hobart, the correct answer is b.

There were many more questions, quite a few of which were based on comments and actions of my classmates. The humor relied very much on "You had to be there" and, as such, they don't stand the test of time. But, buoyed by the popularity in Mr. Lerz's class, Hobart returned when the next school year began... and that is where we will pick up next time.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hobart Pumpernickel - Year 1

I took World History in 10th grade. Not that I had a choice in the matter; it was a required course and included a NY State-mandated Regents exam at the end. As I recall, we devoted a lot of class time to pre-20th century history. We barely touched upon World War I and I don't think any World History class in those years ever made it all the way to World War II. Makes me wonder how far they get now, with another forty years of history having taken place.

The class was noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the teacher, Mr. Lerz, was a font of odd and interesting historical facts. For example, when we were studying the history of ancient Egypt, Mr. Lerz advised us that that famous Queen of the Nile pronounced her name "Clee-oh-PAY-trah." He never explained how he knew this, though he alluded to having had a fling with her and, therefore, knew her on a first name basis.

When we got to Leif Eriksson -- Mr. Lerz insisted the spelling in the textbook, Ericson, was incorrect because Leif's father was Erik, not Eric -- we were advised that the Norwegian explorers called themselves "VEE-kings." When someone asked why the Minnesota football team did not pronounce it that way, Mr. Lerz replied that none of them had ever been in his class or they would know better.

And when our journey through the years brought us to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Mr. Lerz told us that it took the executioner two swings with the axe to chop her head off. This prompted one of the girls in the class to ask, "Was she still alive at half-time?" Everyone started to laugh as one of the boys said something about a marching band and cheerleaders parading through while the axeman got ready for the second swing. But it turned out to be much more than an amusing anecdote.

In fact, it was that moment in World History class in the autumn of 1966 that resulted in the creation of something that virtually every student in the Class of 1969 remembers: Hobart Pumpernickel.


Hobart Pumpernickel was the 426th member of the 425-student Class of '69 at Elmont Memorial High School. By the time graduation came some two and a half years later, he had had a regular column in the school newspaper, stories published in the literary magazine, and his photograph in the yearbook. But who he really was remained a secret to many throughout his career.

Mr. Lerz's first encounter with Hobart came the day after the Mary, Queen of Scots incident. It came in the form of a multiple-choice test with all the questions based on the Lerz version of history. A few of the students, who had seen the test earlier in the day, encouraged him to read it aloud to the entire class. Had he refused, or crumpled it up and tossed in the trash as another teacher did in a similar situation a year later, Hobart's career might have been quite short-lived. But Mr. Lerz enjoyed a good joke, even if it was at his own expense, and so he read it.

Through the rest of the school year, Hobart's handiwork turned up on Mr. Lerz's desk from time to time. While a number of the students knew from the very beginning who Hobart was, Mr. Lerz did not find out until the last day of class, some six months later. Oh, he was pretty sure he knew who Hobart really was and would make comments about it, much to the amusement of those students who knew better. It only after reading the last question of The Hobart Pumpernickel Regents Exam that he realized his error.

That question read:

Hobart Pumpernickel is really
a) a complete idiot
b) an absolute genius
c) Bob Rozakis
d) all of the above