3rd Place Photography. Lifeguards Mel Solberg and Tyler Morgan competing in the South Bay Dozen. By Joel Gitelson
by Pete Whalon
I’m not quite sure when I developed my habitual desire to “pop off” in classrooms and release cynical, comical or provocative observations and commentary designed to disrupt my teachers and fellow students. However, as far back as I can remember, I sought to be the class jokester. Maybe I was motivated by the attention derived from my outbursts or some deep rooted desire to be noticed and liked. For whatever reason, I spent most of junior high and all four years of high school in the trivial pursuit of cracking up the class. Although not a name I would pin on myself, I believe if you had polled my weary teachers at that time, they would have classified me as a “wise-ass”!
Certainly my most successful and outrageous practical joke at Adams Jr. High School in Redondo Beach occurred during my 8th grade year.The dirty deed generated so much attention and notoriety that I would perform an encore in high school a few years later, to great success. The ill-advised plan would unfold in Mr. Turner’s (behind his back we referred to him as Mr. T) 5th period woodshop class. With a little help from my friends, we scheduled the scheme for the Friday before our two week Christmas break, believing the punishment would be lighter with the authorities in a festive holiday mood.
The idea itself was simple, however it did require a few moving parts and precise timing. Larry, the decoy, would distract Mr. T with some inane question about his latest woodworking project. Danny, the lookout, would be next to me at the table saw, making sure Mr. T was not looking our way and administering the props. When the 10 minute shop cleanup bell rang, operation “severed-finger” would commence. No one else in our class was privy to our hoax. They could not be trusted.
As the bell tolled Larry was involved in an animated conversation with Mr. T at the front of the classroom. Danny pulled out the lifelike rubber finger from one jacket pocket and a small bottle of ketchup from the other. I grabbed the white towel from the bench, wrapped it around my hand as Danny quickly splashed ketchup on my covered hand, shirt and the rubber finger I held in my other hand. I raised my ketchup drenched hand in the air and began screaming like a banshee as the two of us raced toward Larry and the bewildered woodshop teacher. I noticed Larry first laughing as he backed up behind the horrified instructor. Danny was my spokesman as I laid my arm on a table and moaned. “Mr. Turner, Whalon cut off his finger on the table saw; he needs help, call the nurse!”
The visibly shaken teacher ordered a kid to call the office as he attempted to remove the ketchup stained towel from my hand. The moment Mr. T touched my hand I released a blood curdling howl, making him recoil. Then came the coup de gras. I laid the rubber finger on the table and made a request of the shaking man before me, “Mr. Turner get me a needle and thread, I’m sewing this rubber finger back on right now!” I then removed the messy towel from my hand revealing five perfectly healthy digits. I also began licking my fingers stating, “I love Heinz ketchup!”
The events of the next few minutes unfolded rather quickly and are somewhat of a blur in my mind. When Mr. T realized it was a hoax, he grabbed me by the neck and dragged me into his office, turning just before slamming the door to bark out his instructions to the astounded group of onlookers. “The rest of you get out of here and go to your next class. Danny and Larry, I’ll see you Monday!” Saliva trickled from his mouth. He had forgotten about our Christmas vacation. Mr. T pushed me down onto a chair, then just as quickly pulled me up by my crimson-stained shirt and demanded, “Bend over Whalon!” He proceeded to unleash one of the most brutal swats I had ever received. Then he shoved me back down. His face resembled an overripe tomato ready to explode. After an impressive tirade, filled with death threats and unbridled profanity, he escorted me to the office for a sit down with the principle. My punishment proved less than I had expected, consisting of two week’s detention and a five hundred word essay apologizing to Mr. Turner explaining why what I did was wrong. Also, on our first day back from break, I was forced to deliver an open apology to the class. That one was actually kind of fun.
In high school, discovering that there would be a substitute teacher always produced a sense of elation and anticipation in me. It presented an opportunity to screw around, cause a nuisance and see just how far I could push the untested, unsuspecting “sub.” The subs tended to be young, newly minted teachers from local colleges. I possessed an uncanny knack for being able to spot the abject fear in their beady eyes. Occasionally, we would get stuck with a grizzled veteran who knew just how to quash any potential uprising. However, that proved rare. Word would spread like a wildfire when there were subs on campus. “Hey Pete, there’s a sub in third period English” someone would yell as I walked onto school grounds. Great I thought, two periods to prepare my assault.
My accomplices and I had a grab bag full of pranks, schemes and disruptions prepared to unleash at a moment’s notice. Our modest goal was to pull off an event outrageous enough to spread throughout the halls of Redondo High.
One of our favorites involved ditching a class we were in and showing up for roll call in another class with a sub. We would then adopt the name of someone who was absent that day, basically an uninvited, obnoxious guest at a party. We would unleash smart ass remarks, interrupt conversations and raise our hand to ask the ridiculous questions. “Mr. Porter, what kind of beer do you drink on your lunch break?” Or, “Mr. Porter, have you ever picked up on a chick in a class you were teaching?” When the heat cranked up, we would casually walk out of the classroom, much to the shock of the sub. They would usually call the office and report that Billy Prescott had walked out of his classroom for no reason, to which the secretary would inform the clueless goof that Billy’s mother had called in earlier and reported that he was sick.
One memorable moment occurred during my junior year, when a friend, Eric, came into one of my classes being taught by a “tough guy” substitute. When Eric decided it was time to bail out and stood up to leave, the much too aggressive instructor blocked the door. Undaunted, Eric climbed out of a low level window in the rear of the room. When he got outside, Eric shouted back, “Nice try sub, see ya later.” As the class cheered, the tenacious sub actually ran out of the room and began chase. A minute later he returned, huffing and puffing without Eric. That was an excellent day in school.
I believe the pinnacle of my success as a student agitator occurred in 1967 in Mrs. Rappaport’s English class. Mrs. Rapp was a kind, decent, matronly woman in her ‘60s, who I believe got a kick out of my classroom antics. She would attempt to be stern with me, however I was usually able to smooth talk into settling for a heartfelt, motherly lecture on class disruption and good manners.
On this particular day we were discussing Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. Those familiar with the novel will recall that Captain Ahab’s leg had been chomped off by the great white whale. In our classroom discussion the fact came up that there was another character in the tale, Captain Boomer, whose arm had also been bitten off by the ravenous Moby Dick.
I casually raised my hand and asked what I considered to be an obvious question. “Mrs. Rappaport, if the white whale bit off arms and legs, why did they call him Moby Dick?”
After a few seconds the class erupted in laughter, cat calls and wild screams of approval. I panicked at the reaction, fearing I had crossed the line and would soon be on my way to the principal’s office.
Mrs. Rapp stood up and gruffly called my name. However, before she could utter another word, she began laughing hysterically. Now the class became even more boisterous and unruly. The kids around me were slapping my back and congratulating me on what turned out to be the greatest adlib line of my undistinguished high school “Class Clown” career. My timing had been perfect, and the fact that Mrs. Rapp couldn’t contain herself proved icing on the cake. There was a down side however. As the Moby Dick comment circulated throughout the campus, I had to endure the ongoing cat calls of “Hey Moby Dick.” B