Not all practical jokes are necessarily mean-spirited. Once upon a time I knew a dear and charming man named Robert Gerke on whom I played a few well-intentioned disruptions and he later assured me that my stupid pranks actually changed his life for the better. I'll tell you about it now.
I had recently returned to my studies at Marshall University after acceding to the school's request that I sit out one semester. In the interim I had tried and failed at making a go of it in the real world, so my re-admittance to college was something that I now approached with a genuine sense of enthusiasm. There is something quite inspiring about staring a potential thirty-year stretch in a menial job that can fire up an internal storm to fire bolts of lightning out of one's ass. Such was the case with me. Rest assured that while I assumed the slumped posture and awkward poise of a real little scholar, not many of my meager achievements came easy. This turned out to be especially true in the lower-level, general interest, mandatory courses, where I was competing against bullet-heads, cheerleaders, and future fry-cooks of America. Perhaps curiously, my best marks were handed down by the professors of the 400 and 500-level classes, the ones that were presumed to be the most difficult.
Without question the most challenging exception to this was a 400-500 class called History of the English language. You might imagine this to have been a fascinating course of study, one in which a student would discover the psychological impetus behind various neologisms, or theological influences upon the deterioration of complex thought, or even the preponderance of certain word categories at the expense of others (why, for instance, do we even have adverbs, a useless component of the language if one ever existed?). Such expectations were soon dashed to smithereens upon the bloody stones of fact once I learned that the most controversial concept this course would approach would be the Great Vowel Shift. We learned that modern English is an Indo-European language belonging to the West-Germanic branch. We learned that the International Phonetic Alphabet is the one true Rosetta Stone. All the same, I remained optimistic because I knew that the right instructor could transform otherwise tepid facts into blazing theories of linguistic evolution.
My delusions crumbled the first day of class. The instructor was Robert Gerke.
Mustachioed, of German extraction, not terribly tall, excessive in his tidiness, yet not without a well-worn sense of the ridiculous, Bob Gerke was well-suited to his material. On and on he would drone about fricatives and glottal stops. It was all quite insufferable.
But I really liked the guy. Every now and then he would slip some clever aside into his otherwise tedious sermons ("I know this is thrilling as dishwater. You've all got the look of hermits hiding in your garret rooms burning old lamps. Still, you just have to find a way to cram this stuff into your skulls. I'm sorry.") and he would send Ruth Ann and me into spasms of joy.
Who was Ruth Ann?
She was this glorious spectrum of radiance that burned fractures in the dense and pious tower of Academe. She projected her light through those cracks and lit up every room she entered. She was (and continues to be) that rarest of individuals: a free-thinking intellectual with a heart made of soft flowers and an outer sensitivity borne of Groucho Marx. I know for a fact that I will never meet anyone who has had the kind of all-encompassing influence on me that Ruth Ann has had. I loved her then, I love her now, and that will never, ever change. How could it? (I wish I could post a photograph of her here, but I do not have her permission, which is one reason I'm not using her last name. Who knows? Maybe she will read this and give me the okay.)
There she stood, leaning herself against the wall outside Gerke's classroom, a Marlboro Light tucked into the corner of her mouth, wearing a tight t-shirt, rainbow suspenders, loose jeans with the cuffs rolled up. I recall that she didn't wear make-up and can attest to the fact she she didn't need any. She had this natural healthy vibrancy just pouring off her. She should have entered every room with her own personalized theme music. I'm thinking maybe "Youngblood," by The Coasters, or the same song re-done by Suzi Quatro. During this, our first chat, we exchanged similar impressions of the class subject matter and of Dr. Gerke. We both like the guy, although we agreed he was repressing his more loose and humane impulses. We two little conspirators decided to create an environment where he would have no choice but to break free of his own armor.
Robert Gerke was a man who was married and faithful to his own personal physical routine. He would enter the classroom at precisely nine ay-em, close the door in one sweeping motion, stride to the desk at which he never once sat, pull back his chair, walk to the far window, open the shade, and begin the lecture. Remember these details for later. There may be a quiz.
One morning about four weeks into the term, Ruth Ann and I arrived at the classroom very early and turned every desk in the room so that they faced the wrong direction. At this point in our scholastic development we were simply working out a silly sociological experiment to see what the other students would do. Most appeared confused and uncertain. Some tinkered with re-positioning their seats while others insisted that Gerke doubtlessly had had a damned good reason for this realignment and these latter kids refused to tamper at all with the sudden change in the status quo. As to Dr. Gerke himself, if he was troubled by any of this, he certainly gave no indication. All in all, Ruth Ann and I were a bit disappointed in the general lack of anarchic rebellion. Gerke entered the classroom, swept shut the door, gave a slow blink at the devastated seating arrangement, pulled back his chair, lifted the shade, and went on about his business.
Not about to give up so easily, a few days later I decided--independent of Ruth Ann, who would not have made the error I am about to reveal--to rattle Gerke's comfort a little more. I arrived at class early and used a piece of chalk to write a sentence on the blackboard. What I had intended to write was "Dr. Gerke is a sesquidpedalian," which, to save you some time, is a person prone to using large words, words such as "sesquidpedalian." My hope was that this self-referential bit of humor would amuse him to the point where he might relax enough to deviate from his routine. Again, I was disappointed. He entered the room, swept shut the door, pulled back the chair, walked to the shade, lifted it, smiled at the blackboard, seized a piece of chalk, and corrected my spelling.
All the same, a quaint and discernible smirk lingered on his mouth the remainder of the period. I knew I was getting somewhere.
Exactly one week hence, Ruth Ann and I set out to completely shred whatever sense of propriety the man may have had left in him. Again, getting to the room early, we super-glued one leg of the chair to the hardwood floor, making it highly unlikely that he would be able to move it out of his way. We also wrote a message on a piece of notebook paper and taped it to the window behind the shade that he always lifted. We may have done a few other things that I do not recall, but these are the two that matter.
That morning Gerke entered his classroom, swept shut the door, strode over to the desk, seized the chair with one tender hand and was unable to move the sitting device. Thoroughly amazed at this interruption in his routine, he looked askance at the chair and gave it another tug. It remained rigid and in place. At last he gripped the back of the chair in both hands and lifted it from the floor, minus the tiny disc that had been attached to one of the chair legs, a disc which, I have it on good authority, remained on that floor for the next decade. Coincidentally, that disc just happened to be located where Gerke liked to shuffle by, so that in the following weeks he tried nudging it loose with the toe of his shoe, all to no avail.
Not to be dissuaded from his daily practices, he marched over to the window shade, gripped the base firmly in hand, gave it a studied twitch and raised it, revealing the startling message: HOW DARE YOU! staring back at him from the sheet of notebook paper. He turned to Ruth Ann, who was sitting next to the window and said, "Did you do this?" She assured him that she had not, a bit of information which was only technically accurate. The classroom exploded in laughter. Even Bob Gerke himself laughed. Success was ours!
Bob was not quite what you would call loose as a goose as a result of this little experiment in merriment, and in a way Ruth Ann and I were putting our tongues in a hollow tooth because we'd had no way of actually knowing for certain that he wouldn't drop dead of apoplexy. Things did work out, though. He loosened up a bit and was always slightly cautious from that point on, never taking any of his own behaviors for granted, knowing that the masked-pranksters could return to their devious habits at any time.
A few semesters later I was sitting in his office, talking about science fiction or something, and he brought up the fact that he had very much enjoyed that History of the English Language class. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I admitted that Ruth Ann and I had been the pranksters and he gave me that knowing smile of his. He said, "I didn't know for sure. No one ever does that kind of thing anymore. Too bad."
Just as I never out-grew my love of noisy music or sexy women or new food--meaning food I've never had before--so have I never out-grown my love of fooling around with other people's routines, if I honestly believe that messing with the person will advance the cause of the person's enjoyment of life. I'm sure that you reading this are never in a rut. But if you ever find yourself slipping in that direction, just give me a holler. I still know a few tricks.