Darn. The Melbourne Cup is in just a few hours, and I haven’t the foggiest who to back. Oh, sure, this whole Aussie tradition of there being one day when everyone bets is well and good. But all I know is not to back Yeats, because Bono supports him. And really, when’s anything Bono supported ever been good?
Okay, okay, I know he does good stuff. Better than I ever have by miles. He just irritates me, though. And sure, I know that he’s into alleviating poverty, but somehow I doubt that will extend to my poverty.
Of course, I *could* read the form guide. But understanding it is a different question entirely. Or I could just back the SMH’s recommendation, Maybe Better. But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the originality, the flair? Or alternatively, where’s the Makybe Diva-esque bandwagon to jump on, like I did for the past two years?
I’ll update this a bit later, after I lose my shirt as usual.
They say there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. They’re wrong. There is another certainty even more harrowing: the class clown.
It doesn’t matter what scholastic environment you’re in, be it economics at Eton or three-unit yak herding in some flyblown yurt on the Mongolian steppe, there will always be some clown up the back of the room making fart noises.
This is just as well. Like the teacher’s pet (whom we all loved to hate) and the brainiac (who provided the answers so we didn’t have to), the class clown performs a vital role in the delicately balanced ecosystem that is the school classroom.
With his propensity for self-abasement and reckless disregard for authority, the class clown is not only endlessly entertaining but a walking, talking, one-man rebellion; a circuit-breaker to the brain-bleeding tedium of Shakespeare and French conjugations.
The class clown is also a figure of self-sacrifice. He may make the jokes we all wish we could crack and pull the stunts we all wish we could pull, but he also gets punished after making us laugh.
“I get them all the time,” says adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, author of The Princess Bitchface Syndrome (Penguin) and Surviving Year 12 (Finch).
Carr-Gregg says behind the happy-go-lucky facade, most class clowns are screaming out for help.
“These are kids whose self-esteem is defined almost entirely in terms of their relationship to other people,” he says. “They’re always evaluating themselves through other people’s eyes, looking for positive feedback, and when they don’t get it they overcompensate by appointing themselves class clowns.”
Of course, most teachers insist the class clown is “heading nowhere fast”; that if they keep up “the amateur theatrics” they’ll “never amount to anything”. However, like a lot of things teachers tell us, this turns out to be far from the truth. There are some very successful former class clowns among us.
“I was the archetypal class clown,” says comedian Vince Sorrenti, who was unleashed on Bankstown Boys High in the 1970s. “I was a total and utter pain in the arse, mainly, I think, because I was bored. I guess I also like grabbing people’s attention.”
Sorrenti’s forte was to organise “strikes”, inciting the entire class to collective inaction until the teacher met their demands: “I’d write ‘We want to read comics’ or ‘We want to watch The Towering Inferno’ on the blackboard. Then we’d all remain completely silent until the teacher relented.”
Sorrenti’s unfortunate music teacher came in for special attention.
“She was very prim and proper and when she came into the room she’d say, ‘Hello, boys.’ And we were meant to say, ‘Hello, Miss so-and-so.’
“One day, I orchestrated the entire class to stand up and be totally silent and not respond when she said hello. And so she said, ‘OK, have it your way! You can stay standing for the whole period’ – which we did, but we all started breathing loudly and in unison. Have you ever heard a classroom of 16-year-old boys breathing in unison? It drove her completely mental.”
Another time, Sorrenti and his mates spent a whole night filling one of the staff rooms with rubbish: “We all brought in newspapers and bags of crap and just packed it in there.”
Remarkably, he was caned only once. “I put my hand up in class and said, ‘Sir, I believe they’ve discovered rings around Uranus.’ I was actually being serious – I really loved astronomy – but he thought I was being stupid and sent me to the headmaster.”
Sorrenti focused on humour and mind games, but other clowns, like Matt Moran, trafficked mainly in anarchy.
“The school I went to wasn’t great,” says Moran who, despite being told by a teacher that he was a “loser”, is now one of Australia’s most successful chefs. “There was one English teacher who was German but couldn’t really speak English. Usually we’d just all end up throwing oranges at the blackboard.”
Not surprisingly, Moran was subject to frequent caning.
“I got caned for ripping a blind with a metal ruler and I got caned for kicking the PE teacher when I came off the trampoline,” he says. “Another time, me and my best mate got the hoses from the Bunsen burners and siphoned all the water out of the fish tanks and into the drawers.”
Moran’s frustration with school led to him to do home science – “I did it just for the hell of it and also because girls were doing it” -although it was in those classes he came across cooking. (His siphoning mate was less lucky. “He’s in jail now for murdering his mum,” Moran says.)
According to Carr-Gregg, the Vince Sorrentis and Matt Morans of this world are virtually impossible to teach “because they don’t stop until they get attention”. Their motives, however, can be entirely understandable.
“Often they’re trying to ward off bullying or sometimes they’re covering up academic shortcomings or their own social insecurities or even a troubled home life,” Carr-Gregg says.
Professional musician and teacher Tony Henry agrees that clowning around is a “coping mechanism”. Now the head of student services at the International College of Management in Sydney, Henry is also
the recording drummer for the Wiggles – he was a founding member of the Cockroaches, the 1980s pub band that spawned the children’s entertainers.
Henry’s parents ran the Kirra Beach Hotel. “I was surfing every day and had heaps of freedom. But then suddenly I was sent to board at St Joseph’s College [in Hunters Hill], where life was highly regimented and everything was run on bells.”
Adjusting wasn’t easy.
“I found the first year or two at Joey’s very hard. I was really homesick and my way of handling it was to always muck around and make fun of things.”
Schoolmate John Field says Henry’s signature gag was the “machine-gun spit”:
“It was quite impressive. He could deliver 30 globules of spit in 15 seconds – we timed him. If anyone [ticked] him off, Tony would give them the machine-gun spit.”
Another time, Henry came into Field’s room just before lights out.
“Tony asked me how I was, whether I was OK,” Field says. “I said, ‘Yeah, mate, I’m fine, thanks for asking, that’s very kind.’ Then he left. What I hadn’t noticed was that he’d left three massive bungers in my cupboard, burning with slow fuses. About three minutes after he left the room, my cupboard was blown apart.”
But the very acme of Henry’s clown career came when he was minding the labrador guide dog that belonged to the school’s blind band coach.
“It was my job to get the dog to take a leak before the coach got on the bus to go home,” Henry says. “You had to say, ‘Spend a penny, spend a penny,’ and the dog would go, just like clockwork. So one day, me and a mate snuck the dog into the headmaster’s office and got him to cock a leg on his desk.”
Of course, some clowns never grow up, no matter how many detentions they get. Kristine Russell, aka Cheekie the Clown (“Cheekie by name, cheeky by nature”), was on detention every Wednesday, “usually for answering back and making fun of the teachers”. She now runs her own clown school, Cheekie’s Clownland, in Concord, and also performs at charity events and parties.
“I made my life on the lighter side because a lot of my growing up was hard and sad and dark,” Russell says. “When I was young my mum walked all over me and mucking around at school was a reaction to that.”
Russell, who is also a trained nurse, carried on her clowning from high school to nursing school.
“They would be catheterising a man [inserting a tube into his penis] and I could tell that some of the girls were feeling self-conscious, so I’d make a joke – anything, like ‘He’s definitely got one!’
“I even joked around in the operating theatre, so much so that I had a senior nurse tell me that ‘there’s a time and place for everything’. But I don’t agree. Laughter is always the best medicine.”
Russell began professional clowning at age 40 after 10 years of trying in vain to have kids.
“For years, I was sad about it,” she says, “but now I have more kids around me than I can handle.”
Even at school she loved walking into the classroom and making people laugh: “I made myself happy by making other people happy. I mean, it’s important for everybody to do that.”
Henry agrees. As a father of three, he says he’d “be worried if my kids didn’t have some spunk”.
Class clowns aren’t stupid and, contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t wasting their time.
“It’s a crucial part of growing up,” Henry says. “You’ve got to explore the boundaries and push the limits. It’s how you learn what’s appropriate.”
Getting in on the joke
“There can be many reasons why class clowns behave as they do,” says adolescent psychologist and author Michael Carr-Gregg, “but the four things that commonly motivate them are attention, power, revenge and
Class clowns can be “very intelligent” or “very dumb”, with many covering up for poor academic results by “holding their own comedy festival”.
Clowning can also be a way of compensating for a shaky sense of self, with any insecurities being temporarily shored up when others are laughing at the jokes.
But the impact on teachers cannot be overlooked. According to Carr-Gregg, “The education department has a special department that deals with teachers who can’t take any more.”
Dealing with class clowns is made more difficult by the fact that some are genuinely funny.
“Once, a kid I saw had taken a photo with his camera phone of a teacher who had dozed off in class while the students were meant to be doing an assignment,” Carr-Gregg says. “The kid then posted the picture on the web.”
Another student put Super Glue on the blackboard duster so that it became all but welded to the teacher’s palm. “That certainly got a response from the crowd,” Carr-Gregg says. “The most important thing to realise,” he adds, “is that most class clowns are actually crying out for help. Giving them that help is the first step in stopping the behaviour.”
PHOTO: Junior anarchist … Vince Sorrenti says boredom sparked his classroom antics.