Monday, December 12, 2005

The Most Brilliant Performer in the Whole First Grade

Mrs. Fletcher tried to coax the class to be quiet, but they were beyond all control. Ramon sat up on the makeshift stage in the school library, holding the decorative paper skeleton at arm’s length. He argued with the thing, then shook it violently as he pretended it responded to him. It hardly mattered what they were arguing about, and Ramon knew that. He just said, “No, no. You can’t. You can’t do it! Stop asking me!” And then he shook the skeleton and gave it voice, a high, screechy voice that said nothing intelligible. It sounded like, “Nyih-nyih-nyih! Nyih-nyih-nyih-nyih!” And every time it did so, the assembled group of sixty children erupted in peals of laughter. As far as they were concerned, Ramon was the funniest person alive.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Pancakes Dunst said to Meredith. But Meredith didn’t hear her. She was laughing too much. Up on the stage, Ramon and the skeleton continued arguing, escalating in volume and intensity. For everyone other than Pancakes and Mrs. Fletcher, the moment was pure, undistilled comedy, the very essence of humor. Ramon had gone to the root of all that is funny and presented it to his classmates for their grateful benefit. If Meredith hadn’t been snorting with uncontrollable mirth, she might have offered her opinion that Ramon was, frankly, a genius. The skeleton thing absolutely killed.

Just when the kids were getting used to the idea of Ramon’s arguing with a paper skeleton and began to quiet a bit, he changed up the act. He leapt to his feet, the skeleton outstretched before him in his left hand, and delivered a punch to its grinning skull with his right fist. “Nyih-ihh!” he screeched as the skeleton’s response. The children launched into fresh gales of laughter. He punched it again. The skeleton quivered with rage.

“This is nonsense!” Pancakes said, louder this time. She had a hard time making herself heard over the raucous appreciation of her classmates. She appealed to her teacher. “Mrs. Fletcher, why is this funny to everybody? It’s just stupid.”

The thirty-year-old Mrs. Fletcher, who most of children considered on the verge of her twilight years, looked down to where Pancakes sat on the fuzzy orange carpet. She adjusted her glasses nervously. Talking to Pancakes always made her a little nervous. The girl was so serious sometimes. She was too direct for a seven-year-old. “It doesn’t really appeal to me,” Mrs. Fletcher said. “But a lot of children love slapstick humor.”

“But…” Pancakes began. She faltered, searching for the words to explain what was confounding her. “But there’s no…there’s no, um…there’s no context,” she said. “You know what I mean?”

Mrs. Fletcher sighed inwardly. She taught first grade for many reasons, one which was that her students didn’t tend to engage in debates. She didn’t do well with debates, and she preferred to issue simple instructions and make behavior corrections. She didn’t want to talk about why certain kinds of humor needed context. “Pancakes,” she said, “it’s just a comedy act Ramon came up with. I don’t think he really wanted to give us any kind of message.”

On stage, Ramon had taken to trading blows with the skeleton. Its shaking rage had prompted it to attack him, which he indicated by fluttering the thing in his own face even as he shrank back from it. All the while, he continued to screech the skeleton’s annoyance. The kids couldn’t get enough.

Pancakes frowned. “But it’s a skeleton,” she said. “He’s arguing with it. My dad would say it was…Berman Ex.”

Mrs. Fletcher shook her head. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Berman?”

“It’s from the movies. Ingrid Berman?”

Mrs. Fletcher smiled in spite of herself. Pancakes thankfully revealed herself as a child at times. It made her teacher feel more in control of the situation. “I see. Bergmanesque. You’re thinking of Ingmar Bergman, Pancakes.”

“I thought her name was Ingrid. She’s been in a bunch of movies. My mother tries to look like her.”

“There is an Ingrid Bergman. She was a movie actress. But Ingmar Bergman, he was a movie director. Different person.”

“Well, whoever Bergman was, that’s like this.”

Before Mrs. Fletcher could respond, the kids burst out in a boisterous shout of hilarity. Ramon’s fight with his paper nemesis had gone from simple blows to desperate wrestling. The skeleton seemed to bowl him over, and Ramon fell to the floor. Then he tossed the skeleton away and made a comic lunge for it. Back and forth they went, pouncing on one another and rolling around the floor in simulated combat. Both Pancakes and Mrs. Fletcher looked on in terrified fascination as the volume level on the room went from an undulating roar to an outright explosion of amused screams.

Ramon appeared to have no plan for stopping his act. So long as he was getting laughs, he kept wrestling with the paper decoration, which was by now becoming rather tattered in the fight. He pretended to gain the upper hand, and he picked up the heap of paper and cardboard and tossed it into a dark green metal wastebasket on the far side of the small stage. But then he peered intently into the receptacle, and he quickly reached in to yank it out again, making it appear as if the skeleton had come back to life and attacked him anew. The crowd of children stayed with his every move, giggling and cheering and screaming with each new struggle. Mrs. Fletcher decided at last to intervene. The elderly twins who served as the school librarians had been shooting her disapproving looks ever since Ramon’s act first started.

“Okay, class!” Mrs. Fletcher said over the din of the children. “Thank you, Ramon! We need to wrap this up now, please!” The kids initially tried to ignore her, but she resorted to her loud double clap. That always brought the majority of the kids to attention. The volume she could get out of her two small palms was preternaturally loud, like the sharp snaps of high-powered firecrackers. The sound effectively stopped the show, and despite the fact that Ramon still thrashed about with the remains of his paper skeleton, the laughter died away with frightening suddenness. The twin librarians raised their eyebrows in unison. They wondered, also in unison, though of course they couldn’t know that, why Mrs. Fletcher hadn’t taken such remarkable charge much earlier.

Once the laughter died away, Ramon finally looked up from his exertions. He’d ripped one of his short shirt sleeves in his struggles with the skeleton, and the paper Halloween decoration had been reduced to a clump of wrinkled paper and folded cardboard. He grinned at his class. “Ramon and Ellie!” he shouted. He gave no other explanation, and since he hadn’t introduced his act beforehand, everyone assumed that the skeleton had been named Ellie. No one knew why, but then as Pancakes pointed out, no one really knew why anything onstage in the past ten minutes had occurred. Ramon retreated from the stage, but he stood uncertainly beside it and awaited instructions.

“Why ‘Ellie’?” Pancakes asked Ramon.

He shrugged.

“It doesn’t mean anything?” she asked.

“It’s my sister,” he said. “I named the skeleton after my sister. Ellie.”

Pancakes smiled. “Okay,” she said finally. “Then it all makes sense. I wish you’d told me that earlier.”

“What? You don’t know my sister.”

“No. About your act. I get the conflict now.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s okay. I do. That’s all I was worried about.”

Ramon said nothing more. Pancakes made him nervous. She was always saying things that he didn’t get, and then she didn’t explain them when he said he didn’t get them. None of the other girls were like that. But none of the other girls were named after a famous person, so maybe that’s why she was different. Anyway, he didn’t know what to say to her, and she didn’t seem to care.