Comic relief

26th September 2014 at 01:00

Everything reminds me of teaching. This summer, one evening at the Nikulin Circus in Moscow, I realise I like class clowns.

The circus originated in 1880 and is so old-fashioned that I have only ever seen acts like this before in picture books and films. Setting aside the indiscretion of keeping wild animals in captivity, most of the other aspects of this show delight me in a way that is refreshing and illuminating. This throwback circus, similar to the ones Chekhov loved, is the only place in Russia where I have ever been in a crowd of delighted, happy people.

In one routine, Dmitriy Shindrov, a clown in striped shirt, green trousers and oversized yellow shoes, claps and whistles three beats. He pantomimes to the audience that we too should clap three beats. We clumsily try.

He toots his whistle in exasperation: Follow the rhythm!

We laugh and try and fail again.

In the spirit of Harpo Marx, he announces with a whistle, disgusted as he is with us, that we're going to proceed anyway.

The clown challenges our side of the arena to keep the rhythm better than the other side. Then it's their turn and another round of back and forth. He gestures his disgust. Both sides are pathetic! We laugh.

Where else but at a circus - or sometimes in a classroom - do we obey orders so cheerfully? We obey a clown. That is, my students obey me.

Only when I'm in professional huffy mode do I let myself wonder why Alisa did not give in her homework again or why Mei-Mei didn't write about that story I assigned. Oh, the students these days.

How un-fun I have become. I used to be amazed that any student turned in anything on my say-so.

Back to the clown. We circus-goers laugh as we try to follow his directions. That's something I wish I could get my students to do. Try - and laugh if they stumble. We laugh when he holds his nose at our efforts. Foreigners and Russians alike, we laugh at our own incompetence. We clap in rhythm, we compete against one another and, most importantly, everyone there is completely there.

I think: that's the good part of my classroom clownishness - reminding my students that "We're all really here". You see me and I hear you. Watch me and follow my directions - because if you try, and even if you fail, you'll probably get something from our time together.

Finally, the clown gets the other side of the arena in rhythm. He beckons our side to join in and we do. We're all bright-eyed with triumph until, in the impending beat of the third clap and whistle, he swings his hands down to hitch up his pants. The surest sign of our happy obedience is the roar with which we erupt when he deliberately throws us off.

In the great Dmitriy Shindrov, I see me. That is, what do you call a clown who's not that funny? Me.

I am the class clown.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in New York City

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