Thursday, April 5, 2007

Memories of A Childhood Television Experience

A Lesson Learned

Recently, I was retelling a story from my childhood to my companion. I had not thought about it for quite some time and it was a memory that, for whatever reason, has stuck with me in some profound way.

I was about ten or eleven, as I recall I was in grade school, perhaps it was fifth or sixth grade. I remember some of the teachers like Mrs. H., not for any particular reason other than she seemed to have had a somewhat pudgy face with an upturned nose that reminded me of a cartoon bull dog for some reason. The teachers were not particularly harsh or for that matter kind. They dutifully took us through our rote exercises of English vocabulary, sentence structure and arithmetic times tables. Nothing was especially notable about this period in parochial grammar school. It was at St. Mary’s in suburban Northern, New Jersey back in the late nineteen fifties to early nineteen sixties. Eisenhower was still President and we were fighting the cold war. Not that I had any idea of what was going on beyond my neat little world of schoolwork and playtime. My memory is often cloudy about these days with few details that I can conjure up from the depths of my brain, but I do recall that we sat in uncomfortable desks, many with ancient remnants of chewing gum stuck to the undersides of the well worn, wooden tops. Some adorned with carved epitaphs of former notorious student mavericks.

Being in parochial school, (read that as code for Catholic), there were always nuns , in our case Dominicans, keeping tabs of the progress of all the classes. It was common knowledge that the “lay” teachers, as they were called, were usually older dedicated but somewhat dated teachers, most always women. For whatever reason they didn’t or couldn’t work in the much more advanced and progressive public school system. It was the prevailing thought of the day, at least in my parent’s mind, that a Catholic school education would teach discipline first, classical studies and also allow for some spiritual education. The boys were supposed to wear pressed white shirts with ties, clip-ons weren’t fashionable yet, and clean and pressed trousers. Trousers, not pants, not blue jeans, usually just scratchy wool trousers. The girls would wear uniforms of plaid dresses, starched white tops with a small collar tie and white bobby socks with saddle shoes. To be sure, some of us wore the clothes better than others; some were neater and crisper depending on our parent’s individual attentions. But with all this decorum and formality, the thinking was, we would develop into responsible young, educated citizens. We would always represent our parents, our school, our community and ourselves in a professional manner that would make everyone proud.

With all this buttoned up responsibility on our heads, it was no wonder that any venture or break from the routine was welcomed with great enthusiasm. For me, the most memorable excursion of this year was the unlikely opportunity for our class to be taken to participate in a television show in New York City! Television was still young and predominantly black and white, color sets were a real luxury, but the programs they brought into our homes were shaping the way American families viewed American life. For kids like us, the shows that influenced us were shows like The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Andy Devine show (I still remember the line “Pluck your magic twanger Froggy!) And a myriad of other action and children comedic oriented fare. Two shows broadcast out of New York, that actually engaged kids as participants in their wacky games, were ones that particularly stick in my memory banks. An engaging master of ceremonies named Sonny Fox hosted them both. If I had to describe the appearance of Sonny Fox now, my mind’s eye brings me to a present image of a smiling Alan Alda, as he is enthusiastically engaged in various extraordinary findings on the Dscovery channel. Back then Sonny Fox was the front man for the two shows that kids my age drooled over. On Sunday mornings it was Wonderama, by far the more popular of the two, and on Saturday morning’s its more humble brother, Just for Fun! Just for Fun was the stealth star of the two shows to my way of thinking, because it was the show that allowed kids on the show to actually win prizes. What terrific prizes they were, it was like being in FAO Schwartz with no cash registers.

So it was with great fanfare that we were told that we were selected to be participants on this Saturday’s “Just for Fun” show. How did this happen, how could it be. As it turns out, one of my classmate’s fathers was a cameraman for the show. He had somehow convinced Sonny to have our class on the show. There was naturally some trepidation on the part of the Sisters, who felt that this might be damaging to the tranquility of the class regiment they had so skillfully maintained. But somehow they were convinced that the trip would be a worthwhile learning experience with few downside risks. In retrospect, I think there was a huge curiosity factor playing out here in the hearts and minds of the Sisters, who probably innocently fantasized a little about being on TV. We all felt we had been giving a gift from heaven, and, in fact, the nuns made sure that we would offer thanks to God during prayers in church, for having such good fortune. Needless to say the classmate, Patricia B., whose father made this all possible, became an instant celebrity of the fourth grade despite her previous obscurity.

I for one was beside myself with joy. Having come from relatively humble economic means, the chance to have the opportunity to perhaps bag some really extravagant toys on the show was a peek at the good life. Our class was formed from an economically diverse group of lower and middle-income families, so I am sure I was not alone in anticipating scoring some treasure.

The day of the show is a bit of a blur. I remember riding a chartered bus from the school to the studio in midtown Manhattan. Despite the short ride, for many of us this was itself the beginning of a fantastic voyage in previously unchartered waters. We filed out from the bus in a single line, the Sisters, maintaining an impenetrable shield between the ominous city and us. We were barely able to set foot on the grimy, Robert Wagner era sidewalk before we were whisked into side door of the studio.

In the studio the excitement began. We were split into two groups and filed onto bleacher type seats with a camera pointing toward us. The one set of bleachers were painted gold and the other blue, representing the two teams that would be matched against each other in the pursuit of unimaginable toy bounty. There may have been three teams but I recall only two. The television camera, with Patricia B’s father dutifully behind it, was pointed at the bleachers and we were given some brief instructions to look at the camera, have fun and scream our heads off with joy when we won something. These seemed like pretty easy instructions and no one raised their hands with any questions. The obvious question that was never asked was what do you do if you lose? Sonny came out to say hello and calm our enthusiasm a bit. Soon the red light on the camera went on and he introduced the show, our school, as well as some of the Sisters to a waiting public somewhere behind that cameras lens.

Soon we were all engaged in various stunts and tasks that would be featured during the hour and half long show. Sonny would ask for volunteers for the next feature, we would all violently, flail our hands in anxious anticipation of being chosen for something that could lead to various prizes, I suppose it made for exciting television for the kids at home, but it was pure pandemonium for us in the studio. I watched as my classmates were chosen to wrestle with greased baby pigs to see which team could be the first to diaper their pig. The winner received a pile of the latest toys. I marveled at two of my classmates struggled to try on various ill fitting coats attempting to be the one that looked the most ridiculous. The winner was once again rewarded, this time with an enormous erector set. Then there were the treasure chests, one blue one gold, each with a pile of keys before them and the task was to be the first team to find the correct key and open their chest. The winner was showered with every conceivable game from Risk to Monopoly. Slowly the various stunts were parceled out and I was becoming desperate to be chosen for a worthy challenge so I could score my rightful bounty. At last Sonny, asked for a volunteer to perform a tongue twister. The prize was something to behold.A beautiful Emenee electric organ. This was my destiny; I had to have this musical marvel. If only I could snag this piece of technological magic. This was something that I could never expect to see some Christmas morning under my tree; it was just too much to hope for.

With the goal firmly set in my mind I concentrated at the task at hand. Sonny simply and eloquently stated “ All you have to so to win this beautiful Emenee organ and give your blue team another 10 points toward the team victory is to say this three times fast. Are you ready?” Say Six Slick Silk Slips. Go! It was such an easy thing I thought to myself, I got this one nailed, but as I started my first attempt I slurred the words together. I begged for another try and Sonny graciously let me have at it again. I took a deep breath. Time started to slow down, I noticed my blue teammates jumping up and down in slow motion, screaming encouragement at me, but I couldn’t hear a sound except for a feeble attempt from mouth trying desperately to utter what my mind was so easily saying. Six Sis Skilk Slips , no Six Slip Silk Skips, no, no no!

After several attempts, Sonny, seeing my obvious difficulty, compassionately relieved me of the challenge. I watched as the stagehand removed the Emenee organ from the set. I scanned my teammates faces and only remember the look of disappointment they all shared at my utter and complete failure.

I know this story seems to be no more than an inconsequential snippet from the life of a grade schooler and it probably would be, but for one lasting thing that came from this humbling experience. I immediately set out to conquer the challenge that so completely disappointed and humiliated me. I practiced this tongue twister endlessly, faster and faster until I was able to say confidently and with no equivocation that I could bet my life on being able to say it three times fast with no hesitation or slip up. Six Slick Silk Slips; Six, Slick, Silk, Slips; Six, Slick, Silk, Slips!!!!! The lesson for me in all this is that sometimes it takes the most humbling of experiences to motivate a person into accomplishing a formidable challenge. If we could only find the necessary ingredients from this formula and impart them onto our teaching methods without the embarrassment, disappointment or humiliation factors, we would have found a marvelous tool for implanting permanent knowledge. A tool to stir the memory and keep what we would like to remember as vivid today as the day so many years ago when I couldn’t get the words out. Perhaps, on the other hand, it is precisely the embarrassment, humiliation and disappointment associated with of our life lessons that are the only real motivating factors we have for imprinting whatever it is we need to learn as we grow. Like the scorching sensation of touching that first hot surface. I for one have learned my lesson well. Sonny wherever you are you can never trip me up on that one again!

©copyright 2007 R.A. Miriello

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