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Playground Gothic/Sun-Times Performs a Flip

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By Michael Miner

Playground Gothic

When Shel Silverstein died last week, the Tribune carried a tribute. "What child," the editorial page wondered, "wouldn't like a poet who advises, 'If you have to dry the dishes, and you drop one on the floor, maybe they won't let you dry the dishes anymore?'" A smashed dish is small-bore violence, but it led the Tribune to its larger point. "Like Bruno Bettelheim," the paper observed, "Silverstein resisted the 'disinclination to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong is due to our own natures--the propensity of all men to act aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety.'"

The epic quest of childhood--and beyond--is for the deep secrets of human nature. Brave children who penetrate this sanctum discover that self-awareness offers the riches of dignity and accomplishment, not to mention endless amusement. But long before we understand our dark side, we poke and probe it. As Silverstein noticed, playground gothic is a stage of youth.

Kiki Yablon, a Reader editor, asked friends and colleagues what "particularly nasty or violent rhymes" they remember singing as kids. To prime the pump, she offered this verse from her own suburban Cincinnati upbringing:

Glory, glory hallelujah

Teacher hit me with a ruler

I hid behind the door

With a loaded .44

She ain't my teacher no more.

A Seattle native commented: "At my school we met her at the door rather than hiding behind it, but otherwise it's about the same. That's the only one I can really remember. That and something about 'Mr. Breistein looks like Frankenstein,' but that wasn't very gory."

A daughter of rural Michigan noted: "Our last line was: 'And that was the end of teacher.' But even 'Ring Around the Rosy' is pretty awful--it came out of the Great Plague in London, I think. And how about 'Rockabye Baby'?"

From suburban Washington, D.C.: "We had a long series of these, all starting with the first two lines, but different last lines, including:

Met her in the attic

With a German automatic

I met her in a store

And I knocked her to the floor

"All the others just seem stupid now, so we must have made them up, like 'I grabbed her by the hair and I hit her with a chair.' Where's the humor in that?"

Virginia submitted this variant:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school

We have tortured every teacher, we have broken every rule

We're going to hang the principal tomorrow afternoon

Our truth is marching on.

The grandiloquence of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" obviously made it irresistible to preadolescents. But other fine tunes were also violated. From Detroit:

Ta-ra-ra boom de-yay

There'll be no school today

The teacher passed away

We shot her yesterday.

And from McHenry, Illinois:

On top of Old Smokey

All covered with blood

I shot my old teacher

With a .38 slug.

Teachers who overheard these ditties at recess were once free to bite their lip to keep from laughing. They're free no longer. Last week Katherine Jimenez, a math teacher at Pulaski Academy, a public school in Bucktown, confiscated a piece of paper some seventh-graders were passing around the room during the lesson. She put the paper on her desk, and when the class was over she read it.

The piece of paper teemed with school-yard verse. Jimenez's reaction was swift, firm, and responsible. She spoke to the seventh-graders' homeroom teacher and to other students and tracked down the girl whose handwriting was on the paper. Soon she'd identified three culprits: the girl who brought the verses to school, the boy who'd thought they were hilarious and asked for a copy, and the girl who'd done the copying. When principal Robert Alexander was done grilling the three, he did his duty and suspended them all for the balance of the week.

"We called the parents and said how serious this is," Jimenez told me. "We said, from now on this will not be tolerated. I knew these students, but you don't know what goes through these kids' minds anymore. I've been teaching this age group for six years, and I'm a little shocked now. I'd like to think these kids at age 12 or 13 would know the difference between a distasteful joke and a good joke."

The verse that stunned her went like this:

On top of the school

I had lots of fun

'Cause I shot my poor teacher

With a quick ammo gun

What happened to teacher

May happen to you

We fried up her body

And had barbecue.

The girl who brought this pitiless ditty to the attention of the Pulaski Academy seventh grade had found it on page one of Section Four of the May 7 Reader. There it was, the high (or low) point of Matt Groening's Life in Hell cartoon, "Playground Hit Parade," in which he--not for the first time--celebrated preadolescents' fascination with the macabre. A less extreme verse went:

I'm Popeye the sailor man

I live in a frying pan

I turned on the heater

And burned off my wiener

I'm Popeye the sailor man.

Principal Alexander called the Reader to protest. I called him back.

"I would just suggest you scrutinize these cartoons," he said to me. "They're not funny. In my day we had refrains like that, but nobody took them seriously. But these days we have to. This was in a newspaper outside of the cartoon section, just lying there in front of the classified ads. It certainly can be taken out of context."

"It's crazy to me that this stuff is being published," said Katherine Jimenez, "that it's accessible to children. In fact, it's in Section Four, and there's a column in the back of this section, it's called Savage Love. I've read it in the past. I can't believe they publish this stuff. It's disgusting. And because it's a free paper, everyone has access to it."

The mother of a suspended student told me, "He feels really bad about this because he knows he hurt his teacher's feelings. He feels his teacher will not be able to trust him. She'll wonder if he's thinking something bad about her. He's told me she's really a good teacher. He likes her a lot. I think she's a great teacher too. She's the first teacher who actually got through to my son and opened his eyes. I take responsibility for my son's actions, because he is my son. It's my fault too, for letting him read it."

And so it is that a grade-school boy in possession of grisly verses that in another era might have earned him a finger wagging now must necessarily be suspected as a latent homicidal maniac, or at least an enabler of whatever latent mania might be coursing through his class. How would you have handled this once upon a time? I asked Alexander. A parent conference, he said. And how would you have reacted to that poem two months ago? I asked Jimenez. Columbine wasn't the first one, she reminded me. "Maybe five years ago. I don't know how I would have reacted. I might have said, 'OK, this is nonsense.'"

The creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening holds as clear a view as Bettelheim did of humankind's dismal nature. None of the verses in "Playground Hit Parade" was original; Groening simply wrote down what he'd heard. "I did a similar comic strip in 1984," he told me. "I was going through my boxes of notes on old strips, and I found there were a bunch of rhymes I hadn't used then. So that gave me a free strip." The exception was the rhyme that got the Pulaski kids suspended. "On top of the school / I had lots of fun" was brought home by Groening's ten-year-old son.

He drew "Playground Hit Parade" just before Columbine, but sent it out to clients afterward. "I thought about whether it would be a problem. I thought it was an interesting commentary on kids' culture and their fantasies of violence." Five of the 150-some papers that publish Life in Hell objected to the strip. "I heard some papers wouldn't run it. I thought it was odd for the alternative press to be so squeamish. I thought about it some more, and I decided I had no interest in causing a ruckus about something I didn't feel strongly about. It wasn't me being original--it's decades-old stuff."

Groening wrote a revised strip with no kid on the school roof and offered it to the papers that had complained. The Reader didn't get the revision and didn't know one existed. We'd have used it if Groening had asked us to; otherwise we probably wouldn't have.

"I love the chronicling of the nonsanctioned songs kids sing," Groening said. "I have lots more rhymes. I'm going to do a sequel this week, and when things die down a little I'll do the unexpurgated version with the more violent stuff."

Sun-Times Performs a Flip

May 12, a moving ceremony in City Hall. The Sun-Times was at the scene.

"[Jesse] Jackson responded to his critics firmly, but with humor, after accepting the city's Medal of Merit," the newspaper would report the next day.

"What else could we do to get the captives free?" Jackson wanted to know. "Why did I hold their hands? Because they're the ones who had the people....You rob banks because that's where the money is."

Who were these critics Jackson rebutted before cheering aldermen? The Sun-Times didn't name them. It certainly didn't point to itself, even though on May 4 it had slammed Jackson in an editorial that ran the width of the editorial page. "The trip to Belgrade by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) must be called what it in fact is: free-lance meddling in foreign policy during a war," the Sun-Times had said. "Jackson, one of the world's best known champions of racial harmony and peace, is seen in photographs and television tape holding Milosevic's hand in prayer. How can Milosevic be a war criminal, a Slavic version of Hitler?"

On the same page the Sun-Times had carried a column by Mary Mitchell praising Jackson. Did this display of evenhandedness--or at least of providing both sides of an argument--redeem the paper in Jackson's eyes? Apparently not. Throughout his speech he made his critics--never named--the butt of playful ridicule. "Moses could not send Pharaoh a fax or E-mail," he told his whooping audience. "He had to tell Pharaoh face-to-face, 'Let my people go!'"

The Sun-Times reported, "Jackson's group also included Chicago Sun-Times photographer John White, who got a standing ovation after Jackson summoned him to the mayor's rostrum. 'In many ways, his risk was more dangerous than ours because, when we would end our day, John would get in cabs to go to file his [photographs] while the bombs were falling,' Jackson said."

Here's what else Jackson said. "All of the pictures that you saw around the world were taken by John White. And we called John White because we knew of his sensitivity. And his paper would not give him leave, would not send him to Yugoslavia. So John White took some vacation time off from the Sun-Times, and we paid for his ticket. So John was not there as a journalist in the classical sense. He was there out of his own religious commitment."

Proud as the Sun-Times is of White, it did not report that tribute. It expressed its pride with two days of front-page ballyhoo followed on May 9 by "Belgrade diary," a three-page photo spread. "Pulitzer Prize-winning Sun-Times photographer John H. White accompanied Jesse Jackson on his momentous mission to secure the freedom of three U.S. soldiers," the paper announced. "This is White's story in words and pictures."

Things worked out for everyone. The Sun-Times thinks it saved a few bucks. And since White was the only photographer in Belgrade, and he was on his own, his pictures belong to him instead of his paper. Colleagues say he's made himself three times as much money selling them as the Sun-Times would have paid in expenses.

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