Thursday, July 1, 2010

Laugh and the Whole World Laughs with You

Once upon a time I had a high school teacher. Let's call him Mr. D. He taught a freshman-year course called "Afro-Asian history." Mr. D was an affable and entertaining man who frequently tickled the funny bones of his fourteen-year-old students. Sadly, I fear that this educator’s keen sense of humor and wry wit would bomb on the contemporary school stage.

At some point in the school year—1976-1977—we were studying the Southeast Asian country of India and its independent founding in 1947. The nation’s first prime minister was a man named Jawaharlal Nehru, a Mahatma Gandhi disciple. He is perhaps more renowned for inspiring a western fashion trend: the Nehru jacket. Throughout Mr. D’s lecture on the subject matter—India’s fledgling democracy and not sartorial predilections—our teacher would speak in his normal tone of voice, and at his normal pace, until he came to the polysyllabic Nehru first name. He would then pause—drum roll, please—and roll his tongue with consummate comic timing. I wish I could spell what I heard, but since it’s beyond my ken, I won't even try. After Mr. D’s unique and colorful pronunciation of “Jawaharlal,” he would promptly return to his natural speaking pattern and quietly say “Nehru.” It was something akin to the late Victor Borge’s phonetic punctuation routine—conventionally reading aloud from a book but supplying things like periods, commas, and question marks with their own individual and expressive sounds.

If Mr. D did any such thing today, a young snitch would likely turn him in. If nothing else, schoolkids are trained in this duplicitous art at a very young age. And Mr. D would then be horsewhipped by the overly sensitive and feckless powers-that-be for not respecting another culture, or even be accused of more nefarious crimes against humanity. But you know what: Jawaharlal is an unusual name from our vantage point in the Land of Jacob and Isabella. Bet you can’t say it three times real fast. If teachers in India or anywhere else in the one world we live in want to make fun of American surnames, I say: More power to them. Laugh…and the whole world laughs with you. And no safe spaces required....

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