April Fools Day, in a Classroom

What I am about to recount did not occur on April Fool’s Day, but the story is in that vein.

When I was in graduate school, another graduate teaching fellow asked me to participate in a hoax. In her freshman composition class, the assigned readings were the script of Orson Welles’s infamous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds and an article explaining the frenzied responses of some listeners who mistook the radio drama for a news broadcast.

So, on the day that the reading was assigned, I walked into my colleague’s class, sat down at the desk, and, after shuffling through several folders and acting as if I were reviewing first the syllabus and then the class list, I started to call the roll. Almost immediately after the last student on the list said “present,” a young woman sitting near the front asked if their instructor was ill. I said no—that actually she had received a last-minute offer of a fellowship to do language study overseas and that I had been assigned to take over her class for the last nine weeks of the fifteen-week semester. The class looked very dubious, but I told them that they did not need to be concerned about my changing the requirements for the course because I would follow her syllabus exactly. I added that she had shared copies of their first essays, and so I felt that I could even be fairly consistent with her grading.

I then shuffled some papers and asked them to open their anthologies to the assigned readings. Another student asked from farther back in the room what their previous instructor would be researching overseas, and after pausing for a moment as if I were trying to be sure to be accurate, I said, “I think that she has been asked to study English borrowings into Romanian. But I could be wrong. It might be Hungarian. I often get confused between Bucharest and Budapest.”

That was that. We had an hour-long discussion of the panicked reaction to Welles’s broadcast, during which I tried to explain how the length and depth of the Great Depression had made Americans and many other peoples around the world all the more susceptible to mass hysteria. In this instance, it had been a largely comic overreaction to a radio drama, but in many nations, there was a parallel political hysteria that was being fed and played out in much more vicious and even murderous ways. We then began to discuss ways in which similar instances of mass hysteria might be provoked or had been provoked, if not quite as notably, in our own time. I may have done a better job leading the discussion in that class than I ever did in any of my own composition sections while we were all using that anthology.

In any case, about five minutes before the class was over, the actual instructor walked into the classroom, and both she and I were astonished at how slow the students were to connect the hoax that we had just played on them with the readings that I had just discussed with them. The looks of recognition moved very gradually up their faces almost as if they were being tracked in slow motion. Most of them left the room laughing, but on the way out, one student said, more to the open doorway than directly to me, “Budapest . . . Bucharest . . . Oh, kiss my ass.”


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