Monday, October 5, 2009

Children of the 90s Ultimate Classroom Distractions

While today teachers are battling the ever-mounting presence of technology in their classrooms, they're certainly not facing a new demon. Sure, kids these days are lacing their iPod earbuds surreptitiously through their hooded sweatshirts and sending text messages in lieu of passing paper notes, but it's generally in the same spirit of general classroom unruliness that came with all preceding generations. Don't think for one minute that all those iPhone-confiscating teachers aren't reading those forbidden texts every bit the same as ours were reading our discarded notes.

Growing up, we certainly were never wanting for in-class stimulation. Unfortunately for our teachers, however, very little of that stimulation came from reading, writing, and/or 'rithmetic. Instead, it more often than not came from the innumerable devices and distractions we utilized in lieu of sitting still and paying attention. Some were store bought, others homemade, but regardless of their origins these distracting devices held our attention during the times we probably should have been learning something. Heck, if it weren't for Silly Putty, I might even know how to do long division. Maybe.

Not all of these are exclusive to children of the 90s, but we certainly carried on a tradition of undercover classroom tomfoolery that would make even the most deviant of past generation students smile. We may not have grown up with all the technology available to today's young students, but we certainly made up for it in imagination and misused innovation. Here are just a few of the many, many classroom distractions that so often kept us from learning the math and science our nation's young people so sorely needed:

Fortune Tellers

I know, I know, these things go way back. Some may know them by their alias/alter-ego Cootie Catchers, these babies date back from the middle of the last century, with generations of schoolchildren everywhere entertaining themselves with their origami goodness and fortune-telling powers. The concept behind them was simple, though the construction was nothing short of a marketable skill. Typically, certain folds were decorated with numbers, letters, or colors, while the inside creases were scrawled with fortunes.

Granted, these fortunes came from the crayons of grade-school kids, so they were sometimes less than insightful. You'd be lucky to get a "Someone has a crush on you" or "You have cooties" result. Startling accurate though, these were. This self-diagnostic test was the first to pronounce me cootie-ridden, which I was luckily able to treat with another round at the paper fortune teller. Thanks, Cootie Catcher.

Rubber Poppers

These toys were deceptively simple, so it's a wonder that they were able to wreak quite as much havoc as they did on classrooms. Typically purchased for a nickel at a toy store or in a quarter machine at the supermarket, these things did little more than create an irritating disturbance wherever we brought them. You would turn the little convex thick rubber popper inside out, wait patiently with bated breath and dread-filled anticipation, and finally watch it pop itself back into shape. Usually this process involved a high vertical jump, the better of which could sufficiently damage an overhead lamp or skylight. It's pretty clear why teachers didn't want them around, but their appeal to impish children was undeniable.

Laser Pointers

Laser pointers were first manufactured in the 80s, but they became increasingly portable and conveniently keychain-based in the 90s, making them a coveted item for mischievous children. The pointers were intended to highlight text or images in a presentation, but they were quickly adopted for far more deviant purposes. You couldn't go to a PG movie back in those days without spying that familiar achingly annoying red dot on the screen, usually gracing the general region of the star's privates. In class, children found pleasure in shining a little red dot on their classmates, despite warnings that direct eye contact could have stare-at-an-eclipse-type repercussions. It's no wonder so many schools quickly issued bans on the pointers. I imagine many schoolteachers grew frustrated with constantly seeing a red dot centered sniper-like on their crotches.


Aside from note-passing, more organized written games were also pretty popular classroom distractions. Most notably MASH was a popular choice for its uncanny future-telling ability. It stands for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, and House, denoting the preset options for dwelling accommodations. Luckily we had the power to fill in the blanks in the other categories, but it seemed we were always forced into adding some pretty bad choices to the mix. These things were fairly right on if I do say so myself. After all, how else could I have predicted that I'd be living in a Shack in Samoa with a poodle named Jeeves married to the kid who sat in the back of the class picking his nose? That kind of stuff just doesn't foretell itself.

Origami-Style Note Folding

As we moved through the grade ranks, we became more and more interested in secretly passing notes during class instead of listening to our instructor drone on about Tuck Everlasting or multiplication tables. There was far more to enjoy in the process than just marking the "yes" box on a "Do you like me?" note. We cultivated incredibly intricate folding methods that rivaled traditional Origami's complexity and tradition. Soon everyone knew how to fold in tight packages, often featuring a pull-tab for the convenience of the readers. Of course, these things made a great deal of noise when opened, completely forgoing their intended role as a secret note. At the very least, though, they helped us develop the fast fine motor skills we now use to download apps on our iPhones.

Metallic Gum Wrapper Decoupage

Who says not paying attention in class is for dummies? Some of us slackers had a certain ingenuity that you just can't get from book-learnin'. That is, we were able to develop new and exciting uses for mundane, everyday materials while simultaneously feeding our gum-chewing addiction. There was no more satisfyingly monotonous and tedious task than methodically peeling the metallic outer layer from our gum wrappers and carefully sticking it to our notebook-fronts. It was something of an art, really, only with more under-the-fingernail pain. It did, to its credit, produce a fair deal of shiny, shiny notebooks.

Slap Bracelets

Are they jewelry or a toy? Or better yet, a weapon? It's tough to say, but one thing was for sure: slap bracelets were an unquenchable and distracting fashion statement. Many schools banned the metal-rodded coated bracelets, crying out against safety. Yes, a few kids sliced their wrists open, but it's more likely our schools were a tad more concerned with the more mundane everyday irritation of that "thwack!" sound in round-esque repetition throughout the schoolday.

It may not have been quite on par with what our teachers wanted us to learn, but you can't say there was nothing to gain in our classroom tomfoolery. In fact, the retention rate on many of these classroom irritants is far greater than many of our school-sanctioned class subjects. After all, I couldn't reduce a fraction to save my life, but I can still fold notes with the best of 'em. That's just results.

Friday, October 2, 2009

America's Funniest Home Videos

I don't know about you, but I consider myself to have a sophisticated sense of humor. A refined sharp ear for only the cleverest of jokes. A real discerning ability to enjoy the most elite brand of drollery.

But I still think it's funny to see a guy get hit in the nuts with a baseball.

What can I say? It's somewhere in our human nature to find others' unanticipated moments of undeserved physical pain to be wildly funny. Some of us may try to hide our amusement at such juvenile antics, but when it comes down to it it's these little incidences of comical injury that really tie us together in this human tapestry of life. Or something like that.

Plus, when they punctuate it with some sort of farcical "boing!" or "splat!" sound effect, it definitely hits home. Well actually, it misses home and his that guy at third base squarely in the swimsuit area, but that's really not the point. The point is that it makes us laugh, regardless of whether or not that guy can someday be the father of future children.

From its roots as a primitive one-hour special in 1989, the original version was hosted by Full House's Bob Saget. Sure, the material and inter-video skits were incredibly cheesy, but they were usually pretty funny, too. We had our catchy 90s theme song followed by a short Bob Saget monologue and then all the sidesplitting videos we could take. Complete with narration and Saget's funny voices, no less. Childish? Yes. Were we children? Yes. A perfect fit.

Aside from the video debauchery there were also a number of running scripted gags of the incredibly cheesy, family-friendly variety. For any of you remotely familiar with Bob Saget's personal stand-up material, it's safe to say this is in an entirely different realm of content. There was a running bit in which an off-screen and thus unseen producer would hand things to Bob as if like magic, and he'd make marginally humorous comments to him like, "Glad to see that rash is clearing up." And that was the good stuff.

Despite the corniness of it all, the show was very entertaining and became a runaway hit. It didn't hurt that there were exorbitantly excessive cash prizes offered to winners as well. Weekly winners were awarded a whopping $10,000 and were granted entrance to the $100,000 contest at the end of the season. All in all, not a bad deal for catching your cat walking on his hindlegs with a cardboard box on his head.

While the content of the videos varied, they could typically be broken down into some neatly defined categories:

The Babies

Children can be amusing, I'll give you that. Never mind that it's borderline exploitative to videotape your kids doing something funny in an effort to score some cold hard cash, people were rushing for their camcorders at every hiccup. Nowadays YouTube is flooded with this stuff, but in the earlier days of video recording it was more of a contained practice. Nothing quite like profiting from your child's embarrassing behavior. Just remember to hide the DVD release evidence now that the kids are grown--I can't imagine they'd be too pleased about their incredibly public bathtime vid.

The Disruption of a Major Life Event

Yes, it can be pretty funny when a major life event (wedding, bar mitzvah, baptism, graduation) goes awry, but I can't imagine those people whose $1000 wedding cake was toppled over by a renegade cyclist feel the same way. Unless they won the $10,000 prize off of it. Then I'm sure they're more than willing to let things go.

The Animals

Animals do the darndest things. Mind you, this was ages before Lolcatz and Cute Overload and all that (animal-themed) jazz. At the very least these people had something to show for being chased by an ornery, human-hungry ostrich. Besides the resultant scars and emotional trauma, I mean.

The Injury Ward

Also known as "Guy Gets Hit in Nuts With Baseball Bat", injuries were pretty common AFV fare. Laugh at others' misfortune? Don't mind if I do.

The Prank (aka the Set-Up)

Speaking of cheap tricks, The Set-Up was probably the cheapest. Once word got out you could make a cool ten grand for a funny video, people everywhere began manufacturing their own humorous situations. If it seemed a little like unfair play, that's only because it was. Sure, it may have made us chuckle to see them scare the pants off of grandma with some remote control toy, but it just wasn't the same as if they'd earned their candid moment like everyone else.

The departure of Bob Saget of course did not mark the end of the show. Later incarnations starred John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes (1998-2001) and Tom Bergeron (2001-present) of Dancing with the Stars fame. Somehow, though, it just isn't quite the same. Maybe we're older. Maybe we're wiser. Or maybe, just maybe, our loyalty Bob Saget's clean fun-for-the-whole-family humor just won't allow us to be won over by some sub par replacement host.

Then again, maybe it's all those viral videos out there. Tough to say.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trapper Keepers

Children of the 90s note: I don't want to hear it from any of you naysayers that Trapper Keepers belong to 80s children. Can't we share? Many of us 80s babies were 90s children, you know, and we loved our Trapper Keepers with every bit the same ardor as you did. Case closed. With velcro, no less. That stuff sticks.

There's nothing like overpriced school supplies to give kids an unneeded boost of self importance. Really, anybody who was anybody had a Trapper Keeper. Well, anybody who was anybody aged five to fifteen who grew up during the 80s and 90s. I highly doubt any high powered lawyers were toting around a Ninja Turtles-themed binder in their briefcases.

School supply shopping is always an ordeal, but Mead stepped in and gave us a few more things worthy of our throwing ourselves tantrum-style on the floor in the middle of OfficeMax. These things were more than worth completely humiliating our parents in a highly public place if only it meant that we would soon be toting a Trapper Keeper full of coordinating folders in our backpack.

Buying designer-esque school supplies was the only reason to get excited for going back to school in the fall. Picking out each shiny folder, the multicolored pens, and best of all our very own brand-spanking new Trapper Keeper complete with Velcro closure sporting our favorite design or character on the front. They may have been five bucks at the store, but the market value amongst children was off the charts.

This is probably the quintessential late 80s/early 90s school supply commercial. The humor is so cheesy they might as well package it with crackers and call it a Handi-Snack

It was the ultimate status symbol for a kid reentering the school year. God help you if you started at a new school and were caught unaware of the fact that Lisa Frank ballerina bunnies or Sonic the Hedgehog were the only designs to have. Those with the lesser abstract-patterned Trapper Keepers were left to wallow in their quiet school supply induced shame, kicking themselves for coveting the paint splattered cover in lieu of the more contemporary character designs.

Trapper Keepers were the ultimate school accessory and supposedly taught us organizational skills from a young age, though mine was always bursting at the seams with untidy clutter. They were generally pretty functional as far as elementary school supplies go, giving our parents less of a reason to veto their purchase on that all-important back to school shopping trip. They typically featured specially fitted folders, a handy pencil case, and a wraparound closure to encase all of our schoolwork in a neat little package. Don't even get me started on the satisfying sound of pulling open the Velcro tab. These babies were nothing short of a kid's dream.

Now in an age where kids are now sporting actual designer school supplies (Louis Vuitton pencil cases, anyone?) it's almost laughable to reminisce about a time when a run-of-the-mill product available for a few bucks at WalMart commanded respect and awe from our classmates. Kids these days (using this phrase is the first sign of adulthood) with their iPhones and Ed Hardy tee shirts are unlikely to appreciate the value of a simple pleasure like a Trapper Keeper. We, on the other hand, knew their worth. You know, as our Trapper Keepers had to keep our papers in order as we trudged to school on foot. In the snow. Uphill both ways.

In any given classroom during the 80s and 90s there were undoubtedly a vast spectrum of designs and styles on display. Trapper Keepers were all for gender stereotyping, offering typical boy- and girl-specific fare. For the girls, we had our dolphins, our kittens, our puppies, and all other types of aww-inspiring images to nicely complement our burgeoning sticker collections. For the boys, we had video game themes, sports team logos, masculine cartoon characters, cars, or extreme sports-type designs. Sure, there were crossover abstract designs that were pretty gender neutral, but dammit if I wasn't going to get a kitty cover like the rest of my female classmates.

These homework holders may seem benign, but mischievous kids were always able to find ways to provoke school administrators into banning these covetable caches. With a bit of destructive disassemblage, we could easy build desktop self-enclosing Trapper Keeper cubicles behind which to write notes, play with contraband Silly Putty, and engage in other banned activities. Other schools considered the binders to be more of a distraction than they were worth and because they created unnecessary class distinctions. All over something you could purchase all Wal-Mart, no less. Those were the good old days.

Nowadays, you can find Trapper Keepers again stocked in store shelves but they're certainly a different model than the ones we so craved. The satisfying sound of pulled Velcro is no more, as the new TKs feature a quieter, more demure magnetic closure. They have customizable covers under which you can slide your own photos or design. Heck, they don't even come with the signature Trapper folders, which have since been replaced with bland dividers. Maybe I'm reading into it a bit too far, but wouldn't that make it just a Keeper? I'm about to cry false advertising.

To make matters worse, a couple of years ago Mead released a model that would play music from your iPod. Really? What has this come to? I was happy just to have a picture of a panda doing some housepainting on the cover. Now these kids are using them as speaker systems? What exactly is this world coming to where a kid can't enjoy a simple school supply simply on the merit of its design alone? These kids can have their crappy new models. I'm digging up my old Lisa Frank prototype. At least then I can remember Trapper Keepers for the way they were.

Check it out:
The Surfing Pizza's Ode to Trapper Keepers

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