Practical or Practically?

We made it through another April Fool’s Day!  (Or should that be a plural Fools’?)  “April is the cruelest month…” as T.S. Eliot said.  It certainly is for those on the receiving end of an April Fool’s practical joke.

Somehow, whoever translated from Sumarian or Greek or Indo-European or whatever, they got the word wrong.  Should “practical” really have been translated as “practically”?  As in a “practically joke,” rather than a “practical joke”?

Let me explain.  If the translation really meant practical jokes, then some jokes had practical value, right?  When my mom threw a surprise party for my dad, that was both fun/funny and practical.  Unfortunately, I was upset that we kept it a secret from him.  So, I set off down the road, determined to waylay him and spill the whole story.  So, okay, I was three.  Don’t hold it against me.  (I only got to the front sidewalk.)

When I threw my mom a surprise 80th birthday party, that too was a practical joke.  Especially as it involved gifts such as 80 M&Ms, 80 sheet of toilet paper, 80 pretty paper napkins, 80…you get the picture.  We all had fun with those jokes.  Harmless, and a great deal of laughter to go with.

However, when the big boy pushed me, as a practical joke, into the swimming pool on purpose, before I could really swim–I was three–then I did indeed learn something practical.  I could automatically hold my breath underwater, I could open my eyes underwater, I could, like a dog, paddle my way to the ladder before either someone scooped my out or before I ran out of air.  Good practical lesson.  Not a good practical joke, however.  Not even a good practically a joke.  Just so you know, I was scooped out by a lifeguard, but my folks were outside the fence and I remember the frantic looks on their faces when I surfaced.  They were with me in person in a flash, but that one moment is burned in my brain.

I think I developed an aversion for practical jokes at that moment.  When a friend hosted a Halloween party years late, her mother set up a wonderful story, complete with props designed to chill the blood:  peeled grapes for eyes, cold spaghetti for blood vessels, whole peeled tomato for heart, dried fruit for ears, piece of cooked cauliflower for brain…  You can find the whole list, and the story to go with it, online, of course.  Anyway, by the time the party came around, I was so averse to such things that I wouldn’t play at all.  I stood aside and laughed as everyone else shivered and screamed.  Sigh.  What a party-pooper I was.

A good practical joke came about when I turned 50 years old.  My bonus sister (read sis-in-law) drove 45 minutes after confabbing with my principal in order to festoon my classroom with banners, garlands, and signs.  The students were delighted, of course.  She went even further by putting a beautiful cake in the faculty lounge, so every single staff member knew it was my birthday.  I had no trouble rolling over into a new decade, so that day was great fun.  She’s very good at those kinds of practical jokes.  Far beyond practically.

With permission from a fellow teacher, I stole her thunder about teaching Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” to my high school juniors.  I burst into the classroom, snarling and hollering.  “Put all your books on the floor!  Put your feet flat on the floor!  Fold those hands on top, and sit up straight!”  I ranted and raved about the trouble that teens make, and on and on.  The kids got more and more restless, and exchanged glances that said, “What’s with her today?”  Someone asked me if I was okay.  “Of course,” I snapped back.  Finally, one of the boys stood up and said, “I’m gonna get the principal.  You’re not usually like this.”  (So glad they noticed!)  My response was, “Who’s she gonna believe?  You, a student?  Or me, who’s worked with her for eight years?”  I waved at him and added, “Fine, go ahead.”  He sat down.  I was devastated!  This whole thing took about ten minutes.  It was time to debrief.  They always said they would step in to help someone in trouble, or stand up strong in any situation.  However, my little demonstration showed them that many times people don’t, which makes Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax, so much that he was put in jail, so much more dramatic.  That was very definitely a joke that was quite practical.

But my favorite isn’t really a joke at all, but it usually ends up being one anyway.  I’m often asked to spell my name.  That’s when the fun starts.  My response is, “Mary Ann, two words, no E.”  Because there is no E on the end of Ann.  “Okay,” they say, “What’s your last name.”  When I answer, “Noe [pronounced NO-EE],” they say, “Yes, that’s what I wrote: two separate words with no letter E on Ann. ”  “No, that’s my last name,” and I say it again.  “N-O-E.”  That gets one of two reactions:  Either they send me a blank look, or they burst into hysterical laughter. Some get it, some don’t.  For some, a practically joke that falls flat.  For others, great fun.

Practical jokes really don’t have to be strictly practical.  But at least they should avoid the trap of being practically a joke. Good luck with that one!