Copyright © Evan Ginzburg 2001. All rights reserved. An earlier version appeared in Wrestling Then & Now, issue 136, August 2001.
On the day before Christmas vacation in 1985, I walked out of my job as a sixth-grade teacher in a New York public school.
I had absolutely no prospects for the future, but I couldn't bear another day. Having had the Principal from Hell, a vicious woman who perpetually was up on charges for harassing teachers, a relatively difficult bottom group of students, and the whopping salary of $21,900 for my efforts, I had no intention of ever teaching another child.
Never say never again.
During late 2000, I was wrapping up another term teaching English as a second language (ESL) to adults at a well-respected junior high school in Queens, New York, with a popular principal and a staff that actually enjoyed coming into work.
So when administrators approached me to teach a ninth-period elective English class focusing on professional wrestling two periods a week to seventh and eighth graders, I was first of all surprised by their openness to the controversial sport, but even more shocked by my actually considering it.
On the positive side, it was a "fun subject," and the kids chose to be there. Thus the term "elective." Paperwork was minimal, and the curriculum was mine to create from scratch.
Another paycheck once a month didn't hurt either.
On the down side was the idea of standing before thirty kids, even for 35 minutes. Having been "spoiled" by adult education where immigrants literally thank you as they leave the library-like atmosphere of the classroom, I wasn't quite sure I wanted to deal with kids again. Three and a half years of "be quiet" and "I'll call your mom," had been quite enough, thank you.
So weighing the pluses and the minuses for a few weeks and getting a promise of a VCR at my disposal as well as the backing of the administration in the event of any disciplinary problems, I went back and forth in my mind until I decided.
I'd do it!
I pretty much decided from the get-go that the obvious way to teach the class was to go to the source themselves -- the wrestlers. Having spent a grand total of one day of my life on the mat taking bumps in a local wrestling school, I had an idea of the pain and intensive training involved, but still couldn't explain it all like the workers themselves.
It was time to call in some favors.
Besides doing a ‘zine called Wrestling Then and Now for a decade, for seven years I've appeared on an arts program and had been booking both bands and wrestlers on a 50,000-watt station in New York City. (WBAI-FM, 95.7, from 3-5 a.m. You can listen on the Internet at http://www.wbaifree.org.) As a result, I’ve interviewed everyone from Blassie to Bruno to Thesz to Gagne to Bockwinkle to Koloff to Kowalski to, well, The Mambo King.
Yes, the Mambo King.
See, I love the indy guys. They're colorful. They're lively. And they appreciate the showcase of 8,000-12,000 listeners and a potential worldwide Internet audience. And over the years we've presented hundreds of them. Generally, I'd transcribe the interviews for the sheet as well, run it on my website and basically do everything I could to give them some well-needed exposure. In some cases, I was the only person to have ever actually interviewed them.
Some were mere guests, but others became friends, and so when I called them to do the class, they came through in droves.
Twenty-five or so to give you an idea.
But first I had to face the kids on day one. And I walked in tough.
Giving out a contract for classroom behavior, I was immediately surprised by the energy level. It seemed noisy to me, but they remained in their seats and followed my instructions. It was a totally different "vibe" than Adult Ed, though, and I could immediately see you had to sit on them to contain them. And when I told them about the wrestlers coming I was shocked at the cynicism of those so young.
"Who are those guys? I never heard of them," they said with disappointment in their voices.
It wasn't exactly the reaction I expected, although I should have considering the power of WWF on TV.
But when young 240-pounder Eric Adamz of Johnny Rodz's school showed up, the kids "marked out" and whispered to each other excitedly, "That's Eric Adamz" as if the Rock had entered the room.
Now at 19 years old, Eric was an ideal guest in that he was a big kid himself and related to the 11 to 13 year olds. And having grown up in an era in which kayfabe has pretty much died, he had no qualms about showing one of his matches and discussing it point by point, including his explanation of "missed spots."
The kids were in awe. And I was impressed that this was actually educational!
We ended the class with an autograph session, which became a tradition and Eric was mobbed like a "WWF superstar."
I immediately realized this would work.
The Mambo King came down from Jersey and at 280 pounds, a mask, and an Abdullah the Butcher T-Shirt, this outgoing 36-year-old was a natural teacher and a huge hit. He made three appearances with different crews who would come in make-up and in gimmick. Guys like Eric Draven, Chris Stryker and Pimp Daddy were teens, which proved to be fascinating to the class who realized that it really was possible to do this themselves. However, in one poignant moment, Mambo told the kids about the pain and injuries he'd gone through and how little it had paid off financially. He told the kids not to go into wrestling or you'd "end up like me."
They were riveted.
The Knightstalker and Stockade Joe were repeat guests who loved walking through the school "in gimmick." On one visit they literally took over a party in the cafeteria, grabbing a mike from the DJ and telling the kids to "stay in school, don't do drugs," and that "We love you!" These massive men were wildly popular with the kids, and everywhere they went mobs of kids asked for autographs. In the classroom itself, the only time the principal came in, she saw them commanding the room, as the kids looked on in awe. "Say yes to hugs, say no to drugs…" they had them chant.
It was something to see.
Tiger Khan was the exact polar opposite. Quiet, almost shy, in front of the packed room, the kids nonetheless were impressed by his professionally shot video from Calgary Stampede in which he faced Sabu. As some of the kids even knew who Sabu was, the combination of "real" TV and name opponent "put him over" with the class and he was mobbed by students for autographs.
"He's mad cool," one kid told me.
Frankie Starz, at well over 6 feet tall and a legit 235, carried an even bigger belt, The Acid Pro Hardcore Championship. Now the kids went nuts for both Frankie and his belt, passing it around, touching it, putting it on. They were thrilled that "a champion" had taken the time to visit them.
It was great.
Justin Cage and Alexis brought true charisma and youthful sex appeal into the enthusiastic room. Accompanied by Justin's parents, I had the unique opportunity of asking them how they felt about their 18-year old risking life and limb in the ring. The fact that he had actually been paralyzed for three days after a move gone awry made his dad's answer all the more poignant. "I think everyone should follow his dream," he said simply, concern etched in his voice. Things lightened up later as the kids asked the beautiful Alexis to the prom. "Would you marry me, Alexis?" one 13-year-old shouted as he left the room.
Keep dreaming, kid.
My "home team," the Long Island Wrestling Federation (LIWF) were a big hit as the huge Laithon, J Lover, Louie Ramos and Amanda Violet wreaked their own special brand of havoc. J Lover "heeled" and brought his ring gimmick ("I'm from Jersey") into the room and the kids ate it up, chanting "Jersey sucks." Pure and simple, it was great fun and the wrestlers graciously passed out bumper stickers and other memorabilia to the appreciative kids.
Of course, this article wouldn't be complete without going a little more into hardcore icon Louie Ramos. He lives and breathes hardcore, and I wondered whether it was the greatest idea to present it in the classroom, especially as he is open enough to show the kids his many battle scars. They aren't pretty. Students saw first hand that hardcore had its price and his body was a roadmap showing just that.
And in a humorous moment, Louie handed the principal a bloody autographed photo of himself. I'm sure it's something she'll always cherish.
But the class wasn't all fun and games. Guests no-showed, came late, re-scheduled, and one even laced into a kid who kept saying "that's phony" after watching a video with a few botched spots. As the teacher I had to quickly decide if a wrestler ripping a 13-year-old's clothing was appropriate, but deemed it just that. (A variation on the old "if you can dish it out, you should be able to take it," I sincerely believe that if you use the "P" word ("phony"), you'd better be prepared to take your lumps.)
On days when the wrestlers weren't there, I showed a variety of videotapes. They included ECW (to the kids this was "history"), old WWF pay per views, Onita (!), and even backyard wrestling wherein we discussed the dangers. I also ran the TV documentary "Secrets of Pro Wrestling," which fascinated them. At their age, I was a believer, but these kids were certainly smartened up! The problem I found with tapes, though, was that after seeing matches like Tables, Ladders & Chairs III on WWF, there were days where they just weren't that excited by anything I showed. Kids get jaded, too. And on such days I felt like little more than a babysitter.
We also had trivia contests with prizes generously donated by readers like Al Guyotte, Q&A's with both the wrestlers and myself on anything and everything wrestling related, and I even got some writing out of them on their favorite wrestlers, favorite guests, and other relevant themes.
It wasn't Shakespeare, but it was writing.
The worst day, though, was when one student just wouldn't behave regardless of anything I said to him. It was like someone had lit a match under his butt. The kid just wouldn't stay seated. Having flashbacks to the early 1980's and my unruly students, I summoned him into the doorway of the room. "I'll make it simple for you. Sit down and shut up!" I told him angrily.
"You can't curse me!"
"Shut up isn't a curse!"
The next day he was out of the class. Administration had backed me 100%.
It felt good.
I would say that the vast amount of times I derived great satisfaction from doing the class. Picking up the tab for lunch on many days when the wrestlers came, it was never just about money, and when kids told me it was "the best class I ever had," it felt like payment enough.
I return in September for Round 2. I've applied for educational grants that may or may not come through, the WWF has contacted me about possibly sending their stars down, and I hope to book even more independent wrestlers and give out more goodies.
Who said school can't be fun? Pro Wrestling Appreciation class certainly
Contact: Evan Ginzburg, PO Box 640471, Oakland Gardens Station, Flushing,
NY 11364. Website: www.walkertown.com/wtnow.