By Chris Ritter
The first boy, a senior, told the dirty joke in the lunchroom, and it was so filthy that even the teacher who eavesdropped, despite the froth of voices, had to laugh, but he, too, like the boys, blushed, as if he were caught in a lurid conspiracy. He chastised them and they apologized, and after he left they rolled their eyes.
Later, though, the teacher found his feigned disapproval no match for scandalous bluster, and he told the dirty joke in the faculty room to trusted colleagues: a tight group of veteran educators, seasoned men cautiously amused by vulgarity. Meanwhile, a different joker from the cafeteria platoon unpacked the impossibly pornographic tale in the hall, where it exploded like a dirty bomb and leveled the boys to joyful adolescent wreckage—even the studious, pimple-faced boy laughed, but only because they all did. The joke had missed him. He could not confess he didn’t get it or he’d be the joke, so he laughed and repeated the punchline from the periphery of the huddle.
At the same time, an art teacher, almost tenured, heard the male teachers whisper the joke to each other in the faculty room, and, as they tried to stifle their laughter, she became first flustered, then enraged, and glared at them from behind her glasses. They ignored her, and as she retreated to her classroom, passing a hooting cluster of boys in the hall, she contemplated a hostile environment lawsuit.
Moments later, the pimple-faced boy rehearsed the joke, his lips silently retracing the details of it until, satisfied, and breathless with precision, he told it in American History, where it was well-received. So, he told it in subsequent classes, hoping for some reactionary understanding provided by his entertained mates, or at least to gain insight by rote. In this he failed, but even better, his popularity seemed to swell with each telling. His classmates began referring to him as Pope Hilarius, an affectation he enjoyed, and he considered telling the joke in Latin but dismissed the idea. How else to learn but by doing?
By last period biology, the teacher, a young, devout, newly married woman, having missed the joke’s infection of each department, became curious about the stirring from the back-row boys and their new acolyte who seemed, oddly, more a minister. When confronted, the pimple-faced boy confessed that it was just a joke, but the teacher, convinced of her superiority in the situation, asked him to tell the joke to the class. The pimple-faced boy bravely complied. The teacher’s face blanched, mouth agape, but the room erupted, the class lost. The pimple-faced boy laughed hardest, ensuring his celebrity.
The biology teacher retold the joke almost verbatim in the discipline referral she wrote, and that night told her husband, who professed outrage and shook his head in disgust, but later, secretly laughed. In the morning he shared it with his carpool.
The pimple-faced boy, detained after school for his inappropriate discourse of the dirty joke (which, as a result of the detailed discipline referral, made its way among administrators) had time to mull the joke’s meaning alone in silence. He still didn’t get it and wondered how he had come to master something he didn’t understand. It was a paradox, or ironic, or something, and walking home later, he told the joke again and again, aloud this time, as if performing in the widening streetlight’s cone until, at last, standing in the nucleus of this perfect circle, he suddenly understood. How could he have been so stupid? All the blasphemous widening ripples rushed tsunami-like from him to ruin the sacred halls. The damage done and now, like everyone, he understood. Furrowing his brow to squeeze away a small spot of shame rising, he decided that the dirty joke simply wasn’t funny, and he slipped out of the spotlight and into the familiar obscurity of night.