Just as my North Carolina Wesleyan College literature students and I were reading David Sedaris’ short story/memoir entitled “Jesus Shaves,” Dave had picked up Leo Rosten’s “The Education of Hyman Kaplan.” Both works are set in a language class, Sedaris’ French class and Kaplan’s night English class, and both use the same comic ploy of characters’ mangling the language they are attempting to learn.

In Sedaris’ story, the first-person narrator (probably Sedaris himself as he actually took a French class to improve his expertise with the language) relates the difficulties that arise when the teacher asks the students about holidays. Sedaris and the other students — including some Italians, Poles, and one Moroccan woman who already speaks French and wants to improve her spelling — wade into some muddy water when their textbook has an illustration of Easter symbols, a chocolate bell lying on “a bed of palm fronds.”

Easter and its explanations

The Moroccan woman (who shouts out answers “like some great grammar genie”) for once is stymied: She asks, “What’s an Easter?” Sedaris expresses surprise that even though she is Muslim, she has never heard of this Christian holiday. The teacher asks the other students to explain: A Polish student (speaking in the French he is attempting to learn that Sedaris translates into English) responds, “It is a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus.” Another adds, “He call his self Jesus and then he be die on two morsels of lumber.” Another adds, “He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

The discussion then moves to the foods associated with Easter. An Italian nanny explains, “Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb. One too may eat of the chocolate.” When the teacher asks who brings the chocolate, Sedaris responds, “The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.” The teacher argues that in France, “the chocolate is brought in by the big bell that flies in from Rome.” Sedaris questions how the bell knows where recipients of the chocolate live, arguing that a rabbit at least can move freely while bells clang back and forth: “A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet” while the Easter Bunny has “character; he’s someone you’d like to meet and shake hands with.”

As the unenlightened Moroccan woman returns to the comic book she has hidden in her textbook, Sedaris ponders whether he and his classmates could ever succeed in overcoming the language barrier. The tone changes in the last paragraph of the story: “In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. ... If I could believe in myself (my ability to speak French), why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt?” He speculates that if he hopes to be fluent in French, it is not a stretch to believe that a rabbit “might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate and a carton of menthol cigarettes ... My heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.”

Tone and dialect

While the tone earlier in Sedaris’ account could seem mocking, even self-mocking, this last reflection achieves the definition of humor Leo Rosten cites in the Preface to “O Kaplan, My Kaplan,” a compilation of “The Education of Hyman Kaplan” and “The Return of Hyman Kaplan.” Rosten says of humor, “It is the affectionate communication of insight.” He adds, “Comic dialect is humor plus anthropology.”

Rosten discourses on dialect in the Preface, noting that “written dialect must intrigue the reader without irritating him. ... Dialect must signal a promise to the reader, even while he is pulled, that what he does not instantly recognize will in another instant will be deciphered — and crowned with delight.” In Kaplan’s works, the classroom of immigrants from many different countries provide humor because of the phonetic challenges English presents.

In one account, during “Open Questions” when the students can ask about any word use that puzzles them, the English teacher Mr. Parkhill is trying to explain department, using familiar examples from his students’ shopping experiences, going on at length to clarify the word. Herman Kaplan, however, acknowledges that he has heard the phrase “a big deportment” in another scenario: “I’m takink a valk. In de stritt. An’ I mit a frand. So I stop to say a few polite voids, like ‘Hollo.’ An’ vile ve are talkink, along comms somvun alse, passink by, an’ by exident he’s givink me a bump. So he says, ‘Axcuse me,’ no? But sometimes, an’ dis is vat I minn, he says, ‘Oh, I big deportment!’”

What both humorists tackle is communication. Rosten says in another Preface, “A writer writes ... because he is driven by the need to communicate. Behind the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is the terrible and remorseless need to be understood.”

For both writers, understanding is key. Through humor, they lead readers to insights, new perspectives, and reaffirmation of faith and belief. Mr. Parkhill has immense patience as he leads his immigrant students through the vagaries, the minefields and mires, of the English language. Sedaris leads readers to self-trust and commitment in “Jesus Shaves” (saves), noting the ways we save ourselves through glimmers of understanding.

Rosten earlier wrote: “Print is our passport to truth. It opens the richest empire man knows — the empire of the human heart and mind. Men die; devices change; success and fame run their course. But within the walls of even the smallest library in our land lie the treasures, the wisdom and wonder of man’s greatest adventures on this earth.”


Thanks to Banks Peacock for some fine articles about Anne Frank.

Please join Wayne County Reads in its exploration of Tara Westover’s adventures in learning in her book, “Educated: A Memoir.” Check our local library for availability, 919-735-1824.

Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to lizmeador@earthlink.net.