12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS: Fels and Neukom remember English students imitating teachers, telling traditional jokes in winter ‘pantos’

(Photo by Mike Wilkes)
English teacher Patricia Fels and history teacher Daniel Neukom stand with their twin daughters Francie and Kelly in front of The George, a pub in Trottiscliffe (pronounced “Trossley”), where they had lunch on Dec. 24, 1986. Fels, Neukom and their daughters spent the 1986-87 school year in Gravesend, Kent (about 10 miles from Trottiscliffe), as a part of the Fulbright exchange program.

Cultures around the world have special ways of celebrating the holiday season. In the “12 Days of Christmas” series, sophomores Jack Christian and Allison Zhang will interview students and teachers on their international Christmas experiences. Check back tomorrow to hear about Christmas in France from freshman Téa Huynh Van.

Every year at high-school graduation, the teachers put on skits to “roast” or “toast”  graduating seniors.

The roasts are an opportunity for the teachers to publicly poke fun at students who request them (almost all the seniors).

In England, the Christmas shows put on by students have the roles reversed. Students dress up as and publicly make fun of teachers without repercussions.

One part of the Christmas program is a “panto” (short for “pantomime”), a popular kind of play performed not only at schools but also in towns all over England at Christmastime.

The panto is loosely based on fairy tales and includes crossdressing. Girls act manly and macho while boys are dainty and feminine, history teacher Daniel Neukom said.

Neukom and English teacher Patricia Fels lived in England during the 1986-87 school year, when he taught at the Longfield School in the county of Kent.

According to Neukom, Longfield, a public middle and high school, was a fairly formal school, where most students dressed in uniform.

“Students were to stand up when you came into the classroom; they were always to address you as ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr. Neukom,’” he said.

(Photo by Daniel Neukom)
Francie and Kelly Neukom, ’04, sit in their twin stroller next to a nativity scene in a church in Trottiscliffe on Dec. 24, 1986. The girls were three weeks away from their first birthday.

“But then this panto happened at Christmas, and I was shocked.

“The faculty member who directed it had some of the prettiest high-school girls in some of the scantiest outfits I have ever seen.”

In addition, there are dozens of traditional jokes woven into the panto, Neukom said.

And the panto audience often participates in the traditional jokes by calling out the lines.

In one of the famous lines, someone says, “Surely you don’t believe that,” and someone else answers, “I do believe it. And don’t call me Shirley!”

At any other time, Neukom said, if students contended with teachers, they would be sent to the headmaster’s office and reprimanded.

“(But) in the panto, you could get away with that,” he said.

“It’s like the world turned upside down. The students could be as crazy, wild and free as they wanted to be during the panto, and it was fully acceptable.”

In other acts in the Christmas show, students dressed up as teachers and mocked them, Neukom said.

“There was a Mr. Neukom character, ‘the Yank exchange teacher,’ and this boy had black paint on him to look like my beard,” he said.

“He talked very loudly whenever he said anything, and he would always talk about Nigel Mansell, who was my favorite Formula 1 race car driver at that time.”

“He’d do all the ‘Neukomisms’ that I was famous for. He talked about peanut butter on toast, which I’d tell the kids I’d eat almost every morning. They just couldn’t believe that; they thought it was so strange!”

(Photo used by permission of Neukom)
A caricature of history teacher Daniel Neukom, bottom right, is featured on the program cover of Longfield School’s Christmas show along with other Longfield teachers.

Even the playbill for the show is a way to poke fun at teachers, Neukom said.

“We all looked like political cartoon characters,” he said.

“My mouth was wide open, and I had my really big beard. Other people had really big ears, and somebody had giant glasses.”

During the show, it’s traditional for a teacher to get a pie in the face, and Neukom was chosen that year.

The Christmas show was such a big deal, Neukom said, because the English don’t celebrate Halloween (at least they didn’t then) or Thanksgiving.

Because the only fall holiday was Guy Fawkes Day (which involved a bonfire), there wasn’t a holiday for shops to revolve around except Christmas.

“When Fels and I first moved to England in late August, the shops already had Christmas wrap for sale,” Neukom said.

There are Christmas trees, decorations and a belief in Santa Claus in both the U.S. and England, and the Sacramento Theatre Company’s annual production of “Cinderella” is similar to a panto.

But at American schools, there is nothing like the Christmas shows at English schools.

“The panto was – without question – the craziest part of English holidays,” Neukom said.

By Allison Zhang

Print Friendly, PDF & Email