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Professional Learning

Pop Quiz: Penn & Teller

One talks. the other doesn’t. One’s tall. The other’s not. One liked school. The other didn’t.

October 19, 2006
Credit: Penn & Teller

One talks. The other doesn't. One's tall. The other isn't. But together, Penn Jillette and Teller (who doesn't use a first name) have spent more than 30 years as Penn & Teller, one of the most memorable comedy/magic duos in years. Teller started out by teaching in a public high school in Trenton, New Jersey, before he met the tall, loud guy.

What is your idea of a perfect teacher?

Penn: Someone who works outside of the public school system.

Teller: One who doesn't fit well in a classroom. My artistic mentor was David G. Rosenbaum, my Central High School (Philadelphia) English teacher and drama coach, who was also a magician. He had such great faith in the power of classic dramatic literature that he boldly staged Oedipus Rex in modern dress in the style of a school assembly -- and left the audience shocked and crushed by Sophocles's tragedy brought so close to home. He devised a performance of Macbeth in which magic tricks were adapted to enact the terrifying images in the poetry. Rosey (as we called him) and I spent innumerable after-school hours talking about theater and stage magic in the drama club's room under the Central High stage. The ideas we developed there inform everything I've done since then.

What was your most memorable school experience?

Penn: Getting out. I promised myself that from the day I got out of school on, I'd be happy, and I've pretty much kept that promise. High school and Miami Vice are the only two things I wouldn't do again.

Teller: Playing Tiresias, the blind soothsayer, in Rosey's Oedipus Rex.

What was the low point of your school career?

Penn: It was all pretty bad. One solid low point.

Teller: The jerk in gym class taunting and hurting me.

Did you go to public or private school?

Penn: Public.

Teller: Private (Friends Select School, in Philadelphia) for the first three years, then public up to college, then Amherst College. Because of the small classes, I got some very basic skills right early on.

Where did you fit in your schools' social hierarchies?

Penn: I was the troublemaking longhair. I think I stayed after school more days than I didn't.

Teller: Quiet, meek, smart student till the last bell, then flamboyant eccentric after hours.

What was your favorite subject?

Penn: I just wanted to get out.

Teller: English. Latin. Geometry. Algebra, once I got a decent instructor. All pretty much teacher-personality dependent.

If you could change one thing about education in America, what would it be?

Penn: No public schools!

Teller: Stop it from being compulsory. Children are taught from an early age that learning is something they're stuck with. They have to go to school, just as you have to pay taxes. Making something compulsory negates all value and joy.

Credit: Penn & Teller

What is impossible to learn in school?

Penn: Just about anything good -- truth, honesty, beauty . . .

Teller: Virtually anything that's useful. Even shop class had us making stupid stuff that nobody would want, like electric hot dog cookers.

What should they teach that they don't now?

Penn: How to get out.

Teller: Health practices are impossible to teach in regimented, government-controlled, tax-based public schools. And yet there's no skill more important than learning how to stay healthy through your life.

What did you learn today?

Penn: I learned the background of William Donahue of the Catholic League, and that parasites outnumber free living species by a factor of four to one -- not entirely unrelated.

Teller: I asked my doctor how often I should get colonoscopies, now that I'm nearly 60: every five years.

What did you teach?

Penn: I've taught many people to juggle and a few to eat fire. I've taught a Nobel Prize winner to tell a joke properly.

Teller: When I was a public school Latin teacher, I taught kids to know stuff and be proud to flaunt it.

What is in your dream lunch box?

Penn: A thermos of New England clam chowder.

Teller: Swiss cheese and tomato on whole wheat. An apple. A thermos of Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar.

If prom were tomorrow, whom would you take?

Penn: My wife.

Teller: Vera. She was a fun date at the last one I attended (1969).

If you wrote a textbook, what would it be called?

Penn: Learn Without School.

Teller: Linguae Latinae Liber Picturis Ornatus.

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