Crash Course in Chillin'

The smart kids at Oberlin bone up on slackerdom.

Hit and Runway
In a sleepy little prestigious college town, two great minds are hard at work.

"I'm making my lunch!" hollers Neil Chamberlain, thwacking on the bongos.

Alex Malmude, his lab partner, plants her crimson running shoes on the chewing-gum-colored carpeting and artfully rhymes "thang" with "Corey Haim."

It's exam week at Exco, Oberlin College's student-run experimental school, and there isn't a fill-in-the-bubble answer sheet or No. 2 pencil in sight. But there's plenty of root beer and pizza with pineapple cubes.

"We always order pizza for class," says Tracy Abramson, one of Neil and Alex's fresh-faced Exco instructors.

Exco started as an alternative education program at Oberlin in 1968, after the college's vast population of chronic overachievers decided they needed to screw together their beer bongs and tie-dye their pants in a structured environment. This semester, Exco's for-credit offerings include "Punk Rock and Society," "Aerial Dance on the Low Trapeze," and "The Art and Artistry of Kevin Spacey," which are counted toward students' degrees.

"But you can only count up to five hours," qualifies Oberlin student and Exco instructor Emily Van Yuga, "so people don't have 40 of their 100 hours in throat-singing," one of the most popular Exco classes. "For some reason, we have a large throat-singing community at Oberlin."

Van Yuga and Abramson teach a course on a seemingly easily exhaustible subject: Crispin Glover, the ferret-faced film star who had secondary roles in Friday the 13th Part IV and Charlie's Angels.

Today, their students are presenting their final projects. They include Neil and Alex's spoken-word piece "Crispin Exclamation Point," interpretive dances emulating Glover's spasmodic moves, and wigs worn in homage to Glover's hairdo-challenged characters. They meet in Abramson's spare second-floor apartment. "Unless it's really hot -- then we go up on the roof," she says.

Ever since they met in a freshman philosophy course called "The Meaning of Life," Abramson and Van Yuga yearned to teach an Exco course. But it took them awhile to hit on the right topic. Competition for Excos is fierce. A proposed class in mini-golf-course construction, though clever, was rejected by the student panel because it would have cost a mini-fortune.

At first, the two women contemplated proposing a class on cult film director John Waters, best known for the trailer-trash classic Pink Flamingos. But they ultimately decided that he was too popular. Since he's covered in the school's regular film studies courses, an Exco class on him might be redundant.

Glover was a better choice, they decided, because he hadn't yet been accepted into the weirdo canon.

Nick Masterson, a senior majoring in oboe, tried to enroll in the wildly popular Beverly Hills 90210 Exco class, but came up short. Crispin Glover was his second choice. For his final project, he pulled an all-nighter, designing a website devoted to the platform-shoed thespian.

"That's fantastic," admires Van Yuga, as Nick shows off his handiwork to his pizza-chewing peers.

In preparation for finals, Van Yuga and Abramson had their students practice smoking like Glover ("making your body limber and having a really tight hand on the cigarette"), imitating his otherworldly laugh, and re-creating the ninja ballerina moves he performed as a nonspeaking thug in Charlie's Angels.

"We want them to see how hard it really is," Van Yuga explains. "It's hard to get his movement down, because his whole body conforms to the character."

They also read Glover's obscure written works. "You can't really find his books," confides Van Yuga. "I had to order them off the publisher's website. You send them cash in the mail. I accidentally gave them a dollar too much, and they sent me a dollar bill back with a handwritten note: 'Hey, uh, you gave us an extra dollar. Here's your dollar!'"

Besides thriftiness, Exco students also learn Valuable Life Skills like public speaking. If you can boldly imitate Glover's twitchy Friday the 13th dance in front of your peers, Abramson reasons, you won't ever have to imagine anyone in their underwear.

In the trapeze class, however, students mainly learn that rope burns hurt like a mother. "The best ones aren't the scrapes at all," notes Becky Johnson, admiring her bandaged feet. "They're the bruises. I love the bruises. They make me feel like I'm really hardcore." Spoken like a true scholar. (The class is conveniently located in the gym next to Oberlin Memorial Hospital, though so far no one's needed a gurney.)

Drinking from a purple mug that reads "Girls Kick Ass," instructor Hannah Logan, a religion major, spots her students in divine moves like the "Upside-Down Crucifix" and the "Half-Angel." Hanging about five feet off the ground, the trapeze is secured with electric cable that's coated with two rolls of duct tape. "I had some guys at the school put it up for me," Logan says. "They went duct-tape happy."

Dressed in velvet culottes and a silver jacket that would make Ziggy Stardust swoon, Becky performs "Amazons," "Coffins," and "Dragonflies" to the tune "Barracuda." She longs to master the "'Seahorse,' which is about the coolest move ever. I can't really get up into it, so I'm always in awe."

Becky says she signed up for the class to overcome her fear of heights. Okay, that's not the real reason. "Last semester, there was this girl in the class named Christa. I came to her [end-of-semester] recital. And I noticed that everyone who did trapeze got asked out on a date by the end of the show.

"Whenever anybody did a trick, the crowd was like 'Ooo, wow!' If they did anything -- just got up on the trapeze! -- it was like 'Ooo, wow.' It doesn't matter what you do up there -- it's on a trapeze, so it's sexy."

Trapeze has a 10-student maximum. More signed up, so Logan randomly chose names for the final roster. But some of her students were rather apathetic. So next year, she might hand-pick only the most enthusiastic trapeze hopefuls.

After all, Oberlin's a good school. It has very little tolerance for trapeze flunkies.

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