Bill Cosby has spent 50 years making us laugh -- because two teachers believed in him and turned him around at pivotal points in grade school and college.
"In my life, I had given up on the responsibility of studying, and I got by, and given up on the responsibility of turning papers in, and I got by," Cosby, 75, says by phone from his home in Shelburne, Mass.
He also has a home in Cheltenham, Pa., not far from the heart of Philadelphia, where he grew up in the housing projects in the '40s. And where fortune landed him in the sixth grade classroom of his mother's high school friend, Mary B. Forchic. Cosby says she was shunned from her Russian Orthodox family because she didn't want to become a doctor or engineer or something befitting her intelligence. She wanted to be a teacher.
His mother and Forchic remained friends. Gone were his days of just getting by.
"I didn't know they were having a meeting about me in that schoolyard in Philadelphia," Cosby says.
Tiny in stature -- just 4-feet-11-inches, like his mother -- Forchic took charge of him, moving him closer to her desk than the alphabetical seating chart dictated.
"I don't know how the C for Cosby wound up in the front desk of the fifth row," he says. "It just never registered. I do know I kept looking around to see how the C moved into the fifth row with the R's and the S's. So that started it all.
"This woman -- every time I turned around, this woman was on me and she made me act in two plays. I didn't want to be in them, but I was the star. I didn't like it because I had to learn these lines and that's not what I was about. And then it got to the point of my not taking on responsibility. ...
"When you stay on a kid like that they either bolt, break or do something. I just decided to see what I could get away with -- sort of like being married, it takes you a while understand the answer is 'yes.' 'Do you want ... Yes,' he says with that comic timing we know so well and will hear in his comedy conversation Friday evening (11/16) at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.
He helped reopen the venue in 2004, after its $7.8 million renovation, and he's thrilled to help reopen it again after the flood devastation.
"I am ready and I will lay these people out. It will be fantastic," he says. "I'm just looking forward to getting there an just laying them out."
Related: Click here for a review of Cosby's Friday night performance (11/16) in Cedar Rapids at the Paramount theatre.
He's on tour, following the release of his new book, "I Didn't Ask to be Born (But I'm Glad I Was)." He may tell some stories from that, or dip into his beloved vintage stash, but however the mood strikes him, the show will be clean and family friendly. That's a value he's carried throughout his career.
"Times change," he says. "The media helped move the acceptance of the freedom of speech into profanity onstage. Richard Pryor broke that barrier successfully. Lenny Bruce never got to see it. Then George Carlin. I maintain what I'm doing because I believe that it helps me to think deeper. I was in the Navy for four years. I can out-curse everybody and talk for half an hour and say nothing.
"The point is this: It is entertainment to many people, in the sense that some even bring their children. ... I don't have to curse."
And now, back to the story of how he landed on the path of finding humor in the everyday, mundane happenings around us.
"(Mary B. Forchic) wrote on my report card as I was moving on to seventh grade: 'I'm afraid that if William doesn't meet with teachers who will make him follow through, he will fall back.' When I got to the seventh grade, I fell back on the old habits.
"I was even, for some reason, placed in this wonderful, fantastic academic treasure called Central High School, which today I love, period," he says. "They didn't heal me, they didn't fix me. I entered ninth grade, got as far as the 10th, because this school was for young boys whose parents were lower economic parents. The founder believed this school should be for these kids so they could see career (possibilities).
"I fell back and I just stayed without studying, without turning in work in and eventually I transferred to Germantown High School and then at age 19 I quit Germantown High School in the 11th grade. I was doing the math and figured out that by the time I was 22, maybe I would be graduating. That would be so embarrassing. I still had an ego," he says with a chuckle.
So he quit school and joined the Navy.
The military drove home the message of responsibility -- responsibility for the safety of others as well as himself. Drilling that home wore on him and made him angry enough that he could see the only way out was through furthering his education and obtaining some credentials. So he earned his GED, became a hospital corpsman, went through the Navy's physical therapy training program, then headed off to Temple University in his hometown -- and a whole new way of looking at the world, because of a class assignment.
He talked the football/track coach into giving him a scholarship. "Today, he is my second-best friend, after my wife," Cosby says.
Tuition was $360 per semester, so he lived and home and rode the subway.
"I'm gung-ho now," he says. "I'm going to be a schoolteacher. I'm going to carry on Mary B. Forchic's philosophy and jump on these boys and stay on them. I love the fact that I do know what they look like and how they act, because I used to be one. They're going to understand they do need credentials and need to stop fooling around. For the first time, in that university, I know that I don't want to fail."
With a low SAT score of 500, however, his journey wouldn't be easy. He was placed in remedial "everything" classes.
"In remedial English was a professor who gave an assignment about 'the first time you ever -- something,' " he says. Now 23, he shrugged off "first kiss" and "first touchdown" as too easy, and zeroed in on the first time he pulled a tooth. He ran back and forth to the mirror to look at his mouth and remember the blood.
He finished the essay two days before deadline and turned it in on time. But when the professor handed back the graded papers, Cosby didn't get his. He was crestfallen -- until he heard the professor read his out loud.
"I don't remember if the class laughed. I just know that it had an A/C- in the margin," he says – an A for content, a C- for execution.
The next assignment was on procrastination. He wrote about sharpening a Number 2 pencil down to the metal and the eraser in his quest for the perfect point. Again, the professor read his paper to the class.
"Without wanting to become a comedian, without wanting to become a great writer, without wanting to become anything, I merely was doing what I was enjoying -- and that was writing from my human behavioral experience. I was putting it on paper and I was cognizant that people might be doing the same thing, but even if they weren't, I was writing in a way they were understanding."
He stepped up the grammar and form, and this time, got an A/B+.
"I had to write everything out -- no typing, no tape recording. And that, young lady, is how I got started with this, because his reading those two things made me understand that I was good and believable and it stimulated the writing of my funny or humorous connective thoughts."
As for Mary B. Forchic, she remains cherished in his heart.
"I have her ashes next to my mother's ashes."
- Comedian Bill Cosby
- 8 p.m. Friday (11/16)
- Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
- $50 and $65 at the Orchestra Iowa Box Office next to the Paramount, (319) 366-8203, or Paramounttheatrecr.com
- Artist's website: Billcosby.com