Clad in the uniform of video rebellion, hundreds of children mass around an inflatable television nearly as tall as Marley Middle School. A TV producer shouts into a bullhorn, leading the throng in a chorus of "NICK, NICK, NICK, NICK."
Days of Rage meets Bozo the Clown and Marshall McLuhan. Strange shades of 1960s campus unrest brought to you this time by Hasbro and General Foods and the marketing folks at the Nickelodeon children's cable television network.
They know more about kids than Bozo ever dreamed, because Bozo didn't know a focus group from a Cub Scout jamboree. Nickelodeon knows about focus groups and selling products. And Nickelodeon, already having captured the kids' hearts and minds, was taking over the school.
"I like it, because we don't have to do any work," says Ron Helmick, a 13-year-old seventh-grader. He's dressed in the Nickelodeon blue T-shirt and orange cap, just like the the other 850 students, who are cheering and waving as a school bus pulls up and disgorges a parade of Nickelodeon stars. It's a kids' fantasy come true, to be rescued from another dreary day of classes by a bus full of slime-tossing, pie-throwing, wise-cracking TV idols.
"I think it's pretty cool," says Devan Spilker, a seventh-grader, sounding a note heard often from many of the Glen Burnie school's students. It was awesome, kids were saying. It was neat and also "really cool."
It was made possible not only by the sponsors, but also by Breann Whitcomb, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Harundale whose postcard was chosen from 120,000 in the sixth annual "Nick Takes Over Your School Sweepstakes."
Breann awoke at 6 a.m., an hour earlier than usual, to prepare to meet the school bus filled with Nickelodeon celebrities such as Mr. Wizard, Mark Summers, Phil Moore and her personal favorite, Melissa Joan Hart, the 17-year-old actress who plays the lead in the Nickelodeon sitcom "Clarissa Explains It All."
"She's fun," says Breann, who would later win a $1,000 check and the gratitude of her schoolmates. "Hi, and thanks," they were saying all day. Thanks for the day off and the free T-shirts and hats and, of course, slime.
Perhaps you don't know about slime, this mystery substance, this symbol of kid rebellion against the rules of the anal-retentive adult world. The people at Nickelodeon realized that kids enjoy goopy stuff that looks like it came from a bodily opening. So the network came up with slime, a green concoction made from oatmeal and water and shampoo and food coloring and who knows what else.
Kids love slime, especially when it falls on the head of someone whose job it is to tell them to walk, not run, to sit down, be quiet, pay attention, do homework and eat vegetables.
imagine the roar that goes up from the assembly of the entire school in the gymnasium when the time comes for the buckets of slime to drop on Marley Middle principal Robert Janovsky and assistant principal Alan Christy and guidance counselor Joan Dempsey. They line up on the stage looking dignified and trying to smile, and then comes the glop shower and the roaring multitude.
The scene on stage goes live via satellite to a giant screen at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, where Nickelodeon is holding a breakfast meeting with about 1,000 sponsors.
Before the live shot, Mr. Summers coaches the kids in screaming loud and long, enough to show the sponsors their enthusiasm and perhaps suggest the consumer appetite that goes with it.
"This is a marketing event," says Bronwyn S. McElroy, Nickelodeon's manager of press relations.
Nickelodeon marketing director Terry Holmstrom says it's one of severalcontests the network conducts in a year, all involving fulfillment of kid fantasies.
The winner of another contest gets to run amok in a toy store for five minutes. An upcoming contest lets the winner decorate her room any way she wants. Money is no object.
For its trouble, Marley Middle School gets $10,000 in video equipment and a Mr. Wizard educational videotape set. That's right, the same Mr. Wizard who's been doing the hard-boiled egg in the bottle routine since he started on television in 1951.
"I do the same thing today, but there are no milk bottles, so I use a cranberry juice bottle," says Don Herbert. "Instead of an egg, I use a water-filled balloon."
Mr. Herbert, a vigorous 76-year-old, says for all their Nintendo and compact disc sophistication, kids still seem to like his act, a cross between magic show and science lesson. His portion of thestage show is the only educational part of the day, during which the focus is fun and games and, of course, slime.
"The principal has the honor of carrying on a tradition," says MrJanovsky, after the sliming. Having left his dignity back on the stage, he's standing there in the gym with the ooze dripping from his gray hair, his gray tweed jacket, navy tie, striped shirt.
"When you're a teacher or an administrator on the middle school level, you're ready for anything," he says. "This is a fun thing, that's the way we looked at it. It's really brought a very good school spirit."
"How's the slime?" asks one kid passing by.
It smells a bit like wallpaper paste. It is lukewarm and perhaps washable.
Mr. Christy agrees that the visit is great for school morale. He praises the Nickelodeon crew's careful organization of the day's events, their "first-class" treatment of students and administrators.
The one-day rebellion appears to have sparked no uprisings or discipline problems.
Despite the slimings and the whipped-cream pies pushed in teachers' faces during the stage show, he says the students are "respectful. They know there are limits."
Rob Collins, one of several "Nickelodeon" marketing directors, says it's all part of the Nickelodeon formula, the result of program research and kid focus groups and a computer system that lets kids tell the network what they think.
"We're not anti-authority or anti-parents," says Mr. Collins, who works at the network's studios in Orlando, Fla.
"The network understands in a playful way it's us against them, ** kids and adults. Kids like to get sloppy. On Nickelodeon, you can be exactly who you are."
The approach obviously works, as Nickelodeon -- launched in 1979 byMTV Networks -- claims an audience of 60 million American youngsters, more than the children's audience of the three major networks combined.
The kids at Marley Middle eat it up. They line up for the "Double Dare" obstacle course and jump up and down for a chance to maybe get a whipped-cream pie in the face.
Language arts teacher David Mahan, a 19-year classroom veteran, stands there in the gym watching it all, listening to 11-year-old Billy Centineo gloat about rubbing slime in a social studies teacher's face. Mr. Mahan smiles.
"Even though this whole thing is designed to sell toothpaste and things like that, it's still nice for the kids," says Mr. Mahan. "Something out of the ordinary. They get too much ordinary."