Charles 'Smartypants' King, Jr.


"What's the only animal that will eat a skunk?"

Charles King, Jr., intersperses these trivia questions throughout our conversation and takes delight in revealing the answers to my surely perplexed expressions.

"An owl," he says. The nocturnal bird has little to no sense of smell.

King, 59, uses questions like these when he puts on his elephant suit and becomes Mr. Smarty Pants. Visiting schools around the state, King teaches kids everything from how to stay drug free to techniques that maximize learning. His guiding principle is: "If a child can't learn the way I teach, then I must learn to teach the way he can learn."

Growing up in Battle Creek, Mich., King didn't feel like he learned to think in school. A self-described optimistic kid with a lot of imagination, King says teachers stifled his creativity by telling him, "No, you can't do it that way."

"I said, 'I'm going to create a business where I can teach children to think—not more like me, but think … using their own imagination," King says.

In 1980, King created Smarty Pants Educational Services and chose the elephant as the face of the organization. "It's the largest land mammal," King says. When he moved to Mississippi in 1985 to care for his grandfather, he continued to grow the company. He took the "catch them where they are" approach to teaching children, understanding that each child learns differently and that teachers must adapt.

King, who is also an artist, uses many of his 2,000 pieces of artwork to teach children. None of them are just visually pleasing; each disguises a puzzle or riddle or symbol.

One of his pieces, for example, is an elaborate collage illustration of objects and symbols, each object carrying a tiny letter. Each letter corresponds to a key, which accompanies the piece and touts a historical event or fact. King says he used this piece to teach gang members black history.

"We found out that because the gang members were using symbology (in graffiti), they learned more from the symbols than from the book," he says.

"Smartypants" King—and, yes, that is part of his legal name—says he loves the "whys" in life, which could explain why he works so well with young children.

"I've had some deep conversations with kids," he says matter-of-factly.

As we wrap up our chat, King slides a piece of paper in front of me and shows me something that "you can trick your co-workers with": 5 + 5 + 5 = 550, he writes. "How can you use one line to make this correct?" he asks playfully. I shrug my shoulders in embarrassment (The answer is to write a diagonal line connecting the left point of the first plus sign to the top point of the first plus sign. It will read: 545 + 5 = 550.). Outsmarted by Mr. Smartypants again.

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I remember when I was in junior high and he visited my art class. I won a poster because he asked which two streets in Jackson named after civil rights leaders intersect to form the last name of another civil rights leader. I was so proud of myself for figuring that out. :)



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