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The first story I assigned was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, about an entire town stoning one of its own to death. The boys didn’t see any parallels between themselves and the characters in this horror story who are also bound by rituals and traditions.
“Crazy story,” they said. “Why are you making us read this?” I told them the author’s husband was Jewish. It’s true. I was reaching for a connection. I also wondered why the rabbi himself had given me this story to teach in the first place.
It was amazing how united they were. How they worked together like a pack.
“Yes, you have to break them up, figure out who the leaders are,” Rabbi B told me. Because there were four Moishes in one class, I started to call all 12 of them Moishe and worried that this might be construed as anti-Semitic. My father’s name is Moishe, I told them. It’s also true. They liked that.
After two days, part of me began to wonder if this wasn’t a school for kids with behavioral problems. One student, whose name sounded like “Sirloin,” prayed the entire time I tried to talk. I checked out the school’s rating online. One angry teacher had posted anonymously on the site, and said, among other things, that the school was “sadly lacking in resource [with] no clear behavioral policy in place.”
But what were they doing that most high school boys didn’t do? Were they really any worse? Well, for one thing, many had a smugness about them, and gave the impression that I must have been a loser for teaching at their school. Later, I would encounter the word kefira, a derogatory term for any person or thing believed to be in denial of God, sort of like treyf, or non-kosher. Was I kefira? Had I told them too much when I confessed my wife wasn’t Jewish? What was I trying to accomplish? Despite their exclusionary pride, it was nice having them ask me so many questions, as if they were genuinely interested and concerned for my well-being. As a Jewish soul who had lost his way, I think to them I was hardcore kefira.
The ninth-graders were a little better. They were new to the school, unsure of what to expect and what was expected. We read a short story by Langston Hughes, “Thank You, Ma’am,” about a young teenage boy who learns a lesson about trust and respect when he fails in his attempt to steal a woman’s purse. I asked them to take turns reading out loud. The story’s characters speak in dialect — the African-American vernacular of the 1950s. One boy read it with a thick, bassy, Southern-inflected drawl. I told him he was bordering on racism. He responded that he was from Baltimore and that’s the way “they” talk. I should stop being so sensitive, he said, because in his city “they” were the ones who “do all the stealing.”
“Realism, Mr. Mayer, not racism.” What could I say? Political correctness, I soon detected, was also clearly kefira.