The Misadventures of a Secular English Teacher in an Orthodox School

From Sir, With Compassion, Part I of II

Sit and Deliver: Larry N. Mayer worked as a secular English teacher in an Orthodox school.
Courtesy of Larry Mayer
Sit and Deliver: Larry N. Mayer worked as a secular English teacher in an Orthodox school.

By Larry N. Mayer

Published October 20, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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(page 3 of 4)

After a few days I thought things had gotten better, or perhaps I’d become used to them. At the end of the day, I talked to the frustrated history teacher who said he worked here only because he’d been laid off and was looking for a full-time job. He was not Jewish and therefore seemed to feel much more detached about the job. He planned on leaving, and when he did, they could all go to hell.

But I’d actually gotten a little excited about teaching the 12th-graders. Yes, all seniors in high school are a bit “checked out,” but at least they tended to be more mature. Something physical happens to most students between 10th and 11th grade, and so by the time they are seniors, their brains are ready to reach a formative stage of adulthood.

We read a personal essay by the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie. It was called “Superman and Me,” and it was about how he learned to read from comic books; more importantly, it was about how the world expected him, as a Spokane Indian, to fail, and how he would go on to counter that expectation and succeed. The seniors hated it. They counted how many times Alexie used the word “I” in the story.

“He’s arrogant,” they said. “He’s self-centered. He only says, ‘I, I, I.’” I wasn’t sure if they were just trying to disrupt my lesson or if they were truly offended by Alexie’s brazen writing style. I asked them to summarize the story for me. That’s all — a basic writing skill. Write a summary. No opinions, I told them, just what he said.

“First be objective,” I told them. “Then you can respond with a more subjective approach.” They were not stupid, but they didn’t know what either of those words meant.

After class, I wondered if their objection to Alexie’s overuse of the word “I” could be construed as a reflection of something positive about the values of Jewish culture. Perhaps they were just bound by what was best for the group and not the individual. I vowed to judge less harshly.

I heard a loud crash before I entered the street-level room. The venetian blinds were on the floor; someone had smashed the broken panel out of the floor level window.

“The window has been broken all year,” one of the boys claimed. “It just got more broken when we opened it.” I called Rabbi B and told him I wasn’t sure what had happened, but it was clear to me that the boys took great pleasure in the fact that the pane now had a gash in it, and that there were shards of glass on the floor in the back of the room. Rabbi B was angry, but they were clearly not afraid of him. They mimicked his speech when he walked out. After all, he was not the “real rabbi.” The real one whom they feared, Rabbi A, did not concern himself with the mundane details of secular studies, and was only called from his office when all hell broke loose. So far, I’d never seen him except when I went to his office to make photocopies, one at a time.

During these visits to the inner sanctum, I learned how insignificant secular studies were. The antiquated photocopy machine ran out of toner the first week I was there and it took weeks to replace it. The rabbi waved my concerns away. A friend of mine experienced in working with the Haredi community explained that the schools themselves were not truly committed to secular studies, and offered non-religious classes only as a means to secure funding from the state.

Back in the 10th grade classroom, I broached “The Lottery” again, prompting little constructive discussion, and lots of random shouting. I took some of the blame for this. After all, in an attempt to be casual, I didn’t insist that they raise their hands.

“We killed our English teachers last year, several of them,” one student joked. “We buried one in the basement dining hall. You can see that huge lump below the floorboards.” One moon-faced kid with braces and a Russian accent said, “I will shoot you, mister.”

“Emotionally,” I countered. “I’m afraid you will kill me: emotionally.”

The ninth-graders in the meantime were beginning to come out of their shells. The two Shlomos, who had been “the good one” and “the bad one,” were now both the bad ones: the evil Shlomo brothers. One student complained to me that one of the Shlomos wouldn’t let him sit next to him in the back row.

“So sit somewhere else,” I told him. I turned around to write something on the whiteboard. I heard a screeching desk and felt the vibrating floorboards, and turned around to see Shlomo (yesterday’s “good one”) holding Shlomo (“the bad one”) by the shoulders, trying to shake him to the ground. I broke their clinch and walked them upstairs to Rabbi B. Later, he came down with both boys and said in a practiced, teacherly tone that he had never witnessed violent behavior in the school before.

“We use words,” he reminded them.


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