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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On the Wednesday of the third week, I called Rabbi B to tell him I wasn’t coming in, and for that matter, I didn’t want to come back: I quit. I’d never had a group this bad, not in the South Bronx, not in the Ohio detention home.

“We’ll work on this together,” he told me. “You need to pick out the leaders, and then things will calm down.” But I couldn’t come back. I told him that these were the wildest and most unpleasant kids I’d ever met. Recalcitrant, obnoxious teenagers are cliché. But these guys were unique. Maybe it was their lack of respect, which seemed to come with a broader blessing or sanction. You knew they didn’t act this way with Rabbi A.

“But we are counting on you. We hired you. We ignored other people because we thought you’d be a great teacher,” Rabbi B said.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll come back tomorrow, but today I can’t make it. If you let me stay home today, I’ll give it another chance.”

Thursday morning when I returned, the students actually seemed less threatening, and more friendly. Maybe they’d missed me? On the Tuesday before my truancy, they had been making fun of me because my shirt was inside out. Because I had dallied for so long before leaving for school on Tuesday, I had left the house with my shirt inside out and hadn’t noticed.

News got around the school pretty fast. Kids were fingering my collar to get a better look. Even the 11th-graders — the only group I didn’t teach — were recruited to come and see. In a mood of retaliation, I told one of the kids to look at his own shmattes before examining me. Dirty rags? He looked shocked. Was I calling his tsitsis shmattes? Fearing that I might have insulted his religious garments, and might lose my job in a shameful manner, I quickly said, “You wear the same white shirt and black pants everyday, and you laugh at me.”

But the pack mentality of the attack stayed with me. And perhaps also it was the chutzpah of their disrespect. They knew me barely three weeks. And yet there they were, surrounding me, checking the label of my shirt, and teasing me without any regard for my humanity. Where was the compassion?

At the start of the next week, we were getting ready to read “Dusk,” a story by Saki. It’s a tale about a con artist who gets money from someone in a park by pretending to have lost a bar of soap. The story is filled with subtle ironies and many references to dusk and blindness. If this group wanted to learn, there would have been plenty to extract from it. They took turns reading aloud — a boy named Avraham decided to read it with an Italian accent. Please, I implored them, let’s read the story aloud, seriously.

“But we read it already,” they said. “It’s about a guy who gets money from another guy after he finds a bar of soap. There’s nothing else to say.”

I silently countered them by handing out a sheet with some questions about the story, to which they needed to write the answers. One of the four Moishes said, “Why do we have to write the answers just because you can’t control us?”

The commotion level was up again. Whom would I report to Rabbi B today? Sirloin was praying as usual. Another student was studying Torah. One of the Moishes — the smart one — had his chemistry textbook open and was balancing equations. Still another was going in and out of the room so many times that I asked him if he had a bladder problem. And each time he repeated, “I’m very smart, Mr. Mayer, I just don’t work to my fullest potential.” Foxman as always was in the center seat in the back, with a big grin on his pimply face. It was hard to catch him doing anything specific — other than giggling, screaming, mocking me or fiddling with the cords on the blinds. This time he had it around his neck as if he were going to hang himself. It was a thought.

By my fourth week, nothing had gotten any better. The ninth-graders down in the basement were wilder than ever, and the late September temperature was hotter. For some reason, the cellar fan didn’t work, and the kids continued to whine about the unbearable heat. But I was afraid to open the rear door because I’d discovered that the backyard of the school, lined with trash cans, was a haven for rats. After class, during one five-minute break, I witnessed the 11th-graders, for sport, stoning one of these rats to death. And though I felt sorry for the poor little thing, I was disappointed that it wasn’t my monstrous 10th-graders doing the killing. Had that been the case, I could have referred them back to the stoning in “The Lottery,” and made some kind of analogy.

Tiring of the beat-up old literature textbook we were using, I asked Rabbi B if I could teach Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” It appeared to be the perfect solution — it told the story of a 14-year-old Orthodox Jewish boy, whose faith is challenged while surviving Auschwitz. Rabbi B was quick to reject the idea. “There are some pretty obvious reasons why it isn’t a good book to do,” he said. Of course, I should have known — Wiesel questions his faith. Although I didn’t think Rabbi B considered the book itself bad, he did think it would be unacceptable for this specific group. Literature wasn’t supposed to touch them too closely or prompt questions no one wanted asked — or answered. All truths were ultimately in the Torah, and anything that threatened this concept seemed to be forbidden.

Around Halloween, we had gotten used to each other, more or less. I’d come to understand that keeping the classes in order was not really my job. The science teacher screamed at them. Fed up with their racism, the history teacher walked out of class once and didn’t return till the next day. The rabbis didn’t seem to care as long as no one was killing anyone else. So rather than encourage discussions, which became unruly and chaotic, we would read aloud. (Accents be damned!) Then I would assign them written questions, and a final essay in each unit. In some pedagogically compromised way, it worked. They were very good at doing rote work. They liked questions with clear answers in the text.

When things got boring, I pulled out an old trick, which was to talk like Donald Duck. It put them in a kind of childlike trance, as they would repeat over and over, “Again, Mr. Mayer. Do Donald Duck again.” I spent part of one class teaching them the fine art of Donald Duck talk, which comes from vibrating the back lower gums of the mouth against the inside of the cheek.

“Remember, there’s no throat involved,” I reminded them. “It’s all in the cheek.”

Other times I would burst into children’s playground handclap songs that my fourth grade daughters had taught me the night before: “Happy llama, sad llama, mentally disturbed llama, super llama, drama llama, big fat mama llama, crazy llama, don’t forget barack o’llama.” They called me crazy, they laughed at me and with me, but it didn’t feel threatening. At the mention of girls, their faces would either grow blank and pale, or sick with disgust. Most of the time they liked to change the subject. But my own daughters sang in a children’s chorus and I wanted the boys to know that for the upcoming holiday concert, the girls were singing a Yiddish melody.

One Moishe said, “You mean, they sing 10 goyish songs, and then they learn one Jewish one?”

“What’s the difference?” said another one of the Moishes. “His daughters aren’t Jewish anyway.”

“I have a recording of them singing on my iPhone, listen.” “Please, Mr. Mayer, don’t play it, we can’t listen to girls singing.”

“Wait,” said the other one. “How old are your daughters?”

“Nine, almost 10.”

“Forget it, Mr. Mayer, forget it. They are too old.”

“Too old?” I laughed. “Too old for what?”

“A woman’s voice could be arousing, it’s not allowed.” “Arousing?” I screamed. “Nine-year-old girls!”

But the boys never tired of testing my Jewishness.

The seniors, who were good at avoiding work, decided one week that we would start each class with my reading a portion of the Torah. It was like studying for my bar mitzvah all over again. They hovered around my desk, and while I read they pointed to the words and helped me translate. They offered me snacks, and when I was able to say the correct blessing they applauded me.

“You’re a good Jew — see!” they would say. One of them took his high-crowned black hat from the closet and put it on my head.

“Now, Mr. Mayer, you’re looking good.”

“Yossi, give him your jacket, drape it across his shoulders.” With my iPhone they took photographs. I scolded them jokingly with a politically correct phrase I had seen circulating on Facebook, meant to chastise people who dressed up in stereotypical ethnic garb.

“Guys,” I said, “We’re a culture, not a costume.” They laughed: “We’re both!”

By November, I was worn down from carrying that heavy, torn textbook from class to class. I got Rabbi B’s permission to teach the play “Death of a Salesman” to both grades and he let me bowdlerize the text. It’s the story of a father and two sons, a dysfunctional family, and the failure of the American dream.

What could possibly go wrong?

The second and final part of this article will run in next week’s Forward.

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