From Sir, With Compassion: Part 2

The Concluding Chapter of the Misadventures of a Secular English Teacher in an Orthodox School

The Whiteboard Jungle: Larry N. Mayer, the author of “Who Will Say Kaddish,” taught English literature at the high school level in an Orthodox Jewish school.
Courtesy of Larry Mayer
The Whiteboard Jungle: Larry N. Mayer, the author of “Who Will Say Kaddish,” taught English literature at the high school level in an Orthodox Jewish school.

By Larry N. Mayer

Published October 27, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
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(page 4 of 6)

Fox looked at me with his big teeth, a big sarcastic all-knowing smile on his face. My head began to tremble the way it had several months ago when they were inspecting my inside-out shirt.

“And since when are you my rabbi all of a sudden, Mr. Fox?” “He couldn’t be your rabbi,” Weasel added. “Mr. Mayer’s rabbi is probably a woman anyway.”

“No,” I responded, “He couldn’t be my rabbi because my kind of Judaism believes in tolerance and compassion.”

In the evening I lit candles at home, and we picked up a Christmas tree. I also got an email, offering me the position of “long-term substitute teacher of humanities” — a job I had interviewed for a few weeks before. The title was not so great; it reminded me of Willy Loman. But I would finally be out of here. Did I care? Would I miss the students?

“What a sad thing for the kids,” my wife said. “I’m sure their teachers quit all the time. And it’s not their fault.”

I wouldn’t miss teaching the classes, but I would miss interacting with the individual students. I thought of what one of the mothers emailed me after she’d gotten a complaint from the rabbi about her son’s behavior in my class: “I know it’s hard to believe, but almost all of these boys will turn out to be mensches — decent human beings.” I wondered about that. I believed they really would be decent to each other, but I also imagined that their tolerance for other people would not improve with age.

I gave Rabbi B. several weeks’ notice, and told him I would stay till mid-January. We decided it best not to tell the students until a day or two before I was to leave. I had hoped the rabbi might say he was sorry to see me leave, or that I had done a commendable job in my four months, that the kids would miss me, or that yes, he had kind of expected me to leave. He barely looked up from his computer screen. Within an hour he had already posted my vacated position back on Craigslist.

On the Tuesday of my last week, I announced the news to my 10th-graders. At first they all applauded and cheered. Within seconds the word had spread through the narrow halls, up and down the stairways of the building. In the beis midrash, some even stopped praying. One kid jokingly asked me for a hug. And soon, their shouts of approval turned into a barrage of questions: Where was I going? Was it the rival Jewish school? Was it a goyish school? What kind of students were they? What would I teach them? Would I visit some time? Could we have a party on Thursday?

On Thursday, my last day, I came in feeling strong and free. When I arrived, several boys were shooting hoops on the dilapidated court outside, yelling for me to come and play. One of the four Moishes — the most likeable of the lot, the one I called Smart Moishe — was unloading cartons from a van when he saw me. He quickly dropped the boxes, and in his black shoes, in a semi-lurking walk approached me.

“Mr. Mayer,” he spoke softly. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Depends. I suppose.”

“Please, if I tell you, you can’t tell anyone.”


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