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 6 of 6)

At this point, the red fedora I had been wearing for the occasion fell off my head. Shlomo picked it up and replaced it with a yarmulke. I had my right hand on my head, holding it in place, the other grasping his hand as we continued to go around. As if I had created a new dance step, Shlomo and Weasel imitated me, putting their right hands on their heads, and with great animation, tilting, bobbing and weaving. This went on for several minutes until I ran out of breath, and the music stopped.

But the boys had just started. Weasel introduced another song for me. He nodded — a slow number, something in Hebrew — something sentimental. It seemed rehearsed. Eight boys side by side — arms around shoulders and waists, all smiling. As I photographed, they began to sway back and forth to the melancholy rhythm. I switched my iPhone camera to video recorder. The words were now in English as they sang: “The spark in your soul is still there, it’s never too late, Mr. Mayer. It’s never too late.”

A second group of boys stacked themselves into a small pyramid while chanting, “Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye.” The original group backed me into a corner, clapped over their heads, and wagged scolding fingers at me as they sang: “You are still a Jew. You are still a Jew. Mr. Mayer is a Jew. He is still a Jew.” After the song faded, several of the boys handed me their phone numbers and told me to keep in touch.

Upstairs, the 12th-graders who had spent the last four months convincing me that high school seniors weren’t ever expected to do schoolwork, were waiting to present me with a gift. It was a four-cornered, open-necked undershirt with hanging, twisted tassles — tsitsis — intended to remind me of my religious obligations as a Jew.

“It’s not a big deal,” Yitzhak the arbiter of Jewish law told me. “You wear it like an undershirt, no one will even see. And besides, in the winter, it will keep you warm.” But I knew I would never wear it. I shook my head and apologized. “OK, but for us, now, please say a blessing, and wear it this once.” I agreed. I said the blessing. I slid the garment over my head as he clicked my camera.

“The hat, the hat, put his red hat on,” someone suggested. “And the black leather vest.” There was a pause. And then Yitzhak looked at the photo and proclaimed: “Mr. Mayer — a fine-lookin’ Jew.”

Yes, although we disagreed on just about everything — from our interpretations of Judaism to our attitudes about the world — they still considered me as part of the fold. Perhaps in this way, they were more tolerant of me than I was of them.

It was time to leave. One of the boys handed me a folded prayer to keep in my wallet.

“I guarantee if you keep this with you, it will keep you safe.”

They gathered around me as I took off the white shirt. I exited the classroom into the vestibule. Smart Moishe had surreptitously taken my book wrapped in the black plastic bag off the hat shelf. He nodded at me over his shoulder and then ran down the stairs into the street. He was one of the few who I thought might be saved. And I’m pretty sure he was thinking the same about me.


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