God knows how I became a teacher. At 29, I’d spent most of my post-Cornell years working on a writing career. First came my stellar screenwriting stint, the highlights of which included one “Winnie the Pooh” special (I put Eeyore on Prozac), two shelved studio comedies and, I’m sorry to say, one of those tawdry nights on the town in which a sleazy, big-time movie producer took me out for Pernod and made a pass at me while we strolled along Venice Beach discussing “my script.”
Then one night, after taking time off from film to work on my Great American Novel, I ran into Leisel*, an old friend from summer camp. She was now the principal of the religious school at a prominent Reform synagogue in Los Angeles where Leonard Nimoy and the guy who wrote the theme song for “Friends” were both members. I told her that I spoke Hebrew and was so sore for steady cash I would sweep the floor of the synagogue sanctuary. Next thing I knew I was filling out a W-4 form and teaching Hebrew school to fourth-graders at Temple Ahavat*.
The first day of class, a dozen 9-year-olds walked into the room and I experienced a mad flashback to my own rebellious days in Hebrew school, skipping tefillah to hang out at McDonald’s. The boys all looked like Leonardo Di Caprio, the girls like Britney Spears. Their parents were in show business, drove shiny black Mercedeses and lived in houses that were frequently photographed for the cover of Architectural Digest. They had nannies from places like El Salvador and spoke Spanish as a second language. The parents pulled me aside and said things like, “Justin is on Ritalin” and “We’re taking Brynne in for a psychiatric evaluation.”
I nervously wrote my name on the board. “Shalom,” I said. “I’m Malina.” The kids introduced themselves. Besides Justin and Brynne there was Lucy, Genevieve, Sienna, two Joshuas, Rud, Candace, Moshe and fraternal twins Stevie and Chaka, who were both named for famous rock stars.
We reviewed material from last year. Vowel sounds. Basic greetings like “Ma shlomech?” Sure enough, teaching suited me. This was my chance to give back to the community, to provide our precious youth with the educational tools they needed to survive. Unlike the dreaded solitude I’d endured as a writer, teaching gave me an outlet through which to nurture my skills in developing interpersonal relationships.
Leisel called me a “natural.” I confess this commendation came as no surprise. Teaching was in my blood. For 35 years my father taught constitutional law to inner-city kids in Brockton, Mass., and was the recipient of an award from the John F. Kennedy Library for excellence in teaching government. Granted, he dealt with knifings while I faced a battery of students armed with Mattel cell phones, but I could now appreciate what my father meant when he repeatedly said, “Teaching is hard work.”
So hard is teaching that I was bemused to think back on those times I’d casually tossed it around as a back-up profession if my ebullient career as a novelist didn’t pan out. Suddenly, I was shlepping around to art-supply stores, purchasing everything from construction paper to fruit-scented markers. I was making wooden menorahs and molding kiddush cups out of clay.
Just when I was getting acclimated to a two-day-a-week teaching job, Leisel called. The first-grade co-teacher in the day school was going on maternity leave, and they needed a full-time replacement. Was I up for the challenge?
The first-graders were 6-year-olds. Upon our first meeting they grabbed hold of my limbs like banana slugs to a tree stump. They were fresh and alive, and everything was new to them.
Brice* was by far the dreamiest-looking guy in the class. He had glimmering green-blue eyes, identical dimples on either cheek and soft, reddish-blond hair that when tousled made him look like a Swedish shampoo model. Okay, so he was 6 years old. But friendship knows no age. Brice and I bonded, and I don’t mean in a Barbara Walters-on-“20/20”-interview-from-jail sort of way. We became great pals. We shared a passion for the Boston Red Sox and hip-hop music. Brice was warm and friendly and hiked up his T-shirts so that his soft belly and the elastic waistband of his “Star Wars” underwear showed. He was forever burying his head in my stomach and offering me half his snack. “I like your hair down,” he once told me. The next day I found myself doing my hair for a six-year-old. Now I was getting a little worried. For a few days I ignored Brice. When, while watching “The Red Balloon” during our unit on France, he began to flirt with Roxanna*, the petite brunette who took three days to complete her toothpick Eiffel Tower project, I was jealous, but relieved.
I befriended Wesley*, a pint-sized James Stewart, with an unhinged mother and an absentee father. Wesley was blessed with razor-sharp wit, and he loved to play the piano. Together he and I would slog through his missed math homework assignments. At first he would draw his 6s like 9s, but once I redirected him, he would enthusiastically correct his mistakes. Wesley possessed a quiet vulnerability. He would stare blankly off into the distance, his round eyes glazed over with a thin patina of confusion. I’d try tousling his head of thin, flyaway hair, but he’d go running. He liked to imitate voices and his eyes swelled wide as he struggled to sound out the words in his “Dr. Maggie’s Phonics” books. I missed him on weekends.
Then there was Esmé*, the crybaby blonde with a bowl cut that made her look like a Dutch boy in a Rembrandt. Esmé’s boyfriend was Jackson*, who had a head the size of a soccer ball. The two often swung their arms around each other. They looked so sweet; I hoped they’d survive the odds and someday wind up getting married.
Then there was Milton*, a know-it-all who, given his parents’ choice of first name for their son, never stood a fighting chance of being popular with the kids at school.
Lunchtime was chaos. There was an endless chorus of “Open this!” as students wagged their mini-packs of Dannon yogurt in the air. Then came recess. There were more mini-dramas — and bloodshed — on the playground during one recess than in the entire 10-year run of “Dynasty.” One recess, after what seemed like a million arguments during stickball over who was safe at first, the playground supervisor canceled the game.
At 6 years old, the first-graders knew exactly what they wanted to be. Milton wanted to be president. Esmé wanted to be a supermodel. The idea that these things might never happen was lost on them. I envied them that.
What have I learned from teaching? For starters, it’s made me a better writer. Marc Chagall once said that when searching for creative inspiration, he’d often spend time around children, because it brought him back to his own “Garden of Eden.” For me, teaching children has had that same rejuvenating effect. More important, it’s made me a more compassionate and patient human being. This confirmation came when one day Wesley gushed, “Malina, you’re not only a good teacher, you’re a good person.” I blushed. Within seconds, there was a crush of small bodies squeezing me tight around the waist.
* All names have been changed to protect the educated.