When I was in my sophomore year of high school, I spent many of my lunch hours eating alone. I would sit on a knee-high bench in the locker room, in one of the music wing’s boxy practice rooms or at a table in the expansive domed cafeteria we called the Great Hall. Afterward I would head to the library. I rarely read there. In fact, I wasn’t much of a reader; I was restless and books, I found, were never an effective diversion from the stable loneliness of my teenage years. Instead, I wandered the noiseless stacks, fingering the spines of hardback titles, avoiding the gaze of the librarian, a man in late middle age named Mr. Rice, as he monitored my prowling from his desk near the entrance.
One lunch hour, after scanning the encyclopedias and magazines in the reference section, I found myself in front of the library’s rack of dictionaries. Several feet from the seclusion of the stacks it was distressingly exposed: only as high as my stomach, and presenting a clear sight line of the librarian’s desk, where Mr. Rice was slipping checkout cards into manila-colored pockets. I don’t know if it was instinct or curiosity that drove me, but I uncharacteristically pulled one of the dictionaries and leafed through the pages until the words started with “J.” Eventually I settled on one to which I knew I could immediately relate: “Jew.” A member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism… a member of the tribe of Judah… a person belonging to a continuation through descent or conversion of the ancient Jewish people.
I don’t remember how many dictionaries the library owned, but I exhausted the collection, taking note of how each one chose to define me. Then, there was something in an old volume: A moneylender. My high school, a century-old private school in a posh east-end Ottawa, Ontario, neighborhood, was Anglican in heritage. I was the only Jewish boy in my grade and could deliver the Lord’s Prayer with greater fluency than I could the Sh’ma, even though my dad used to recite the latter every night before my brother and I fell asleep. I had always felt like an interloper on school grounds, a loner Jew from the city’s west end, quietly proud and protective of my identity. Part of me believed that someone at school had planted the offending dictionary on the shelf so that I would one day find it. Moneylender. I knew the history. I looked up at Mr. Rice. His first name was Bob, but for some reason the boys had taken to calling him “Sugar Ray” Rice, after the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. It was no compliment. Not only did he bear no resemblance to a boxer — he reminded me of the “Simpsons” character Mr. Burns, pallid and fragile — but in a scrap against some of my better-fed classmates he would almost certainly eat pavement. There was something painfully helpless about Mr. Rice, and from high school students deep in the cauldron of puberty, the librarian received little respect.
I picked up the dictionary and, duty-bound, strode toward him across the wan oatmeal carpeting. Why, I asked, was this book still on the shelf? It was antiquated and offensive and, I lectured precociously, suggested to students that the anti-Semitic interpretation was appropriate for academic and everyday use. Mr. Rice listened, then politely disagreed: Why not treat the dictionary as an artifact, the definition as a teaching tool, a representation of a moment in time? I stood across from him, the book in my hands, stunned. Mr. Rice — “Sugar Ray” Rice, of all people! — would defend a text so flagrantly anti-Semitic? Once in elementary school, a kid called me a “f——king Jew” after I pushed him from behind during recess. A teacher punished him but not me. So this new battle was one I knew I would win.
Later that day, I took my crusade to the principal. My heart beat so fast as I sat in his dimly lit office, next to Mr. Rice, pleading the same impassioned case I had made earlier. The dictionary rested open on the desk, between the three of us. The principal turned to Mr. Rice. This definition reflects the language of Shakespeare, the librarian pointed out. Was there not a way to engage with the book instead of discarding it altogether? A knot began to form in my stomach.
Finally, the principal closed the dictionary. He said it would be removed from the library, then asked me to wait in the vestibule outside his office while he talked with Mr. Rice. I registered the image of Mr. Rice, sitting stoically, his palms on his thighs, staring past his boss, carrying the defeated look of a man who’s been told his job is being slashed to eliminate redundancies. He had presided over the library for more than three decades and now couldn’t control what belonged inside. Life, the principal had determined, would be significantly easier without charges of anti-Semitism hanging over his administration.
Even then, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong — something I had to do, but wrong nonetheless. It hadn’t been my design to accuse Mr. Rice of anti-Semitism, yet by relying on its rhetorical potency to strengthen my case I had done just that. It took several years for me to comprehend the power I had wielded over Mr. Rice that day, how I had weaponized my identity to get what I wanted rather than try to understand his point of view. He was helpless, still. Only in college, as I became less defensive and insecure about many things, would I recognize the importance of the dialogue he was trying to promote.
When Mr. Rice emerged from the principal’s office he breezed straight past me, his head down, more quickly than I’d seen a librarian move before. I stood alone in the vestibule, watching as he rounded a corner and disappeared.
Josh Tapper is a journalist living in Toronto.
What’s in an Old Dictionary? Plenty of Anti-Semitism.