Today I sit in Miss Christie’s sixth grade class. It’s the end of the first week of the new school year. Miss Christie stands in front of the room: tall, muscular arms, large breasts, black hair, black dress, stern expression. She’s teaching 10 new spelling words to be memorized in alphabetical order by Monday.
I recall Miss Levy, my fifth grade teacher. I felt her warmth when she patted my shoulders for a job well done and when she scolded with an almost inaudible whisper. She stood at the side of the room when she talked to the class, her back to the window, surrounded by light.
Spelling lessons in Miss Levy’s class were full of helpful hints. “Bicycle: B-I-C-Y-C-L-E. On the test some of you confused the ‘I’ and the ‘Y’. Remember this sentence: ‘I see why you want a bicycle.’ Can you hear how the ‘I’ comes before the ‘WHY’?” With a smile she adds, “Isn’t that fun?”
“English spelling can be confusing,” Miss Levy warned. “For example, there is P-R-I-N-C-I-P-L-E and P-R-I-N-C-I-P-A-L.” She walked to the blackboard clicking her one-inch heels as she talked. “Remember that the principal of our school is your P-A-L,” underlining the last three letters.
During another spelling review, Miss Levy coached us in spelling
P-A-R-A-L-L-E-L. “One R and three Ls. Do you see the parallel lines in the Ls?”
I still love Miss Levy. I still love spelling. I still love words.
Will I like this new teacher’s spelling lesson? Miss Christie begins, “The first word is austere.” My English language skills are almost as good as my classmates and my German accent is almost gone. I can almost hide that I’m a refugee from Holocaust Europe. However, here is a word I’ve never used before.
A-U-S-T-E-R-E. I can learn to spell that. I whisper the word as Miss Christie explains, “Severely simple. If we take down all the decorations in this room it would look quite austere. Imagine a prison cell with no furniture except a bed. That would be an austere room.”
She lets that sink in. Then she continues, “Poor people have an austere diet – a very simple diet.” I conjure up memories of hunger during our last years in Germany and our first year in the United States. I understand austere.
Miss Christie then explains how some words have more than one meaning. We nod. We already know that.
“Austere can also mean having a stern or strict expression. Can you make an austere face? Yes. Now, everyone make a face like your mother makes when she’s angry. Yes. That was a stern or strict expression. A-U-S-T-E-R-E.”
I’m way ahead of Miss Christie. She is austere in both senses. Never smiling, always standing tall, Miss Christie looks stern. I was frightened the moment I saw her. She also seems austere, simple, plain in the first sense. She’s worn a black dress every day this week – perhaps the same black dress, unadorned; although today she’s wearing a simple silver pin near her left shoulder. Miss Christie’s desk looks austere. Not a book, not a blotter, not a paperweight. Nothing. A-U-S-T-E-R-E.
Every Friday the bell rings promptly at 1:45 p.m. All the children gather up their books and sweaters and quietly head to the door. Quietly because the fear of Jesus is already in their veins. All the children from my public school on the east side of Manhattan, P.S. 70, are going to church. The Catholic kids line up in silence and a few teachers walk them to nearby Saint Somebody’s church – I can’t remember which saint inhabits the church. I don’t let myself think about saints. How can there be a Jewish saint?
The Protestant kids also line up quietly and go to their neighborhood church. It’s named after some mountain. Certainly not Mount Sinai. I’ve never been inside.
Every Friday all the students from our school are dismissed early for religious instruction. Miss Christie stays behind. Each year the teacher of my class doesn’t go to church on Friday afternoon. My teacher has to stay behind with the only Jewish kid in the school.
Last year Miss Levy gave me a special book to read each week and then, on Friday afternoon, instead of religious instruction, she and I would talk about that book. The Secret Garden was fun to read and Miss Levy confessed that, when she was a little girl in the city, she loved to imagine a life in the country with flowers and trees and animals. She told me that she still likes to visit the Central Park Zoo and the Botanical Garden in the Bronx. My favorite religious-instruction-substitute book was the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. I loved “How the Camel Got His Hump” and “How the Elephant Got His Trunk.” Each new story was more magical than the one I had just finished. Miss Levy asked if I like to make up stories. I told her that I like to make up words combining English and German like rhinocerwurst. Miss Levy smiled. We had just finished talking about Kipling’s “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.”
Today I’m sitting in my chair waiting to see how Miss Christie will handle religious instruction day. I take out a book pretending to be busy. Miss Christie, large Miss Christie, rolls her chair next to mine. Gott im Himmel, I think. What will happen to me now? There, leaning close is Miss Christie with that C-H-R-I-S-T in her name. I spell it out in my head. Perhaps we can have a spelling bee. I always win the school spelling bee.
“Fred,” Miss Christie begins. Miss Levy called me Freddy.
“Fred,” she repeats. “How does it feel being left behind when the other boys and girls leave the school?”
“I’m Jewish,” I explain. Of course she knows that. It’s written on my forehead just as plainly as the numbers on the left arms of Auschwitz survivors.
“But how do you feel?”
I start to cry on the inside but I don’t show it. Never show weakness!
“Have you ever talked about your feelings with anyone?”
“Can you tell me how you feel?”
“Lonely. No, I feel different. Maybe both.” I’m still crying inside.
Large Miss Christie touches my arm with a steady hand. She wraps her large fingers around my skinny wrist. My terror increases.
“How does it feel to be different?” she asks.
The war has just ended. Every day we see pictures in newspapers and magazines. I’m one of the people in the pictures and yet I’m not. I’m not one of the six million. I survived. I’m different from the Jews who were butchered and I’m different from my classmates. How can I explain all that to Miss Christie? And what will she do with whatever I confess?
In my turmoil I blurt, “Once I tried counting to six million but I quit when I realized how long it would take.”
She still holds my wrist.
“Perhaps you are different,” she says. “Let’s call it special.”
Miss Levy had treated me as if I were special. Now Miss Christie was saying it. Different. Special. Then another word comes to mind: outsider.
“I feel like an outsider,” I say.
Miss Christie captures the moment. “How does it feel to be an outsider?”
I look at the floor. That’s more than I can handle.
“Well, we’ve got many more Friday afternoons to talk about it,” whispers Miss Christie. She returns to her desk, removes some papers from the drawer, and asks, “Would you please take these reports to the principal’s office for me? Here’s a hall pass.”
Today is Tuesday. I wear the required white shirt and red tie. Most of the boys wear dark blue pants and we look quite patriotic. The girls, just as patriotic, wear white blouses, small red scarves around their necks and blue skirts. At ten o’clock, just like every Tuesday morning, we file in straight lines to the auditorium for an assembly. Sometimes, the principal introduces a boring speaker and some of us fall asleep. Occasionally we have musical guests and I love their recitals on piano or violin. The rare church choir keeps everyone awake. I learn all the Christmas songs by heart – even Ave Maria, which becomes one of my favorites. My mother teaches me the same songs in German and a few in French.
I like Tuesdays because, dressed up as we are, we all behave better and the classroom is less chaotic.
On Tuesday we’re all dressed alike. I feel less different.
The assembly guest today is an inspirational speaker who tells us that God wants us to do our best. Jesus should be our guide and we should all behave like good Christians. Somewhere during his presentation he tells us to not let the devil into our lives. “Don’t tolerate the enemies of Christ.” World War II Jews, even those who are only in sixth grade, have special antennae when it comes to hearing about the enemies of Christ.
Sure enough, during recess I hear a lot of “dirty Jew” remarks and several kids try to pick fights. Apparently, after today’s speaker, they feel obliged to protect Jesus from his enemies. Miss Christie monitors the playground with an iron fist. No nonsense. She comes to my aid when fights are brewing. As we file back into class, Miss Christie whispers, “Special is worth defending.”
The three o’clock bell rings and we file out of class in an orderly line. As soon as our shiny Tuesday patent leather shoes touch the sidewalk we run toward home. Pent up energy needs an outlet and the run home helps. As the fastest runner, I’m first to arrive on our block.
Josephine and some of the other kids who attend a Catholic girls school are home early today. Instead of bounding up the five flights to our apartment for my milk and cookie, I linger with Josephine and her friends. My mother will be angry if I dirty my white shirt but I’m invited to turn rope so that the girl I replace can jump. I show off my natural rhythm and chat with the girls. Several have commented in the past that they believe Jews have natural rhythm.
We turn two ropes in opposite directions and some of the more talented girls can create a double jump between the two ropes. They call it “Double Dutch.”
Soon other P.S. 70 children arrive. One boy taunts me with “sissy.” Others join in. Then a boy named Albert arrives and embellishes the name-calling with “sissy Jew boy.” The girls stop jumping. Albert punches me in the stomach. I drop the rope. He punches me in the chest. I haven’t moved. “Sissy Jew boy,” he repeats. He tackles me and I push him away. He swings his fist toward my face and I grab his arm and twist him around so that his arm is between my chest and his back.
“You’re breaking my arm,” Albert whimpers. I barely hear him. Instead I hear Miss Christie: Special is worth defending.
I place my right arm under Albert’s chin and reach for my left shoulder. I squeeze. Albert isn’t in my head anymore. Instead I hear Miss Christie asking, How does it feel to be an outsider?
Anger, my brain says. Rage, I hear myself telling her. I squeeze Albert’s throat harder. “Fury.” I spell all the words correctly as if I were in a spelling bee.
FURY. F-U-R-Y. FURY.
I’m no longer on our block. I’m in Miss Christie’s room and Albert
isn’t here. I squeeze. Once, in a comic book, I read about a stranglehold.
STRANGLEHOLD. S-T-R-A-N-G-L-E-H-O-L-D. STRANGLEHOLD.
Some of the older boys are pulling on me and shouting my name.
“You’re killing him.”
Each boy gives a different instruction. My right arm is locked around Albert’s neck. My left arm is still bending Albert’s arm. At least four boys are pulling at me but I’m all-powerful. I will kill.
An adult passing by slaps my face and I come back to reality. I don’t want to kill anyone. I loosen my grip. Albert slumps to the ground. The right sleeve of my white shirt is covered with blood from Albert’s nose and mouth. I look at my bleeding victim writhing on the cement and immediately I regret. Regret what? Regret everything. I don’t want to be a killer. They killed six million. I’m not like them. I don’t want to be like them.
I help Albert to a standing position. I ask Josephine to take her cousin home. I go upstairs to our apartment. I remove my shirt, wash my face and hands and arms and wish that I could wash my soul. I leave my white shirt in the bathtub.
On Saturday, Papa brings home a new white shirt. My parents never mention the blood.
We read the story of your sixth-grade ordeal. Your strength of character is incredible for one so young. Each teacher had her own way of handling the dangerous situations, but compassion and common sense from both prevailed. We are proud to know how magnificently you emerged from all this with true courage, a sense of humor and the soul of a poet. Bravo, Fred! Love, Sydney and Bill
Amazing, poignant, wonderful story.
Really wonderful, Fred. You have a gift for bringing the past very much into the present.
The spelling brings us so close to the experience. Lovely, gritty piece. Well done, Fred!
The streets of New York. Wave, `Eat S**t, eat s**t’.