Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Best Boy in the World is Suspended from Orthodox Jewish High School: A Memoir of 1965

The Best Boy in the World is Suspended from Orthodox Jewish High School: A 1965 Memoir

By David Hartley Mark

I was the Best Boy in the World: well-behaved, polite, respectful of my elders, as religious as an Orthodox Jewish upbringing could make me, and fearful of Authority, whether religious or secular. I became the first boy from my little neighborhood Hebrew Day School, the East Side Torah Center, ever to attend Solomon Maimon University High School for Boys-Manhattan, that bastion of Modern Orthodoxy in Washington Heights, NYC.
I had not wanted to go. I wanted to go to Peter Stuyvesant HS, the competitive school to which all my friends from elementary school were going. I had passed the entrance exam, despite realizing during the last, feverish, few minutes of the Math Component of the Exam, that I had blackened the squares Horizontally rather than Vertically on the Official PSHS Answer Sheet, resulting in an orgy of penciltop-erasing, and leaving a paltry twenty answers remaining, testifying to my meager mathematical ability.

What I wanted, with all my thirteen-year-old, mid-1960s American, Age of Hippie (but, alas, Not for Me) to be Normal—blissfully, secularly, normal. It was not to be: the fulminating, thunderous Jehovah-God of my ancestors and the purblind Fates had declared otherwise—or, closer to home, my father.

Dad had fallen in love with the Orthodox Judaism he had re-discovered after leaving it during his college years. He was an industrial chemist, a scientist; he liked a Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place. He was also a gifted, albeit uncertified, accountant, and could tell you to the penny how much he spent on any given day for any given expense. He kept his books—a tall stack of stenographer’s binders—in a pile atop his desk.

My father stood for Order. He loved Orthodoxy, because it consisted, at least for him, of an orderly array of prayers, holidays, and various customs pertaining to those holidays. He did not need the stories, legends, Talmudic principles, poetry, philosophy; for him, davening, praying, was enough. I did not know my father’s vision of God. I don’t believe he needed one.

I did know that my father spoke to his—our?—God on schedule, at the 6 am minyan (prayer quorum), every morning. There were also 7 and 8 am minyanim, which he did not attend; by then, he was out the door, and off, via bus and subway, to work at a paint factory, using formulae and principles known only to him. I never knew where these factories were located; like the details of chemistry, like the burial-tomb of Moses, my father’s place of business was a mystery.

As a small boy, eager to know What My Father Did for a Living, I would meet him at the door of the apartment every night for a hug and kiss, to ask, “Daddy, what color paint did you make this morning?”

“Yellow,” he would answer.

It was always yellow. I wouldn’t ask further. My father’s job was an enigma. Other children in my class had looseleaf notebooks (we call them binders, today) adorned with pictures of Yogi Bear, Superman, and Davey Crockett. I was the only one with a looseleaf from Monsanto or Pfizer; I had no idea what these entities were, nor did I care.

My mother wanted me to go to YUHS-MB: “It will make your father so happy,” she said.

“Ma, I will go to Solomon Maimon High School,” I conceded, “but will I have to go Solomon Maimon College?”

“Oh, no,” she said, “We’re not that Orthodox.”

Four years later, when I graduated, we were that Orthodox, and so I went to Solomon Maimon College. That is a tale for another telling. As for high school, what thirteen-year-old Jewish boy dares to oppose his mother?

So I went. But I was not happy. I was miserable.

Solomon Maimon High School was a churning, burbling cauldron of adolescent male hormones, and teachers who demanded that we produce our best. We had Hebrew subjects in the morning, and secular in the afternoon. Like highly-bred racehorses practicing for the Ascot or Triple Crown, rabbis put us through our paces daily. I was placed under the tutelage of Rabbi S. He was kind, relatively speaking—a great many of the rabbi-teachers were either Napoleonic or tyrannical—but, like all of our teachers, he had a rapier-sarcastic tongue.

Once, half-awake in the early morning, after my daily-dizzying voyage on the Madison St. bus, jumping off to pound frantically down the stairs of the Chambers Street Station and leap onto the subway, I accidentally got onto the E instead of the A train. I did not realize my error until I was well beyond Manhattan, and on my way out to Queens. There appears to be some recessive gene running through my family which makes us terrible navigators; we are lucky to have been able to find our way to North America.

I sat in the train, anxiously reading the names of stop after stop, knowing they were wrong, but remembering the advice of a well-meaning aunt who had told me, when I had confided that I would be taking the subway on a regular basis, “If you notice that the train is going the wrong way, don’t worry. Maybe it’s the motorman’s first day, and he’s not sure of the route yet.”

My life has consisted, to a large extent, of getting terribly wrong advice from well-meaning people.

By the time I realized that I, not the motorman, was lost, I had reached Queens Plaza. I left the train and nervously approached a kindly-looking gentleman on the subway platform, who steered me to the Downtown side. A long return ride later, panting, I arrived at the 181st St. Station of the A train, and raced up the legendary hills of Washington Heights.

I arrived in the classroom, just as the 9 am bell was ringing; Rabbi S had already taken his seat. I stood there, winded from my run—not for nothing had Washington given the Redcoats a merry chase through the mountainous neighborhood, up and down and all around, back during the Revolution—and the Rabbi looked at me, standing and sweating there in my Navy-surplus pea coat (Surplus Military wear was much the rage, during the Vietnam Era, most popular among those who resisted the Military Draft most vociferously), and spoke:

“Well, Mark,” he said, fixing his gimlet eye on me, “will you be joining us this morning, or have you somewhere else urgent to go?”

I shook my head, forgoing any explanation, and sank gratefully into my chair, to begin our Talmudic research into the millennia-old topic of Jewish Divorce.

I was fourteen.

Most of the time, I got to class early, trying to avoid rush hour. I experienced trains so crowded, and travelers so tired, that once, a beautiful young teenage girl had, from sheer fatigue, leaned her head on the pole to which both she and I were clinging, there on the uptown A train.

She looked fourteen—the same age as I. She had big, brown eyes, golden skin, and hair of the darkest black.

I fell in love, instantly.

The problem was that My Girl was leaning her head, not on the pole, but on my adolescent knuckles, which were, like the rest of me, charged by testosterone and sexual abstinence. I practically crackled from sexual overdrive, as I stood there, in a feverish quandary—

Should I tell her? Strike up a conversation? Get her phone number? Pledge my eternal fealty? Compose a sonnet?

 “To My Beloved, whilst she reposeth sweetly, there on my knuckles….”

Alas, none of these things happened—the train reached 59th St.; the girl stood up straight, yawned, looked, beheld my sweaty hand, realized where she had been resting her tired head for the last three stops—O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!—no thanks to you, Romeo, Juliet, or Shakespeare—rolled her eyes, and raced off the train, blushing furiously, and leaving me sighing and heartbroken.

Of course, I never saw her again. Oh, well.

I had been prepared to marry her. Too bad she wasn’t Jewish. It had been the shortest courtship of my life: three knuckles and a metal pole on the uptown train.

Those were the days of my life during my freshman year at YUHS: buses, subways, Talmud, and homework, as celibate as a monk, and as law-abiding as—as a Solomon Maimon student fearful of either divine or mortal punishment. How, therefore, did I get suspended?

It was the fault of my Wham-O Super Ball. The Wham-O Corporation had just marketed it; it was the rage among us adolescents, and I had to have one. Even non-athletes like me marveled at its bounciness; the TV commercials were very effective. The first time I laid hands on it, a friend and I tried it out in the hall of my apartment building: the trick was to slam the thing hard enough on the floor to set it bouncing multiple times between floor and ceiling.

We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations: the ball bounced so hard, that it smashed into one of the fluorescent fixtures in the hall, exploding the bulb and sending shards of thin glass in all directions. We ran into my apartment, slammed the door, and hid.

I did want to take the thing to school. School was unbelievably, excruciatingly, dull. I would usually arrive long before class, often thirty or forty minutes before the rabbi arrived, and our daily Talmudic ordeal commenced. We boys wanted something to do, and the ball seemed the best idea.

We may have been highly intelligent, but weren’t very bright, frankly. What could you expect? We were teenage boys. Today, we would be skateboarding off the famous Green Bronze Dome atop the Main Center.

The problem was that a number of delinquent students had been vandalizing school desks. I had seen this happening. I would be sitting in the classroom during break, eating my lunch—two kosher baloney-and-mustard sandwiches on thick-sliced-seeded-rye-bread.

Two of the older students—they were already sophomores—would take out their frustration and excess energy by wrestling, and, afterwards, throwing chairs across the room. I would watch this orgy of destruction bemusedly, somehow understanding their anger, but certainly not participating. And I never thought of reporting it; that would be a violation of the Boy Code: Thou Shalt Not Rat Out Thy Fellow Student.

I did not know that the school had an Official Snitch, but I was about to find out. That fateful morning, my friends and I began an informal game of Super Ball Catch among the desks. Of course, the added bounciness of the ball made it escape from us, and we began pushing the desks aside to grab it; the desks screeched and skrawked as we pushed them aside—and that’s when the Snitch came in.

He was a small, thin man, with a pencil-thin mustache, wearing a shabby black suit and hat. We had never seen him before. He took out a small, leatherbound notebook, and began asking for our names. He had a Yiddish-inflected accent; no surprise, there. There were three of us: we gave him our names readily; it was hardly unusual for a school official to ask for a student’s name, and we thought nothing of it.

By the time he was done with us and left, it was almost nine. We pushed the chairs back into their rows, took our seats, and talked quietly until the rabbi arrived. The Talmud shiur (class) began.

Around 10 am, a student messenger, a well-known stooge, Teplitzky, came into the class. He was pink, short, and fat. He read our names off a list; we were “wanted in the Principal’s Office.” We had no idea why, but Joey, Bob, and I dutifully rose, closed our Gemaras (Talmud tractates), and went down the stairs.

“Maybe he wants to give us an award for ‘Best Student of the Month,’” Joey joked.

“Yeah, right,” Bob and I laughed.

We had never even met the Principal; he had been one of several functionaries to welcome us to Maimon on Opening Day, but we had never seen him since. We were the lowest rung of the pecking order, and didn’t really care.

In the office, the secretaries (they were, oddly, twins) ushered us in to Rabbi Z, the principal’s, inner sanctum. It was a dark, book-lined study; hardly any students, let alone us freshmen, ever entered there. We stood and waited until the principal looked up. He leaned back, steepled his hands, and looked us over, slowly. Then, he spoke.

“You boys were caught, red-handed, breaking chairs,” he said, flatly and without emotion. “That is a terrible thing, breaking school property.”

“We weren’t breaking chairs, Rabbi Z,” said Joey, “We were just playing with a Super Ball, and it got away from us.” Bob and I nodded vigorously.

The principal’s mind was made up; he had had reports of student vandalism, and, in true Jewish fashion, had found his scapegoats.

“I’m suspending you three students as an example to the others,” he said, “Go to the locker room and get your things. You’re going home for the rest of the day.”

Chills ran down our spines. I felt tears begin to spring to my eyes. We began to protest, but saw that his mind was made up. As we turned to leave, Rabbi Z added the Final Twist of the Knife:

“Oh—and this is going on your Permanent Record.”

My heart, and my stomach, sank. Me, suspended? I had never even been sent to the Principal’s Office, not once, during all my years in elementary school. Well, maybe once, when I kept on talking after Miss Fay, my 3rd-Grade teacher, had been trying to bring the class to order. And what did Rabbi Z mean about my “Permanent Record”?

Oh, God. What would my parents say?

As the three of us sadly trudged toward the subway, we wondered what our parents would do to us. Nice Jewish boys didn’t get punished; it was simply unheard of.

“My father will probably yell at me—hit me, even,” said Bob.

“Mine, too,” said Joey.

I said nothing. I had never been in this kind of trouble before. What should I do—not go home? Join the Foreign Legion? I remembered seeing a Recruitment Station on 42nd St. for the Armed Forces. Would the Navy take a fourteen-year-old? My thoughts were spinning. And what was my Permanent Record? Where was it kept?

At the subway station, Joey and Bob said goodby. We even shook hands, as if we would never see one another again. It was all very solemn.

I went to the phone booth just inside the doors of the station and called my mother at home.

“Why are you calling me at 11 am in the morning, on a weekday?” she asked, “Why aren’t you in class? Are you sick? Do you have a temperature? Did you throw up? What’s the matter?”

I told her the story: how the Super Ball had gotten me into trouble; how I hadn’t been breaking chairs; how the principal had wanted to Make An Example of me and my friends.

To my surprise, my mother began laughing. It took her a long time to stop. She just laughed and laughed. I couldn’t believe her reaction; I was amazed.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have to apply for kosher food in the French Foreign Legion, after all.

“Come home,” she said, “Looks like you’ve got the rest of the day off.”

“Aren’t you mad at me?” I said.

“How can I be mad at you?” she said, “You didn’t do anything. OK, maybe you shouldn’t’ve taken the Super Ball to school, but you didn’t do anything wrong. I believe you. Come home. All is forgiven.”

There was still my father to be dealt with.

“Don’t worry,” my mother said, “I’ll handle your father.”

When he got home at 6 pm that evening, tired and hungry as he always was, Dad did get angry, but not at me—it was about the administration, and the tuition. Unlike Stuyvesant, which was free, because it was part of the NYC Board of Education system, he had to pay for YUHS. But Mom convinced him I had done nothing wrong, that it was all a misunderstanding.

For years afterward, I did worry about the principal’s putting it into my Permanent Record. I thought that, perhaps, I might be going to a job interview, that everything would be going well, and then the Human Resources guy might be going through my file, and say:

“Hey, wait a minute: what’s this thing about you breaking chairs during your freshman year in high school--?”

But it never happened. Still, you never know. You just never know.