One of my first day-jobs after college was substitute teaching in the Cambridge, Massachusetts public schools. This not only paid a cushy thirty-five dollars a day, it also gave me time to work on my novel (a masterwork about a guy writing a masterwork). And it gave me what we writery types call, “real-life experience”. If Hemingway would go to the Spanish Civil War, I could substitute teach in the Cambridge Public Schools!
On this particular day, I was assigned to the high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, where I taught a class of very-low-track math students. I’d been warned to expect the worst from this group of students and my expectations were not disappointed. Soon enough my class was throwing things, climbing the walls (literally), dropping books accidentally-on-purpose, snickering, making fart sounds, raising their hands and asking, “What does X stand for? Does it mean, like, X-rated?”
We all understood our roles: they were the troublemakers and I was the sub. Although in a way I longed to be one of them – it seemed like fun after all – our parts on that day were preordained. I was the man behind the teacher’s desk, wearily trying to maintain order.
One boy though was not partaking in the revelry of “sub-day”. He was hunched over his desk, scrawling, very intently, paying no attention to anything around him. When I looked more closely, I saw he was drawing swastikas. I then saw that the book he had with him was, “Mein Kampf”.
Well, I thought, at least he wasn’t being disruptive! In fact, when you thought about it, he was my favorite student!
“X is a variable,” I replied to the earlier query. “It’s like a substitute.”
“You’re a substitute.”
“Are you X?”
Halfway through this class, a Vice Principal burst in on the mayhem and immediately started shrieking at my assortment of misfits. It was so vitriolic it actually made me want to stick up for them. Weren’t we a sort of family by now? And honestly those fart sounds really showed some talent! I thought, as her tirade went on, that she would have made an excellent Nurse Ratched.
On the other hand, it must be said that the classroom did respond – temporarily – to this epic scolding, as they had no doubt responded – temporarily – to the thousand scoldings they had already received from the many Nurse Ratcheds of their past. When it was over the Vice Principal turned to me. “Send them straight to me if there is any more trouble.” At last she exited, to continue, no doubt, on her eternal quest for misbehaviors that needed correcting.
In the aftermath, my students seemed sedated as though by a drug. They’d gone from gremlins to zombies. And in this odd quiet, the boy who had been scrawling Swastikas rose and approached me. Whatever humor there might have been in the situation quickly vanished.
He had a buzz-cut, and walked with an odd, crouched-over gait. His eyes did not exactly make contact, but still felt like they penetrated into me. “Are you a Jew?!” he asked me, in an abrupt, jarring tone.
Okayyyyyyyy! This day is breezing along wonderfully! What’s more, I will soon have thirty-five more dollars in my possession to use in our diabolical plot to control the world economy. Feeling a bit unnerved, I answered something teacherly like, “Do you really think you should be asking that?”
It seemed so obvious that there was something wrong with this boy that I felt no animosity toward him. But after the class I sought out the Vice Principal to explain to her what had happened.
“I am Jewish, as it turns out,” I said. “But…”
I wanted to say, “But he needs help.” Only she had already cut me off. Her demeanor was entirely different now that it was just us good, upstanding grown-ups. She was suddenly only concerned with making sure I did not feel offended or discriminated against. She assured me that the boy would punished in no uncertain terms. That it was be taken Very Seriously! And she apologized to me personally.
I tried again. “It’s fine. Really. He just…” But again I failed to explain myself.
At the end of the day the Vice Principal found me once more. “I just want you to know…he’s been suspended for the rest of the week!”
I nodded to show I appreciated this idiotic gesture. To show that I did not blame the school for their young Nazi student. To show that Nurse Ratched and I were two like-minded grown-ups, battling together the dark menace of misbehavior. But inside I thought, what on earth do you think suspending him is going to do? He is obviously mentally troubled! He does not need a suspension. He needs help. For his own sake and everyone else’s.
We often talk about eradicating, “hate.” Yet when I think back to this experience, I start to wonder what this even really means. “Hate,” is a catch-all, after all, for a whole range of emotional and mental health issues. While it is important to speak out against hate, it is not enough. In fact, I’m not even sure it really gets at the root of the problem.
I have no idea what happened to this boy who had demanded to know, “Are you a Jew?” My guess would be he is in prison somewhere. Or maybe he was in Charlottesville. Who knows. I might have a bit more hope for him if I were confident that someone along the way at least tried to assist with his mental well-being.