The Nazi in my Classroom – a Personal Experience

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.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. You are too kind. That kid was most likely mentally ill. He was a young antisemite. That is, unless we believe that every Nazi was or is mentally ill.

    • this is a complicated topic that deserves a lot more than the sentence or two i am going to give it. I do believe a large percent of the neo-nazis in the U.S., particularly the most extreme, are mentally ill. this person who killer Heather Heyer, for example, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and on anti-psychotic medication. there are a much larger group of so-called “white nationalists” who i would say are almost all perfectly sane and just full of hatred. i have little doubt that the kid i saw back then was seriously mentally ill, although i certainly can’t prove it.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. I think you make a very good point. I recently saw the Vice video, which featured the neo nazi Christopher Cantwell. I found everything about this man to be vile. However, after that I saw another video of him crying because he was afraid he might be arrested. It became obvious from watching this second video that he has significant emotional problems and needs help. I was surprised that none of the many comments noted this emotional instability. Instead, they were all very much in the spirit of, ‘hahaha look at this bitch ass baby cwyying’. I’m not saying that these hate-filled individuals are not dangerous, they are. But you do have to wonder how did they get that way? And could anything have been done earlier to prevent it?

    • particularly when they are young, not only do we owe it to society to try to help them – we owe it to them as well. paranoia and schizophrenia are diseases, and they are so often behind these crazy extremists. certainly, i feel same rage everyone else does when i see them. but it is worth trying to be a little more thoughtful about it.

  3. Thank you for this. Every time I think I’m getting tired of your blog, and wonder why I signed up for these posts, you go and post something powerfully funny–or simply powerful, like this. If we are going to combat “hate,” we do need to wonder what turns a child into a hate-fueled adult, and where we might intervene to stop that that process. So I’m going to stick around for what you might say next/

    • thank you. although…i’m sorry that at times you’ve felt tired of it. but i understand. it is hard to have something interesting and / or funny every week! some weeks i do better than others.

      • You do wonderfully, Dan, and I’m NOT Thanks for speaking out. And I worry about the haters, and wonder about some of the hater-haters too. Those Who Engage In Public Shaming and Bullying of any sort. I was in a little bookstore lately and ran across The Hundred Dresses, an unusually dark and heart-wrenching children’s book about bullying by Eleanor Estes… and went to Kristallnacht in my mind. This is a really good book to bring into schools, etc right now… check it out if you don’t know it. Speaking of early intervention…

        • thanks much. this piece came out well, or at least i was pleased with it. i haven’t heard of, ‘the hundred dresses.’ there’s a lot i disagree with in changes to schools since i was young, but one hugely positive change is the attention to bullying. it used to be that if it didn’t interrupt the classroom the school did not want to know. and it really was a moral abdication. i saw cruelty that should never have been tolerated.

    • thank you. seems most readers missed the humor :). i was very unsure whether i should even write this with humor. would that be making light of such a serious issue? but pleased with how it came out.

    • oddly, i’d really completely forgotten about this experience. it wasn’t even charlottesville that reminded exactly. it was someone saying, ‘we need to eradicate hate’. thanks.

  4. Thank you a well written and well balanced post. I work in mental health and I sometimes feel that “mental illness” is the trash can diagnosis for all bad behavior. It certainly is a factor, but as you say not all haters are mentally ill because of a neurobiological problem. We are also impacted by environments that bring out the best, and the worst, in each of us. Choosing kindness goes a long way in helping people be their best selves even if they are “mentally ill” or have a potential to become unstable. Nature and Nurture are, I believe, equally 100% influential in who we become in the world.

    Robin

    • Robin i agree with your thoughts. I’m not in the field personally but everyone else in my family is, so i feel as though I grew up thinking about these issues. some people are very resistant to even thinking about the possibility that some of these people are seriously mentally ill, because it sounds like an excuse for horrible cruelty. But to me this somewhat amounts to refusing to believe something because it is uncomfortable-feeling. of course, our mental health interventions are not reliably effective, so even with the best help, some will still be dangerous. again…a very complex issue. the most i can hope to do here is provoke some thought.

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