Miss Stone, the much feared and little respected sixth grade teacher, abruptly halted the singing of Christmas carols, “Billy, why aren’t you singing? You have the words on the papers I handed out right in front of you.” She was glaring at him. Her words were not questions or requests. They were snarled more as challenges on the verge of being accusations. She was now walking directly toward his desk and no student ever wanted Miss Stone at their desk towering over them, “Why aren’t you singing?”
Head down, looking into his hands Billy Goldstein was no longer the new wiz kid in class. It seemed as though his ability to speak clearly had deserted him. He mumbled, “We have no religion. We don’t go to Temple.”
“You don’t have to go to Temple to read the words I supplied you with. Tell us right now why don’t you sing.”
Oh my God, I thought; She is really going after him. We had all seen demonstrations of her wrath before, but the tone and volume of her voice made this totally over the top. I was just glad it wasn’t me like last week when I was her target over my total, chronic inability to spell.
It was December 22nd 1958, the last day of class before Christmas vacation, two whole weeks away from school. Academics were over for the afternoon. We were having a Christmas party reminding us of the real reason for a vacation coming at this time of the year. Most of the kids just thought we needed a respite; but Miss Stone took it upon herself to remind us more than once of the Christ Child’s birth. There was even a manger scene in the corner of the class room, so we would all keep quite pious about it. One class member dubbed it the “Jesus Farm” a phrase all of us made very sure Miss Stone never heard. Most of the kids were just singing and wondering when we could get to the juice and cookies.
It was Billy’s first year in the school. His family had moved from the Mid-west to Worcester in time to register him for the sixth grade in September. His father had been hired by the Worcester Foundation for Biology which was soon to become famous and controversial for one of Worcester’s major claims to fame: the development of the birth control pill. This was the era before social mobility. New students were rare. Most of the kids in this class had been together for the entire six years of grammar school.
He quickly established himself as one of the brightest kids in the class. But Billy’s entrance into the sixth grade upset the smartness hierarchy. The competition for the designation as smartest kid for the past three years was between Debra and Peter. Billy came in and carved out his own space by behaving exactly as the teacher expected and especially by answering many questions others could not. The former number ones now had to settle for competing for second place. Resentment toward the interloper was muted by his quiet demeanor and smile. He never bragged about how smart he was, he simply demonstrated it every day. He appeared to be the ideal student answering questions, getting high grades, and volunteering to help at every opportunity. While the smart kids did not like being relegated to the second tier, they did like him.
Miss Stone welcomed him to her class, enjoyed his efforts and treated him as a sort of special student she knew she could rely upon for involvement and correct answers. To her his answers were affirmation that she was not a failure and her teaching methods worked at least with those who wanted to learn. But today none of that mattered. Billy was the target.
As the caroling began for the first time since September Billy had become disengaged. These things had little meaning to him. He knew they were related to the Pledge of Allegiance and prayers every morning. This was stuff adults got excited about and kids did because they were told to. He did what most of the Jewish kids did every day during this time. He recited the Pledge and tried to look inconspicuous during the Lord’s Prayer. But one slip into daydreaming and her wrath was aroused, “You are given everything you need to participate and yet you do not. Tell us now, what are you? In the middle of this party you can’t even sing these simple carols about His Birth. That is so offensive and disrespectful. We do all this work for you and you sing nothing.”
He was slouching lower into his chair as though trying to disappear between the floor boards. But there was no escape until she relented and she wasn’t doing that anytime soon. She had her music curled into a cylinder. I thought she was going to hit him with it. I was glad it was paper and not wood.
I began thinking about the most popular television show of that season, “Run Silent, Run Deep.” It was about the submarine service in The Second World War. Every week included a scene of an enemy destroyer attacking an American submarine which escapes by diving deep below the surface and lying silently on the ocean floor for hours until the destroyer left. The submarine had to lie there for hours in perfect silence. Even talking was forbidden since it could be heard by the destroyer’s sonar. The destroyer set off explosives designed to float to various depths of the ocean and explode in hopes of blowing the submarine up. Each week the depth charges would explode all around. Sometimes water leaks would begin to appear inside the hull with crew members desperately and silently trying to prevent a leak from becoming a flood. Laying on the bottom was the only hope. All Billy could do was sit on the bottom and wait for the destroyer to retreat.
Correct answers which he so willingly offered from the first day of school until today offered no protection. It was clear there was some leakage to Billy’s hull. He had a look of panic on his face. He was working hard to stifle tears which were beginning to show in the corners of his eyes. He was a novice at this kind of battle and was thus ill prepared.
Briefly, I, a frequent target of her displeasure, enjoyed seeing one of the smart kids fall. He was like a rock that fell of a cliff into the ocean. I thought, Wow, there is something this kid doesn’t know. I’m glad she is at someone else’s desk for a change. But the enjoyment was brief because the next depth charge came very quickly, “Well, your kind has always been a problem and I guess it always will be.” With that she turned sharply and strutted to the front of the room.
Billy tried again with voice cracking, almost in a whisper, “We don’t go to Temple.”
I was thinking, Nice try. But you are better off to sit quietly pretending to be respectful. Just tolerate the intensity and eventually she will walk away. She is sure stuck in this. Lady, the kid is Jewish, of course he doesn’t sing Christmas carols. Just like six or seven of the other kids in the class. They just fake it better than Billy.
“You might want to hide what you are but the rest of us know;” one last final depth charge hurled at his soul.
With that I got it. She knew exactly what she was doing. The Golden Boy had betrayed her, showed his true colors were not going to change and so became the target. It had nothing to do with singing or not singing. If his name was Smith or Jones or Wilson, he would have received a mild reprimand. But as a Goldstein he was verbally assaulted. I had heard of people not liking Jews but had never seen it operating so blatantly. She was providing a Christian opportunity and he declined. She would be deprived of a cosmic merit badge for her successful efforts, “Such a waste. Well some of us acknowledge what we are and some of us hide. Just read the words of the songs and learn something.” The last words were spoken as accusations through clinched teeth.
“Class, we will now sing ‘Joy to the World;” I began singing with the others not because I had any particular belief or joy in the moment but because I did not want her catching me not singing. I sang in defense not celebration. I sang the words as printed, but I was probably thinking something like
Joy to the world
The Lord has come.
And teacher just beat the shit out of the Jewish kid.
If this is what your religion is
I don’t want it.
Now can we just eat the damn cookies.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief for Billy and for themselves when the depth charges stopped exploding. No one else had become a target. But even now there was no guarantee that the destroyer would not return. The mood in the class was like the mood on a submarine on the television show when a destroyer left the scene. Everyone was very cautious, hypervigilant, scanning the environment with no intention of surfacing very soon. Billy inched his submarine along the ocean bottom. He no longer cared about the cookies, but he knew that not getting up could bring more attention to himself and that was the last thing he wanted. He had no intention of surfacing so he said nothing to anyone. He grabbed the nearest brownie and cup of juice and returned to his desk. Two girls separately brought him a cookie and wordlessly placed it on his desk. Sitting through the rest of the party was almost as awkward as the verbal mugging.
When school finally ended Billy remained as submerged as any submarine during World War II. He walked out of the door as rapidly as he could. The instant he reached the edge of school property he broke into a sprint for home. It was clear he wanted no contact with any of us. Destroyers could still be lurking in the waters. He fled north, up Institute Road, to the safety of his home. I walked east along Park Avenue toward mine, glad for the two-week respite from this class and its daily drudgery and especially glad for the end to the inhumanity of this day.
Usually, the second I left the school property my thoughts instantaneously turned elsewhere. But this day, my awareness lingered with what I had just witnessed. I wondered if Miss Stone knew her tirade was a blunder. What started out as an innocent party became an opportunity for a bit of evangelism and then a vehicle of brutal shaming. She was inviting him into a little fragment of “The Way.” When he declined, she became self-righteously furious. She probably sabotaged her relationship with her favorite student and perhaps of equal importance after such a noble demonstration of her faith neither he nor I was going to be entering any house of worship in the near future. What was also clear to me is that adults were very weird and that religious ones were often dangerous no matter how much they spoke about a God of love.
C. Graham Campbell, Ph.D., has been a psychologist of over thirty-five years in central Massachusetts. He now spends his time meditating, writing, and taking nature photographer. His works appear in Psychotherapy Networker, Natural New England, Leaping Clear, Ravens Perch,. He is currently working on a memoir and a book of nature mysticism. His blog is www.cgrahamcampbell.com.