The day after our sixth grade basketball team won the championship game against the Jewish People’s School our teacher, Mr. C, began to weep during class. He handed out a quiz about that day’s reading assignment and while we worked independently he stood by the window, looking out, with tears streaming down his cheeks. He was discreet about it, and utterly silent. I might not even have noticed had Carrie not nudged me and indicated with a lift of her chin that I should look in his direction. And even then I didn’t notice at first. I was used to the sight of Mr. C leaning against the sill of the window, looking out. That was how he stood even when he spoke to us. “Children,” he would say, his eyes not on us but on the scene outside: our schoolyard with its hopscotch and champ boards chalked on cracked asphalt and enclosed by chain link fence, the row of brick duplexes across the street. “Take out your Humashim and turn to the third verse of the second chapter of Exodus,” he would say in his Hebrew that was still infected with the Yiddish inflections and pronunciations of Europe, entirely different, that is, from the Hebrew we spoke or aspired to which was the modern—that is to say, Israeli—form of the language. And all the while he’d be looking outside, at the cracked asphalt, the chain link fence, the duplexes across the street.
“What?” I mouthed to Carrie.
She lifted her chin a second time and this time ran her index finger down her cheek so that when I looked again I saw his tears. We had been discussing the game when he walked into the classroom that day and had not stopped our discussion even after he said children several times, each time a little louder until at last he wasn’t calling us children but yelling at us in Yiddish, a language only half of us understood, his face red with anger, the vein in his forehead engorged and hammering in a visible and disturbing way. At which point, on that particular day, we did stop talking, returned to our seats and prepared to begin our class, though there had been many times during that school year when even his explosions had had no effect on us, not on our behavior, in any case, and it was not until our principal Rabbi Loffer was called in—usually by a neighboring teacher—that order was restored and class could begin. It was not that we went out of our way to be rude to him. We didn’t. Or, at least, no more so than with any other teacher who so clearly could not control us. We knew that what he was was not really his fault.
He was a small man, no bigger than some of the boys in our class, and lost inside the crumpled grey suit that he wore every day, a crumpled grey suit that was several sizes too big and that fell in folds around his shoes, which were also too big, more like planters than shoes, as if his feet had gone ahead and reached their full potential before fate and history stunted the rest of him. He was stunted and small, but he wasn’t weak, as those of us who had felt his grip on our wrists or the backs of our necks could attest. There was a strength to him, a hard, dry strength. He was dry and hard and as spare in manner as in build, petrified, it seemed—like the wood we had just learned about, wood that used to be a living tree—except for those moments when anger rushed through him, a flash flood of anger that filled out the cavern that was his face, flushing its grayness with oxygenating blood.
He was a survivor, which was why—we assumed—he had been given the job in the first place. “Why else would they have hired him?” Carrie asked. “It’s not like he can teach.” A survivor, yes, but less of one, if you could put it that way, than others, Carrie’s father for example, who might have had to perch on the edge of her bed many nights to stare at her while she slept but still managed to run a successful business by day and be generally normal to look at and talk to.
I saw his tears that day after the game and I thought that we had caused them. He had come to our game—I had seen him there, up on the highest bench of the bleachers—and we had ignored him. He had called us to attention and we had ignored him. We were the source of his livelihood, all that stood between him and starvation, and we ignored him. I imagined him in his grey suit entering an apartment at the end of his work day, hanging his hat—a grey Homburg —on a peg by the door then shuffling down a dingy brown hall to a dingy beige kitchen where he would make himself tea that he would drink out of a glass like everyone from Europe drank it, with lemon and sugar and hard cookies on the side…and I resolved at that moment to show him kindness and respect, a resolution that I committed to paper and passed in a note to Carrie who rolled her eyes and wrote back asking for the answer to one of the questions on the quiz, which I gave her, and which Mr. C didn’t notice because he was still staring out the window though the tears had stopped by then.
“If he can’t stand the fire he should get out of the kitchen,” Carrie told me at recess. This was a direct quote from her mother, I knew, because her mother had said the same thing to my mother when she had called her a few weeks earlier to enlist her support in having Mr. C removed from our classroom and shifted to a job that was less sensitive than classroom teaching. No one was suggesting he be fired, Carrie’s mother had assured mine.
“I still think we should be nicer to him,” I said to Carrie, but before I had a chance to enact my good intentions—that very afternoon, in fact—Mr. C unleashed his fury at me for giving a wrong answer in class, as if I had deliberately misunderstood the text for the sole purpose of enraging him. I didn’t understand the exact content of his tirade—he had switched into Yiddish—but I understood his fury, his outrage that it was me and my ignorant and boorish ilk that he was forced to teach instead of the vastly superior boys and girls who had perished 20 years earlier in Europe—no one ever died in Europe, they perished—and even though I knew he was crazy and that it wasn’t his fault, and that I shouldn’t pay any attention when he was raging—this is what my mother had counseled me—I still felt the heat of deep shame rising in my face which is what prompted Carrie to send me the note that called him a murderer.
In Carrie’s defense, she was referring to a passage in the Talmud that we had learned earlier that year, that Mr. C himself had taught us, which said specifically: “He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood.” The shedding of blood in the passage refers to the internal flow of blood in the shamed person’s face as it changes color—though the reference is to a whitening of the face, rather than the reddening I exhibited that day—and that is all that Carrie meant. It was her attempt to comfort me in my shame, a shame which Mr. C had caused but which was not really his fault since he couldn’t help who he was, so it felt at that moment like my fault entirely. It was an exaggeration, it’s true, to leap from the shedding of blood to outright murder, but it was in Carrie’s nature to overstate whatever point she was making, and no harm would have been done had Mr. C continued looking out the window as he had been when she first set the note into motion. His tirade at me finished, he had taken up his position by the window and seemed to have forgotten about the class for the moment. Carrie dropped the note on the corner of the desk of Freddy, who sat between us, and then Freddy dropped it on the corner of my desk as he had so many times before, but unfortunately he did so at the precise moment that Mr. C turned back to face us. I saw the note land on my desk and glanced up to see that Mr. C had noticed as well. For a moment, though, he said nothing and I did nothing, and the note sat, untouched and unopened, where it had landed on my desk.
“Nu?” he finally said. His voice was quiet, as it always was after one of his rages. “Aren’t you going to read your mail?”
I should have eaten it, Carrie told me later. I should have stuffed it in my mouth and swallowed it, as we had seen done in countless movies and as she would have done, she assured me. But I had neither Carrie’s presence of mind nor her flair for the dramatic so I opened the note as ordered and read it aloud.
“He’s the one who should be ashamed. He’s a murderer,” I read, and as I did the blood drained from Mr. C’s face in precisely the manner described by Rabbi Nahum b. Isaac in the passage Carrie had referred to: “You say well because I have seen it, (the shaming), the ruddiness departing and paleness supervening.”
Mr. C didn’t speak, couldn’t speak, it seemed. His face was grey and still as stone. The class was quiet too, so quiet that I heard the hand of the clock on the wall behind me advance a minute in its hourly cycle. We were all suspended in the same moment, the same horrible silence until finally, after some time Mr. C told us to take out our readers and read to ourselves, which we did, or pretended to. I tried to keep my eyes on the meaningless letters and words that swam in front of me, but after a while I had to look up, to see him. He was looking away from us, out the window, but I could see enough of his face to know that the blood that had drained from his face had not returned. It was a cadaver’s face that I was looking at, or could have been if not for the lone muscle working in his jaw, clenching and unclenching in a rapid, repetitive motion.
He was not at school the next day, or the rest of that week and the word was that he was having a breakdown, one caused—obviously—by me and Carrie. He had never been a popular teacher, but the sympathy was all with him, even after Carrie explained herself repeatedly and eloquently. If our principal or any of the teachers were aware of what had happened they didn’t intervene. I think they probably didn’t know because as quick as our classmates were to blame me and Carrie, they felt ashamed of themselves as well, implicated in the unspeakable act that they had witnessed. That one of us—safe, spoiled and pampered in every way—could accuse one of them of murder, and Mr. C, no less, who was the embodiment of the walking wounded, was so inexcusable that it tainted anyone who had heard the words that Carrie had written and that I had given voice.
He did return to school the following week and to my great relief he looked no different than before: the same hard compactness inside the same grey suit which fell in the same folds over the same oversized black shoes. He removed his hat—the same grey Homburg—as he always did upon entering the classroom and ran his hand across the crown of his head, as was his habit, to make sure his black kipah was where it should be before placing his hat on his desk.
“Good morning children,” he said.
“Good morning Mr. C,” we answered in unison, because it was we who were different, or thought we were, changed by our shame about what we had done, and by our hope that our repentance—in the form of unwavering courtesy towards him from that moment on—would suffice, if not redeem us.
Mr. C began the class by having us read aloud, each of us in turn, from a text we were learning. We read as we always did, some of us fluently, some of us not, Mr. C interjecting corrections as necessary, and interrupting now and then with questions which the smart and more diligent among us fought to answer by waving their hands in the air, some going as far as to grunt while they waved in hopes of attracting Mr. C’s attention, and the stupider and less studious among us looking down to avoid Mr. C’s eyes, which had regained the sharp, almost beady focus that the blow—mine and Carrie’s—had knocked out of them the week before. Mistakes were made, corrected. Mr. C did not explode.
We began to relax, to imagine that no harm had been done—no further, permanent harm, that is—and then Marc delivered the correct answer to a question Mr. C had posed. It was not a brilliant answer. It was not even a particularly interesting answer. But it was correct, entirely adequate—this from a student who had been caught more than once with Playboy slipped inside the tractate of Talmud he was poring over with such fervor— and in the shocked silence that followed Mr. C began to weep.
This time he did not turn away from us. He stood at the front of the class, facing us, with tears running down his cheeks. He was not sobbing, was completely still, in fact, so still that I was not certain at first that what I was witnessing was actually crying, an activity I associated with at least some facial movement, some exhibit of bodily will. His arms were at his sides, his palms out, facing us, his face tilted slightly upward. He seemed almost to be listening or waiting for something, and I might even have called his expression hopeful had it not been for the tears streaming down his face. And then it passed. We saw it pass, a tremor of self-consciousness like the shadow of a cloud moving rapidly across his face, and then a quick, furtive flurry of activity—a white handkerchief wiping, drying his cheeks. He blew his nose, one loud honk, as if he had just come in from the cold, and then he called on the next student to read.
And so it continued. There was no pattern to the crying, no way of knowing what might set him off. One day he was writing a phrase on the blackboard. His arm was extended just above the level of his head as he wrote on the upper portion of the board. He had finished one word and was about to begin the next when he paused and rested his face against his upper arm. It looked at first like he had a sudden itch on his nose or forehead which required him to rub his face against the coarse wool of his suit, except that he wasn’t rubbing, he was motionless, and he held the position for too long. We waited. We were getting used to this now. Again there was no accompanying movement, no shaking of his shoulders, no obvious indication of crying, but we knew by then that in that moment of apparent rest—and that’s what it looked like, like he was resting, like he had been overtaken by the exhaustion of writing a phrase across a blackboard in a classroom full of strangers’ children that he had been charged, through no fault of his own, to teach—that there were tears flowing out of his eyes and into the grey wool of his suit. Were we silent? I believe we were. But we were no longer frozen or afraid as we had been when the crying had started. It was almost normal by then, normal for Mr. C, that is, and while I don’t believe there was any snickering or whispering, it’s possible that some of us did take the opportunity to get some of our private business done while his gaze was averted—buried, actually, within the sleeve of his suit—that notes may have been passed and sticks of gum unwrapped and popped into mouths. After a few moments he raised his head again and finished the phrase he had been writing. I don’t remember what it was.
The crying had started in November, and while it seemed at the time to go on forever it was, in fact, over—finished—within a few weeks. We arrived at school one morning just before the winter break and it was our principal, not Mr. C who walked into our classroom, our principal, Rabbi Loffer, accompanied by a younger version of himself, meaning a rabbi of the modern orthodox type, brisk and confident. Mr. Czernowitz was ill, Rabbi Loffer informed us, and he wouldn’t be returning to our school. Ever, we understood. Rabbi Zlatkin would be our teacher from now on, Rabbi Loffer continued, a point of information to which Rabbi Zlatkin gave a quick, efficient smile. Rabbi Loffer also smiled as us then and said he knew we could be trusted to behave in a responsible and respectful manner, which, of course, we and Mr. C knew we could not.