You swarm around me like grasshoppers, like hungry squirrels. “What’s my name? What’s my name?” you ask with your hopeful eyes, so many frenzied pairs of them surrounding me as I enter the classroom. Have I remembered you finally, my new students, what seems like a countless mass of you?
You, the Hasidic children of Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood… I’m used to seeing you outside on the street, vague local colour. Walking in your plaid uniforms, with large bows planted on one side of your head, a style that, ironically, makes me think of an ostentatious Christmas package. All of you with mid-length hair and black tights, stomping purposefully down Hutchison, Parc, Jeanne-Mance. Passing me. Anonymous.
But now, your faces are just here below mine, upturned and eager, and I suddenly need to know all your names. Each a diminutive, ending in an ee-sound.
You shake your head, no. “Bruchi?” A quick smile. Phew, got it.
And then you, with the ponytail.
“Sha! Nobody say. She has to learn besser the names.”
You’re wearing a gold initial around your neck, a school fashion that’s been helpful.
“Raizy?” No. “Rosy? No. Roisy?” Yes.
Two hundred nuances of Raizy, Rivky, Ruchi. Hundreds of variations of the same twenty syllables, it seems. Chaya Leah? Chayale? Chaya? Chaya Hindy, Hindy Chaya, Chana Hindy… I call out an attendance roll of guesses until I’ve managed to cover everyone in the class.
“Hindy, please sit down.”
“She’s joking—she’s Minky!”
Titters flutter around the room. Oy vey.
I like you girls who are trained to hide your knees and be demure but also to be strong and practical, like your mothers who work and tend a dozen children. Who stride briskly through these streets with young faces poised under stiff wigs.
Yes, I like you and your old-world English, newly acquired and cumbersome in your little mouths, translated thickly from Yiddish.
“Is everyone here?” I ask in the Grade 3 class.
“One girl is failing.”
“Missing, you mean?” A shy nod.
Or, “I’m very upset of Minky. She’s sitting on my benkel!”
“Minky, please go back to your seat. That’s Raizy’s.”
“I saw you with your hair loose on Bernard!” One of you – Bruchi, or Ruchi?— approaches me, scandalized, fascinated. “Your hair was loose! You wear it loose outside from school?”
In school, like a caricature of a prim spinster teacher, I wear a tight bun.
“Are you still a girl?” a little one lisps, her face reddening, not understanding why my old face would still be topped by real hair. Every other girl she’s known gets married by eighteen, graduates to adulthood with a boxy bobbed sheitel and the term “Mrs.” followed closely by, “Mummy.”
“Are you still a girl?” She hangs onto her seat in bewildered delight.
Yes, I’m still a girl who doesn’t want to go to school today. I don’t want to be a teacher, or a spinster for that matter, collarbones covered, and robed in vigilant layers for your school’s severe dress code. I want to stroll along Bernard in my jeans and V-neck t-shirt. Sit on a bench and eat a warm bagel and talk to men in the doorways of bookstores and linger in record shops.
The other neighbourhood happening here, on these shared streets. So why do I now feel naked on them?
I want to be as I was over the summer, lying on the grass in Outremont park, limbs entwined with my summer crush, inattentive to the Hasidic children dotting the area, chattering in Yiddish. You kids and I were then of no special consequence to each other, noted for no more than the fleeting moment we’re accustomed to. Carefully distant in our cheek-by-jowl setting.
But now those clusters of children are you. You, looking at me, following my every move. Not another outsider to sweep your eyes over. I’ve stepped right into your world. I’ve brought the odd interruptions of drama classes and untended hair to the door of your disciplined school.
“Our girls are sheltered. You must respect that.” The principal, an imposing, impressive woman, welcoming but firm. Sharing the first of many classroom prohibitions: “No theatre. We don’t use that word. Drama games.”
“Are we allowed to…?” In class they follow me, uncertain but exhilarated. Winking in complicity behind my back at how much I allow.
“I can be pregmat? I can have a pregmat belly in the skit?” A nine-year-old asks, mischievous.
Mispronouncing the word pregnant, snickering. The mountainous terrain of their lives, still embarrassing.
“My mother had a baby!” A student declares each day, bringing me another photo of a fresh doughy face.
“Mazel tov! How many are you now?” (Though we all know counting blessings tempts envy in others, so the evil eye must be repeatedly shunned.)
“Twelve, knayne hore.”
“Knayne hore. Girl or boy?”
“Girl, knayne hore.”
“Was she named yet?”
“Knayne hore, mazel tov.”
“Okay girls, we’re going to create a sculpture garden. Everyone is going to become a statue, and I will stroll through and guess what you are.” A mild exercise in concentration, a class warm-up.
“We’re not allowed to make statues—that’s avodah zara!”
Idol worship? I think you’re teasing and I roll my eyes, but am wary. Perhaps reframe. “Still as photographs, then.”
Is that more benign? I am almost familiar with the terms of your world—I even know, obscurely, that you’re not allowed to throw your bitten fingernails in the garbage, and I let you excuse yourself to flush them down the toilet—but sometimes I balk. I freeze into a statue myself, unsure how far your imagination is allowed to lead.
In a school where the colour red is forbidden, where the bottoms of Ts must be curled so they don’t resemble crosses, where I’m reprimanded for saying ‘God forbid’ in the wrong context, it’s difficult to assess when I’ve accidentally stepped over the line.
And then there are the times where you trample over my own threshold.
I come to hear the premise of your skit: “A goneff comes into the house!” (A robber?)
“And goes into the boydem!” (The attic?)
“And plutzling the family comes home!” (Suddenly?)
“And the robber is a shaygets!” Please don’t use that word.
“A shvartzeh!” What? Oh God, no.
“But that’s what my mother calls them.”
Foot firmly down in Grade 4, come what may. Will I be fired for writing “racism” or “diversity” on the board? Will imposing an agenda of “multiculturalism” get me sacked? Didn’t I hear they learned about Mandela last year?
I launch into preachy-outsider-teacher mode: Girls, you can have villains in your plays, of course. That’s drama! And, yes, let’s tackle fears, and even enact and overcome them here on the safety of our stage.
But then let’s also talk about the so many kinds of people in this world, dear students. In this neighbourhood we share. It’s not just you and then so many ominous others. It’s us. It’s me! Your weird drama teacher with frizzy real hair and too long earrings who might still be a girl is telling you that Hashem created all the people in this world, all colours and nations, in His infinite wisdom, knayne horeh. This is what I try to say.
Please listen before I leave you, which I rather hope will be soon. I’m not a natural pedagogue and I haven’t come to undo your community. But I do want to gently, slightly, crack open the door leading outside, to this place we share. And I won’t deny it if asked.
I see your condescending looks, your scepticism. But I notice some attention to what I’m saying mixed in. And just for that I’m grateful to be here with you.
“Do you forgive me?” The twelve-year-olds ask at the end of the term.
“For anything I may have done. Are you moykhel me?”
Though I know you ask this of all your teachers at the end of a course so no ill feelings should carry over, still I’m touched. Here we met, you and I. Here we saw each other up close, learned each other’s names.
Your winged eyebrows are raised anxiously, sincere.
“Of course I do, Chany. There’s nothing to forgive. It was wonderful to have you in my class.”
You smile in relief, shy, and press your books into the grey sweater of your uniform.
“It was really fun to be so free. Thank you.”
I want to say, it was really fun for me too. Sometimes it was.
And anyway, who knows in the end how the balance of happiness to unhappiness in your lives compares to that in mine? When I see you walking down St. Viateur or Jeanne-Mance, pushing a stroller—your first baby or maybe your fifth by then—perhaps you will smile or nod at me, even if you catch me eating a non-kosher bagel or wearing pants or holding a man’s hand. Or maybe you will politely avert your eyes. Though so many in the neighbourhood take offence at this, I will know it’s to spare me and my own shyness near you.