For New Year’s, I resolved to take my own advice and write some more stories about my life, using topics such as “boats,” “teachers,” “food” and so on.

I started with teachers, realizing that if I said all I wanted to say about my teachers, it would take a very long time. But here’s one story, about Simon Young, my Hebrew School teacher for many years.

We kids all went to “Hebrew” two afternoons a week and in the morning on Sundays. We learned well enough to read the prayer book, as well as how to participate in and lead religious services. If you think learning a foreign language is difficult, try learning one with a whole new alphabet and written backwards.

Mr. Young spoke English with a heavy Yiddish accent. I wish I knew the story about how he escaped World War II and came to the United States, but to us children he was just there, our teacher.

Mr. Young always wore a dark suit, white dress shirt and tie. He was short, jowly and extremely old, possibly as old as 40. He claimed to have learned English by reading Shakespeare. His favorite characterization of some of his lazier pupils definitely had a memorable classical rhythm: “A morbid propensity for sloth and procrastination.”

I used to confound my own students with this line many years later.

Today, I ask myself many questions about Mr. Young. How did he come to America? What was he thinking as he taught his classes of recalcitrant mischievous ignorant little pests? Was he wondering how his life had turned out this way, teaching Hebrew to suburban pre-adolescents of an alien culture? Would he rather have gone to Israel and become a pioneer? Was he just thankful to be alive?

You could tell he liked the smart students and was diplomatically impatient with the others. After all, we didn’t have to be there, as someone must have told him. He gave a gift to those of us who could receive it — the gift of high expectations, the glimmer of understanding of what it meant to be a scholar. He knew a vast amount. He wanted us to learn. He was so happy when some of us actually did learn. Then he aspired to teach us more.

One day, the boys who sat in the back of the room played a practical joke on him. They came in early with a fake rubber inkblot and an empty ink-bottle and placed them on Mr. Young’s open prayer book. We all sat perfectly still, watching and waiting to see what would happen. We knew this was bad, but the social rules kept us quiet.

Mr. Young came in. Saw. Stopped dead. Screamed. Threw the ink-bottle at the wall and grabbed his book. Then he realized it was a fake inkblot and rushed out. We sat there silent and appalled. There was no class that day.

Here’s one of the lessons I take from this story. Mr. Young would not have won any teaching awards at any time. I doubt he ever had a lesson plan; he probably didn’t know what they were. He didn’t necessarily like his job very much. But he tried to do his duty by us, three times a week for many years, turning us into competent members of our religious community.

In spite of all the differences of age, culture, expectations, learning and language, a relationship of respect grew up. But, like all human relationships, it was imperfect. On the day of the inkblot, we students failed our teacher.

That day we all learned a lesson about complicity and the dangers of staying silent. It was one of the most important lessons I ever learned.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]


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