Tuesday, January 12, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #6)

Junior high school days in Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the 1950s.

IX. Clinking

At Montauk Junior High School, an imposing red brick building on 16th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, you always got a sense about which teachers you could torture, and which you had better not. You got it regardless of the grade you were in: seventh, eighth or ninth. In sheet metal shop—which only boys could take, because girls had to learn “home economics," such as how to buy food and do other things that future mothers have to do—you dared not try to torture the teacher, Mr. Davis. That’s because he let you know from day one who was boss. If a student made a mistake on one of the machines that shaped the huge metal sheets, it was not unheard of for Mr. Davis to take the kid’s books and papers and throw them across the room, where they scattered. Nor was he above grabbing the kid by the shirt and pushing him so hard he fell. When that happened, the rest of us would turn to ice, but we kept on working anyway.

But in Miss Renny’s class, which was English, you could torture her. She was older than most teachers, slight, maybe five feet or so, with gray hair and a skinny body. She was very quiet, even when she spoke. All softness. Her voice was never harsh, and just loud enough for us to hear. All she cared about were things like grammar and books that she made us read.

But something about her let us know we could torture her. I don’t know what it was; just her manner, I guess. An easy target. Anyway, here’s how we did it. After she would greet us, and maybe take attendance, she would turn to face the black board, and start to write something on it. That was our signal. One of us—myself once in a while, usually somebody else—would make a sound like a cow mooing. Miss Denny would whirl around. Everybody sat stone faced. Or pretended to copy what she had written. She’d look at us, her eyes scanning the fixed rows of students, and then, never scolding, turn back to the board.

After the mooing, the next thing was clinking. You would place your hands under your seat, which was connected to a desk, and feel for the metal fittings. At one spot, you could feel metal upon metal, probably a nut affixed to a steel strip or something. Anyway, you took your fingernail and placed it on the nut, then flicked your nail so that it hit the underlying metal strip. That made a clinking sound.

So when Miss Renny turned back to the board, we all (or at least all the boys, or most of them) would do the thing. Clink clink clink. The sound of a million clinks filled the air. So of course Miss Renny would turn around again and stare at us. The clinking stopped. We all sat still, like well-behaved pupils are supposed to. Until she again faced the board, and we started it again. Clink clink clink.

One day, it became so bad that Miss Renny did something she had never done before. She threw down her piece of chalk and walked out of the room, not saying a word. We saw her crying.

From then on that semester, we only had substitute teachers for English. Until one day, when someone new stood at the front of the class and told us she would now be our regular teacher. Something about her—I really don’t know what—let us know she was more like Mr. Davis of sheet metal than Miss Renny of English. Not that she was violent or anything. It's just . . . there was something. Anyway, that was the end of our clinking.

If any of us had felt badly about what we had done to Miss Renny, we never admitted it.

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