Sunday, January 17, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #7)

A recollection of an incident in my Borough Park, Brooklyn, elementary school, which during the 1950s ran through the sixth grade.

X: Miss Levy

From the time I entered first grade, Miss Levy, the assistant principal, was the terror of Public School 164, the standard factory-like school building on 14th Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. She was about two hundred years old, heavy, plodding, and wore a wig the color of dog poop. She wasn’t only the terror of students; much later, we learned, or heard, that teachers feared her as well.

I don’t know if she ever hit any kids; she might have, since corporal punishment was not off limits in those days. Truth is, she didn’t have to. She could inject fear into you merely by her presence.

But she would rarely announce her presence. Instead, while a class was in progress, she would simply enter the room. No prior notice to the teacher or the students. The teacher would stop, turn to look at her, then nod. Miss Levy would walk to the back of the classroom and stand, staring at the teacher. Who then, being “monitored,” would try to continue teaching as if her classroom were still hers.

I was known to my teachers then as, well, restless. What that meant was that I had a hard time sitting still, silent, with my hands clasped in front of me for too long--more than a few minutes at a time. I’d whisper to classmates. Like to Kenny about how come, if he was Italian, he wasn’t Catholic? (He said he was Protestant.) Or to Harriet, who once said to me she’d show me her thing if I showed her my thing. I said yes, so we did, when the teacher wasn’t looking. Anyway, I talked and talked about lots of things, when I was supposed to behave and be quiet and listen to the teacher. (Today, most likely, I’d be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and pumped up with drugs.)

So one day, in the third grade, when the teacher was facing the board, and Miss Levy was in the back of the classroom, I leaned over to whisper to someone. A sound like nothing I’d ever heard before shot out from the back of the room straight to the back of my head.


I froze.


I turned around, my eyes so wide they threatened to take over the rest of my face.


I stood up, shaking, and walked to the back of the room. Straight to Miss Levy. Who grabbed my right arm and, without saying a word to the teacher whose day she had just disrupted, led me—utterly terrorized—to the door, out into the hallway, and down the stairs to her office.

I don't recall what she said to me. It was probably some lecture about “paying attention.” Or about the difference between being good and being bad. Something like that. Whatever she said, I nodded and nodded. After her admonitions, she had me sit outside her office in the hallway. She stayed inside, and wrote a note to my mother about the importance of teaching me to behave in class.

In the hallway, I was seated on a bench a few yards away from a desk. On it was a typewriter. I had heard about typewriters. You could use them to write things, just like the way writing looked in a book. There was a piece of paper in the typewriter. I stared at it a moment, then made a decision. I slid off the bench, walked over to the desk, and looked at the paper. Nothing was written on it. So then I pressed the following keys: f, u, c, and k.

Then I walked back to the bench and sat down, and waited for Miss Levy. She emerged from her office, handing me a note to my mother in an envelope, and warned me that I had better show it to her, and had better learn to behave. I nodded. Then she let me go back upstairs to my classroom.
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