In conjunction with MJTC's production of Collected Stories, audience members were prompted to share their own stories answering the question "How have your collected experiences shaped your identity?". The winner, Dick Schwartz, submitted a nonfiction piece surrounding a mosaic of little moments throughout his teaching career.
We are pleased to share his story with you now. Enjoy.
Peculiar, poignant and wonderfully spontaneous humorous moments shaped my identity as a teacher. Here are some:
In a remote Oregon town, my student, Rory, upon seeing my Star of David, exclaimed with innocent and well-meaning excitement: “Mr. Schwartz! I didn’t know you’re a Jewish! Merry Christmas!”
At the Kiwanis welcome luncheon for new teachers, a burly horse rancher eyeballed my Semitic features and long black hair and said, “Schwartz, huh? That’s yer name?” followed by: “ ’Bout time we have a Native American teachin’ in our school.” What? Huh? Never figured that one out, but it sure sounded like he meant well. It still does.
The father of Billy Gray stared me down for an entire school year. On the last day of class he entered my classroom cradling a bundle wrapped in blood-soaked newspaper. “Here,” he said. “For teaching my boy to read.” I learned — after racing in terror to my principal with the bloody package — it was venison. Billy’s father had shot a deer for his family’s food and wanted to share it with me. He had no money to spare, but “Besides, venison was worth a whole lot more to him,” my principal explained.
There was Christopher, whose Mafia dad diligently attended every teacher-parent conference with two bodyguards. He always asked if his son was respectful to his classmates and me and if he did all his homework. In the end he hired a professional film crew to videotape commencement exercises and sent a commemorative copy to every graduate.
And there was my teaching gig at an Orthodox yeshiva in New York: One morning I saw several rabbis huddled in the corner of a hallway, presumably “davening.” Not daring to disturb their prayer, I walked unobtrusively past them but not so fast that I didn’t hear them chuckling. Later, one of the rabbis confided that they were “debriefing” about the previous day’s Howard Stern radio show.
Not long after that (having come from Oregon to New York City licensed to teach First Aid and CPR, as well as English), I asked my students to bring large dolls to class from their homes, since I could not secure CPR dummies from the local Red Cross. Melissa raised her hand and, in a matter-of-fact tone, informed me that she no longer owned dolls but instead would be happy to bring, on any day except Wednesday, her nanny. (I thanked her but said no.)
About two years later, having moved on to another school, I received a phone call from Michael, who had been in Melissa’s CPR class. Michael’s father had recently suffered a heart attack at their shabbos dinner table. Michael wanted to tell me that he had performed CPR on his father and had resuscitated him just long enough to say, “I love you, Papa,” before his father died.
And here in Minneapolis, where I retired not long ago, there was Brad. Traditionally, we taught Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” at the end of each school year to our soon-to-be grads. Most got a kick out of reading the quite bawdy “The Miller’s Tale.” At one point in his tale, for reasons that you can investigate on your own, the Miller explains that “Nicholas anon leet flie a fart.” As we read this portion in proper Middle English (by the way, students can hardly believe the word “fart” existed in the 1300s), Brad let fly a tremendous (and well-timed) fart of his own, immediately eliciting a rousing standing ovation from his impressed and elated classmates.
And then there was Cameron, who enthusiastically volunteered to read Shakespeare’s sonnet 54 that offers the lovely sentiment, “O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem.” Cameron unintentionally but with passionate intonation, read it this way: “Zero, how much more beauty beauteous seem.” His classmates chose to ignore his snafu and not correct the sincere young man. Neither did I.
Or my students, bless their hearts, who recited Macbeth’s glorious “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy in their native Hebrew, Ukrainian, Chinese, French, Spanish and Ewe. More beautiful, heartfelt renditions were never heard.
In end, we become, if we’re lucky enough, those who we teach.
More audience stories and poems are on display on the back wall of the theater, and can be read before and after each performance of Collected Stories.