School Days – A Lesson Learned
Ca. 1937 – or so. My school years, grades K – 8, were spent in a dilapidated, crumbling, red-brick New York City Public School. And although I can still sing the “rousing” school song, and remember most of the kids with whom I spent those eight years going up and down the gray-walled staircases, it’s puzzling to me how very few real memories remain. Or why I remember those that I do. Nothing is spectacular about them – just little snippets of ordinary events. But before they all fade away forever, I shall write down a few so I can recall them many, many years from now, when I’ve grown old. One of these follows…. I remember my third grade teacher, Miss Budelman. Different teachers began the day in different ways – but all began with “Good Morning, Class,” to which the students would reply in unison. Some of the teachers would stand outside of the classroom waiting until the bell rang and we had all scrambled for our seats, before entering the room. Not so, Miss Budelman. She would be seated at her desk, straight as a broom-handle, head erect, hands folded on her desk, waiting for us to quietly enter the room and quickly take our assigned seats. When the bell sounded she would rise and say, “Good Morning Class” and we would reply, with one voice, “Good Morning Miss-us Budelman”. Her response never varied. “Miss Budelman children, not Mrs. I’m not married.” We would then have to say – again in unison “Good Morning MISS Budelman”. Using the “Miss” rather than the “Mrs.” threw off our sing-song cadence. Without the extra syllable, the chorus was a bit ragged around the edges. Despite the arrhythmic and fuzzy response, it was required for the entire year. I think that after a while this verbal morning exercise became almost a game – or a battle of wills. We never understood why she was so proud of being a “Miss”. You would think that she would want to downplay that fact. To us, she was an “old maid”. My goodness, she must have been 20, or maybe 25 or so. She was also blonde, slender, and as I recall, rather a pretty woman. Looking back, I wonder whether she wasn’t hoping for one of the students to find her an uncle, single father, or family friend, so she could forsake the “Miss” for a “Mrs.”. Anyway… Aside from the morning greeting ceremony, the only event I remember from that entire year was a spelling bee just before Easter. The prize for the winner was to be a cellophane-wrapped chocolate bunny, perhaps about 12 inches tall. The cellophane was gathered at the top and tied with a large yellow bow. Richie Jones and I were the last ones standing at the end of the contest, and I finally won. Whereupon Richie burst into wailing and a flood of tears because he really, really wanted that chocolate rabbit. I was horrified, and more distressed than he. You see, Richie Jones cried a lot – whenever he didn’t get his own way or had to do something he didn’t want to do – and the crying always ended up in vomiting all over the floor, (unlike Donny Smith, who also cried a lot – whenever he got nervous, as just prior to a test, or when he didn’t have his homework. But Donny didn’t vomit – he just made wee in his pants, and all over the floor). The school janitor wasn’t overly fond of either of these boys. But back to Richie. Not only I, but no one in the whole class ever wanted to see Richie cry. But on this day I was particularly chagrined because it was all my fault. If only I hadn’t won that dumb spelling bee. And now everyone in the class would be mad at me. With remarkable insight for a third-grader (or perhaps just a very strong instinct for self-preservation), I went quickly to Miss Budelman’s desk, bypassing my own, and asked her to give the chocolate bunny to Richie. At this point, Richie was still wailing but had not yet progressed to the vomiting stage. Miss Budelman seemed only too happy to oblige. With great alacrity, she pushed her chair back, grabbed the rabbit by the top bow and (making sure to stand back from him a little way), handed the rabbit to Richie. I wish I could say, “All’s well that ends well,” but I can’t. Richie never forgave me for winning and causing him to cry – even though I sacrificed and gave up the chocolate bunny. The other kids in the class looked askance at me and taunted me with “Oh, you think you’re so smart.” Which, of course, I didn’t at all. Had I been smart, I would have thought quickly enough to incorrectly spell that last word, thereby avoiding the whole sorry situation. When I got home my mother said I had done a nice thing. That made me feel a little better – but not as good as eating a chocolate bunny would have made me feel. Miss Budelman probably God-Blessed me for my resourceful solution to the impending disaster. And, if the janitor ever heard about the incident, he probably did as well. School teaches us many lessons having nothing to do with the 3R’s. To this day, I politely decline participation in any activity in which there is a singular and clear-cut winner. Just in case!