Gagliano. Stamingo. O’Mera.
Their names sounded like the mob muscle spawned in Hell’s Kitchen and Five Points. But they were tougher than those thugs. And they wore makeup. They were my elementary school teachers. It was 1959.
Ah, O’Mera. Her rimless glasses and squat, angry potato body hovered over me on a daily basis in anticipation of my next screw up. She was almost never disappointed.
By third grade Miss Stamingo would send me to Principal Whitman's office without even the benefit of a trial. I understood. I had already been tried and found guilty of everything for eternity in Miss Gagliano’s lower court of second grade. Since my criminal record had proceded me, there was no need to cover old ground. I was resigned to the fact that any disturbance occurring within 15 yards of my Sears-and-Roebuck-Kid's-Mix-n'
I spent so much time sitting in Principal Whitman’s office that I like to think there’s a velvet rope across that hard wooden chair on which I squirmed almost daily. Maybe even a small plaque with my name on it honoring my many years of service.
The second most heinous crime I ever committed was when I told Miss Stamingo (who played the piano for all the music classes) that my rabbi ordered us to refuse to sing Christmas carols.
I figured not singing carols because I was Jewish must be a whole different way of being wrong.
Rabbi Gartner had assured us that our teachers would understand. Miss Stamingo did not understand. Her face became a frigid sheet of stone. Bristling, little powdered mustache hairs in the corners of her mouth sprang to life. Her usually bored, sing-song tone became hard, clipped. “That’s too bad,” she said. “You have such a nice singing voice.”
As I trudged to Mr. Whitman’s office, I figured not singing carols because I was Jewish must be a whole different way of being wrong.
I secretly felt that my religious boycott was a very courageous act on my part. Not because I was a nine-year-old who was inflaming the wrath of a woman whose Catholic indoctrination (and anti-Semitism) began in the less enlightened 1880's. It was an act of kid bravery and sacrifice because I liked Christmas carols. I liked to sing. And I did have a nice voice. In fact, except for the Jesus part, I liked Christmas. I mean, what did Jewish kids have back then? Chanukah? Forget it.
These days it’s been super sized. But back then Chanukah was a minor, vaguely understood celebration. Every Jewish kid knew that you could get a lot more presents under that tree than you could ever shove under a menorah.
Jewish parent/child negotiations had stalled at the “Eight nights = eight presents” rule. We were the “Chosen People” except when it came to how much kids could choose from the FAO Schwartz Christmas catalogue. Another irony; a guy named “Schwartz” puts out a Christmas catalogue?
Chanukah didn’t have even one remotely catchy or inspirational tune. Nobody was dreaming of a white Chanukah. “I Had A Little Dreidel”? Seriously?
I suppose I was getting mixed messages about a lot of things. Which was why the next year, when O’Mera broke out the lyric sheets for “Silent Night” and “Oh Christmas Tree,” I, who marched to the beat of a different drummer boy, went to Principal Whitman’s office without even being asked.
With O’Mera and me, it became personal.
For Stamingo and Gagliano, meting out punishment was merely part of the job description. They executed their obligations with a detached, governmental efficiency. But to us it felt like O’Mera enjoyed not only punishing us, she loved the hunt, taking pride in breaking our morale and running us to ground. It’s one thing to feel like you’ve broken every elementary school law on the books. It’s another when a teacher makes it personal. With O’Mera and me, it became personal.
Every morning when I walked into her class, I fought the feeling that just by showing up I’d spoiled her day. I realize, now, that it took grit for a little kid to enter a room knowing he was in the cross hairs of a dangerous mind.
It was the day after I had refused to sing the carols in O’Mera’s class when it happened. My name was called. (In a cartoon it would have been drawn “frozen,” with icicles hanging from it.)
I knew the drill: Up to her desk, head down, get chewed out, then listening to the desolate echo of my footsteps as I trudged down the empty, well waxed hallway to the chair.
She mumbled through my career of past felonies. But then her voice got this weird sound in it. I heard her say that I was a trouble maker and always would be a trouble maker. Okay. We know this. Just stamp my file with whatever violation I committed and let me go do my time.
But O’Mera shook me from my daydream by turning to the class and announcing that I was "insane and went to a doctor for crazy people." Then she looked at me as if she was waiting for me to, I don’t know, explode? Melt? Admit I was a nut case? I was fascinated. Not only because I felt the announcement of such a thing was a new level of cruelty and shame – she was always raising the bar on that score - but because she was wrong.
Those monsters in a flower print dresses were a lot of things – mean, hard, unforgiving, but to a kid in the 1950’s they were never, ever wrong.
Except on that day. Wouldn’t I know if I was going to a doctor for crazy people? I didn’t go to any doctor except for Dr. Hirsch. And every kid in town went to Dr. Hirsch. Miss O’Mera was wrong. And this thing she was saying – it didn’t make sense. Then it sunk in. She was using a lie to embarrass me in front of the whole class. She was trying to ruin my whole life. She was about to make every future recess and lunch and kick ball games – previously off limits to teacher’s opinions and criminal records - a living hell.
I did something no kid had ever done. I yelled back. “You’re wrong!
In the general prison population a troublemaker’s rep bought you a bit of positive notoriety. But really wacko? Dangerous crazy kid, chase somebody with scissors, psycho maniac?! Whoa. I’d known a few. You were shunned. Invisible. Permanent cooties. I realized I was fighting for my life up there. And she was wrong. I had to think of something. What?!
I did something no kid had ever done. What did I have to lose? I was dead either way. I yelled back.
“You’re wrong! I don’t see any doctor!”
It was a toss up as to who was more surprised.
Miss O’Mera’s usually florid countenance dropped several shades into a thunderhead of raging purple. I immediately flashed on Miss Stamingo’s quiet, frigid mustache hairs. I would have welcomed them.
O’Mera squawked that my being crazy was in a place called my “records” (It was on an album?). Then she said I was seeing someone called a “psychologist.” Ah ha! I knew she was lying. There was no grownup in my life with any name like “psychologist.” Dr. Hirsch was a “pediatrician.” My dad’s company had a “Superintendent” named “George,” and my mom’s friend, Sandy, was a “Dance Therapist.” Those were the most complicated grown up names in my life. I felt an even stronger sense of purpose.
“You’re wrong! I don’t see anybody called a psychologist!” I yelled with all the fervor and truth my stout little body could marshal. (I was also quite impressed that I pronounced “psychologist” correctly). Sure, I was crying. I was terrified. I was taking on “The Man.” “The System.” Nurse Ratched.
Then I had a sense of another force at work: The class.
They were hanging on every word. They weren’t actually rooting for me. (Mobs hedge their bets till they see who’s winning). I couldn’t blame them. They were as scared as I was. And yet…
Miss O’Mera became more livid and insistent that I was a horrible, evil psychotic troll (not her words exactly). I kept shouting my passionate denials. “Wrong! You are wrong!!”
I could see the fascination on my classmates’ faces. Nobody knew how this was going to turn out. A kid, a Jewish kid no less, was standing up to one of them and to the injustice that was heaped upon little kids all day long. I yelled one more time, although not quite as loud. Dr. Hirsch was my doctor and she could call him if she wanted and he’d tell her.
I caught O’Mera’s look. There was a flicker in her eyes and a pinched lipped grimace of frustration. I stood my ground. Mostly because I knew I was right but also because there was nowhere for me to go. She studied me hard for several moments. Perhaps the calling-Dr.-Hirsch gambit was a really good threat. Then she straightened up. She let out the tiniest pfft of air. I knew what was coming next. I wondered if Whitman would even bother to come out and talk to me or would I just sit in the chair till I was 65 years old.
“Go back to your seat,” she said.
I was stunned. For a moment I didn’t understand English. My “seat?” In the class?
The class was dead silent as I went back to my seat. But I could tell they were in awe.
I didn’t know why I knew it, but I knew. I’d won. She had nothing on me. A teacher had made a mistake of gigantic proportions. I’d stood my ground for truth and justice and the American way! No. Make that in the American Jewish way. The class was dead silent as I went back to my seat. But I could tell they were in awe.
None of us knew what would happen next. The world was a very different place if things like this could happen.
Miss O’Mera went back to whatever it was the class had been doing. (Her slides of The Grand Canyon, or some trip she’d taken last summer with Miss Stamingo and Miss Gagliano.) I didn’t hear a word. I was glowing. Laughing dreidels spun in my head.
It felt great. It still feels great 43 years later. Even after, about 30 years ago, I realized that the really nice guy, Mr. Mecklin, who I went and talked to every Tuesday, was probably a psychologist.