What with his wife so ill these past few weeks and the prospect of three more days of teaching before the weekend break, Mr. MacPherson felt unusually glum. He trudged along St. Dominique Street to within sight of the school. Because it was early and he wanted to avoid the Masters' Room, he paused for an instant in the snow. When he had first seen that building some twenty years ago, he had shut his eyes and asked that his work as a schoolmaster be blessed with charity and achievement. He had daydreamed about the potential heritage of his later years, former students now lawyers or doctors or M.P.'s gathering in his parlor on Sunday evenings to lament the lost hockey games of twenty years ago. But for some time now Mr. MacPherson had felt nothing about the building. He couldn't describe it or tell you how to get there any more than he could forget that Shelley's Ode to the West Wind was on page 89 of Highroads to Reading, the central idea being the poet's dedication to a free and natural spirit.
Since he had first come to the school in 1927 a tight-lipped young Scot with a red fussy face many of Mr. MacPherson's earliest students had, indeed, gone on to make their reputations in medicine, politics, and business, but there were no nostalgic gatherings at his home. The sons of his first students would not attend Fletcher's Field High School, either. For making their way in the world his first students had also graduated from the streets of cold-water flats that surrounded F.F.H.S. to buy their own duplexes in the tree-lined streets of Outremont. In fact, that morning, as Mr. MacPherson hesitated on a scalp of glittering white ice, there were already three Gentiles in the school (that is to say, Anglo-Saxons; for Ukrainians, Poles, and Yugoslavs, with funny names and customs of their own, did not count as true Gentiles), and ten years hence F.F.H.S. would no longer be the Jewish high school. At the time, however, most Jewish boys in Montreal who had been to high school had gone to F.F.H.S. and, consequently, had studied history out of The World's Progress (Revised) with John Alexander MacPherson; and every old graduate had an anecdote to tell about him.
Mr. MacPherson's most celebrated former student Jerry Dingleman, the Boy Wonder liked to tell the one about the merit cards.
Once Mr. MacPherson tried giving out merit cards to his students for such virtues as exceptionally high examination results, good behavior, and neat writing. Each month he collected the cards and gave the boy who had earned the most of them the afternoon off from school. But at the end of the third month it was Jerry Dingleman who stood up to claim and, on demand, produce a suspiciously high stack of soiled merit cards. Now Mr. MacPherson knew that he had never awarded Dingleman, a most inattentive and badly behaved boy, one single card. On the threat of a week's suspension from school Dingleman confessed that he had won all the cards playing nearest-to-the-wall with the other boys in the toilet, and so the system ended.
Many of the other anecdotes, especially the more recent (and vastly exaggerated) ones, had to do with Mr. MacPherson's drinking habits. It was true that by 1947 he was a heavy drinker, though he was certainly not, as they say, a problem. He was still much slimmer than his first students, but his face seemed more bitingly angry and the curly black hair had grayed. Mr. MacPherson was more inclined to stoop, but, as on his first day at F.F.H.S., he still wore the brim of his battered little gray fedora turned down, rain or shine, spoke with a thick Scots accent, and had yet to strap a boy.
If Mr. MacPherson had altered somewhat with the years, the school building had remained exactly the same.
Fletcher's Field High School was five stories high, like the Style-Kraft building that flanked it on one side and the tenement on the other. Across the street at Stein's the bare-chested bakers worked with the door open even during the winter and, at school recess time, were fond of winking at the boys outside and wiping the sweat from under their armpits with an unbaked kimel bread before tossing it into the oven. Except for the cracked asphalt courtyard to the right of the school, separating it from the tenement, there was little to distinguish this building from the others.
There were, of course, the students.
At that moment several of the older boys leaned against Felder's frosted window. The biggest sign in Felder's tiny tenement store, DON'T BUY FROM THE GOYISHE CHIP MAN FELDER IS YOUR FRIEND FOR LIFE, was no longer needed. The last time the chip man, an intrepid French-Canadian, had passed with his horse and wagon the boys, led by Duddy Kravitz, had run him off the street.
Duddy Kravitz was a small, narrow-chested boy of fifteen with a thin face. His black eyes were ringed with dark circles and his pale, bony cheeks were crisscrossed with scratches, as he shaved twice daily in his attempt to encourage a beard. Duddy was president of Room 41.
"Hey, guess what," Samuels shouted, running up to the boys. "Mr. Horner's not coming back. He's got triple pneumonia or something. So we're getting a new class master, Mac, of all people."
"Mac'll be a breeze," Duddy said, lighting a cigarette. "He never straps or nothing. Mac believes in per-suasion."
Only Hersh failed to laugh. "We're lucky to get Mac," he said, "so let's not take advantage like."
Mr. MacPherson didn't want to cross the street in order to chastise the smokers, but the boys had clearly seen him.
"Weasel! Can the cigs. Here comes Mac himself."
"I should care," Duddy said.
"Kravitz! Put out that cigarette immediately."
"My father is aware that I smoke, sir."
"Then he's not fit to bring up a boy."
"He's my father, sir."
"Would you like to stay on in this school, Kravitz?"
"Yes, sir. But he's my father, sir."
"Then let's not have any more of your cheekiness. Put out that cigarette immediately."
No sooner had Mr. MacPherson turned his back on them than Duddy began to hum "Coming Through the Rye." But, turning sharply into the boys' side of the courtyard, Mr. MacPherson guessed that he was far enough away to pretend that he hadn't heard.
"Boy, are you ever lucky," Hersh said. "Horner would've strapped you ten on each."
Mr. MacPherson began to climb the icy concrete steps that led into the school. When he was on the last step a high-pitched shriek rose among the students. He felt a plunk on the back of his neck as the snowball smashed to smithereens just above his coat collar. Particles of snow began to trace a chilling pattern down his back. Mr. MacPherson whirled about and turned on the students, knitting his eyebrows in an attempt at ferocity. An innocent bustle filled the courtyard. Nobody looked at him. Mr. MacPherson fled into the dark stuffy school building. His horn-rimmed glasses fogged immediately. Ripping them off, he prepared to be vile in class all day.
Duddy Kravitz bobbed up in the middle of a group of boys. "How's that for pitching?" he asked.
"Oh, big hero. You didn't mean to hit him. You meant to hit me," Hersh said.
"Mighty neat, anyway," Samuels said.
The bell rang.
"Nobody gets away with insulting my old man," Duddy said.
When Mr. MacPherson entered Room 41 a few minutes later he was no stranger there. This was his first day as class master, but he already taught the boys history three times weekly and so knew them all by name and deed. Some, it should be said, stayed in Room 41 longer than others, par for the
course being two years, grades ten and eleven.
The undisputed record-holding resident of Room 41 was, in 1947, still there. His name was Stanley Blatt, but everybody called him A.D. because, in flunking one among hundreds of oral exams, he had permanently endeared himself to the school inspector by insisting that A.D. stood for After the Depression. A.D., already sporting a mustache, had first entered Room 41 and found it was good in 1942, and there he had rested, but not nonstop, for he had served three years in the merchant marine during the war.
Room 41 had a reputation for being the toughest class in the school. There were those, Mr. MacPherson knew, who thought he was too soft a replacement for Horner. Only yesterday Mr. Jackson had said, "You shouldn't have put John at
the mercy of Kravitz and Co. He's in no shape to cope these days."
"He's right, Leonard. Poor John hasn't stepped out of the house once since jenny took ill."
"I've got a feeling he's usually up half the night with her, too."
"You should have given me Room 41," Mr. Coldwell had said with appetite. "I would have strapped plenty of respect into Kravitz."
The boys had been unusually quiet when Mr. MacPherson had entered Room 41 after the first bell. On the blackboard, drawn in a clumsy hand, was the chalk figure of a lean man being crushed by a snowball. Underneath was the inscription OUR MAC. Mr. MacPherson contrived to appear calm. "Who did it? Whose filthy work is this?" Fully expecting the answering quiet, he smacked his copy of The World's Progress (Revised) against the desk and sat down. "We shall remain seated until the coward who has done this owns up."
Ten minutes passed in silence before somebody giggled in the back row. Mr. MacPherson whipped out his attendance book. "Hersh, erase the boards."
"But it wasn't me, sir. I should drop down dead it wasn't me."
Small, squinting Hersh was the butt of the class. His undoing had been a demonstration against the rise in the price of chocolate bars. A photograph on the back page of the Telegram had shown Hersh, his attempt to hide behind taller members of the Young Communist League unsuccessful, holding high a placard that read DOWN WITH THE 70 CHOCOLATE BAR.
"Erase the boards, Hersh."
Mr. MacPherson called out the names in his attendance book, asking each boy if he was responsible for the "outrage" on the board, and eventually he bit into Kravitz's name with special distaste.
"Kravitz, are you responsible for this?"
"For what, sir?"
"For the drawing on the board."
"What do you mean, partly? Either you are responsible or you are not responsible."
"Sir, it's like "
"Stand up when you talk to me. Impudent!" know the truth we're all responsible
"Yes, sir. If you want to like. But we only meant it for a joke, sir."
"Do you mean to insinuate that I haven't got a sense of humor?"
"Answer my question."
"All right, then, whose idea was this little prank?"
"I'm telling you we're all responsible."
"Was it your idea?" No answer.
"This class will not go to the basketball game this afternoon, but will stay in for an hour after school is out. And you, Kravitz, will do the same tomorrow and the next day."
"That's not fair, sir."
"Are you telling me what's fair?"
"No, sir. But why am I different from everybody else?"
"I don't know, Kravitz. You tell me."
Mr. MacPherson smiled thinly. Everybody laughed.
"Aw, sir. Gee whiz."
"This class may do anything it likes for the next period. I absolutely refuse to teach the likes of you."
"Anything, sir?" "Look here, Kravitz, you're a brat and an exhibitionist. I'm "
"You said my father wasn't fit to bring me up. I've got witnesses. That's an insult to my family, sir."
" not going to strap you, though. I won't give you that satisfaction. But "
"You think it's a pleasure or something to be strapped? Jeez."
" I know you're responsible for the drawing on the board and I think it cowardly of you not to have taken complete responsibility."
"I'm a coward. Who's afraid to strap who around here?"
"I'm not afraid to strap you, Kravitz. I don't believe in corporal punishment."
Outside, Duddy slapped Abrams on the back. "Mac is gonna wish he was never born," he said. "It's the treatment for him."
The treatment took more than one form. With Mr. Jackson, who wore a hearing aid, the boys spoke softer and softer in class until all they did was move their lips in a pretense of speech and Mr. Jackson raised his hearing aid to its fullest capacity. Then all thirty-eight boys shouted out at once and Mr. Jackson fled the physics lab holding his hands to his ears. The boys retaliated against Mr. Coldwell by sending movers, taxis, and ambulances to his door. Mr. Feeney was something else again. He would seize on each new boy and ask him, "Do you know what the Jewish national anthem is?"
So Mr. Feeney would go to the board and write, "To the Bank, to the Bank."
"Do you know how the Jews make an S?" "No, sir."
Mr. Feeney would go to the board, make an S, and draw two strokes through it. Actually, he meant his jokes in a friendly spirit and the sour reactions he usually got puzzled him. Anyway, the boys got even with Mr. Feeney by filling out coupons for books that came in plain brown wrappers with his daughter's name and, with cruel accuracy, by writing away for bust developers for his wife.
Duddy pretended he was dialing a number on the telephone. "Hey! Hullo, hullo. Is Mac in? Hey, Mac? Em, this is the Avenger speaking. Yep, none other. Your days are numbered, Mac."
The boys split up. Those who had after-school jobs, like Hersh, went one way and the others, led by Duddy Kravitz, wandered up towards Park Avenue. To a middle-class stranger, it's true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here a prized plot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch.
An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there. But, as the boys knew, each street between St. Dominique and Park Avenue represented subtle differences in income. No two cold-water flats were alike. Here was the house where the fabulous Jerry Dingleman was born. A few doors away lived Buddy Ash, who ran for alderman each election on a one-plank platform: provincial speed cops were anti-Semites. No two stores were the same, either. Best Fruit gypped on the scales, but Smiley's
didn't give credit.
Duddy told the boys about his brother Bradley. "I got a letter from him only yesterday aft," he said. "As soon as I'm finished up at Fletcher's Field he wants me to come down to Arizona to help out on the ranch like."
Leaning into the wind, their nostrils sticking together each time they inhaled, Abrams and Samuels exchanged incredulous glances, but didn't dare smile. They were familiar with the exploits of Bradley. He had run away to the States at fifteen, lied about his age, joined the air force, and sunk three Jap battleships in the Pacific. They were going to make a movie about his life, maybe. After the war Bradley had rescued an Arizona millionaire's beautiful daughter from drowning, married her, and bought a ranch. Familiar with all of Bradley's exploits, the boys also suspected that he was a fictional character, but nobody dared accuse Duddy of lying. Duddy was kind of funny, that's all.
"Hey," Abrams shouted. "Look!"
Right there, on St. Joseph Boulevard, was a newly opened mission. The neon sign outside the little shop proclaimed JESUS SAVES in English and Yiddish. Another bilingual sign, this one in the window, announced THE MESSIAH HAS COME, over open copies of the Bible with the appropriate phrases underlined in red.
"Come on, guys," Duddy said.
Somewhat hesitant, the boys nevertheless followed Duddy inside. Trailing snow over the gleaming hardwood floor, they ripped off their stiff frozen gloves and began to examine the pamphlets and blotters that were stacked in piles on the long table. A door rasped behind them.
"Good afternoon." A small rosy-faced man stood before them, rubbing his hands together. "Something I can do for you?"
"We were just passing by," Duddy said. "Hey, are you a Hebe?"
"Of the Jewish faith?"
"Yeah. Are you?"
"I was," the man said, "until I embraced Jesus."
"No kidding! Hey, we guys would like to know all about Jesus. Isn't that right, guys?"
"How we could become goyim, Christians like."
"Aren't you a little young to "
"Could we take some of these pamphlets? I mean we'd like to read up on it."
"Blotters too?" A.D. asked quickly.
Duddy gave Samuels a nudge. "Hey, Sir," he asked, "you ever heard of F.F.H.S?"
"I'm afraid not." "I've got an idea for you, sir. Lots of guys there are dying to know about Jesus and stuff. Our parents never tell us anything, you know. So what I', thinking is why don't you come round at lunchtime tomorrow and hand out some of these free pamphlets and stuff to the guys, eh?
Racing down the street, A.D. goosed Samuels and Duddy pushed Abrams into a snowbank. The boys stopped short outside the Lubovitcher Yeshiva and began to arm themselves with snowballs. "They'll be coming out any minute," Duddy said.
They had come to torment the rabbinical college students before. During another cold spell they had once given one of the smaller boys the alternative of having his faced washed with snow or licking the grill of the school fence. Stupidly, the boy had chosen to lick the grill. And there he had remained, his tongue adhering to the iron, until medical help had come.
"Here they come, guys!"
"Jesus saves. Read all about it!"
The alarmed students drew back into their school just as the F.F.H.S. boys began to pelt them with pamphlets and snowballs. Two bearded teachers, armed with brooms, charged down the steps and started after the boys. Duddy led the retreat across the street. There, joining arms, the boys marched along, stopping at the corner of Jeanne Mance Street to stuff a mailbox with snow. They sang:
Oh, Nellie, put your belly close to mine.
Wiggle your bum.
Copyright © 1959 by Mordecai Richler