Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Boy's Story: A Place To Stay

Fiction Sunday

This excerpt is part of a novel, Jack Miller's Story, which I started writing more than fifteen years ago. It has undergone many changes since then, but now is in a form that I find suitable for publication. It contains biographical elements, no doubt, but it is not biographical by any means. Memory, unlike mathematical operations, does not always produce the same result.

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In Part 2, "A Boy's Day At Home," Jack struggled, only as a young boy could, on the meaning of pleasing his parents and their traditional Jewish ways and fitting in within greater society. Jack returned to school, as he always did, walking with James Wong, his Chinese friend, also from a family of immigrants.

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Jack and James walked in through the rusty gate of  Stonecroft Elementary, and were met with the glance of the gate monitor, a student from Grade 6 wearing a metal badge with blue lettering that said "Monitor." The Monitor had the assigned task of ensuring no younger boys would leave the schoolyard and closing the gate when the second bell rang. Anybody after that was deemed late. The "lates" would have to enter through the main front door and go straight to the office. Tardiness was discouraged, and few students were late.

The schoolyard was segregated, the boys on west side of the school, the girls on the east. Boys being boys played boys’ games, such as tag, red rover and exercised in general roughhousing, all under the watchful eyes of teachers, and at times, the vice-principal, Miss Noolan, a spinster of indeterminate age. She would stand there all eyes, and ever so often shook her head uncontrollably, as if she had palsy.

To Jack and the boys she seemed old, close to 90. She was probably in her forties. Once in a while the principal would appear, a stern-looking man with a crew-cut, hair parted on the right and held down with brylcreem, which gave his hair a shiny look. He liked to wear brown suits, or so it seemed to Jack and his school buddies. He had a military bearing about him, his back ramrod straight, and he knew how to command respect without raising his voice. Jack and the boys feared Mr. Hamiliton.

Jack and the boys played a bit in the yard before the first bell rang at 8:40. The boys stopped playing and quickly lined up according to their grade. Jack was in Grade 1, and lined up with James, his friend. When the second bell rang five minutes later, they started moving indoors and up the stairs to their classroom.

When they got to the classroom, they took off their jackets and hung them on hooks, and then obediently sat at their desks, hands folded, until the teacher arrived. They then sang both “O Canada,” and “God Save Our Queen.” Then came the Lord’s prayer, “Our father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name., Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.. ," which reminded Jack that he was in a Christian school. That and the bible stories that the teacher, Mrs O’Brien, regularly told the class. Jack liked Mrs O’Brien, she was kind and paid attention to him. That’s why he didn’t mind so much being in a Christian school.

In a few more years, the effects of la révolution tranquille, Quebec's quiet revolution, which began in 1960, would take hold among all areas in Quebec, as the province and its culture would become more secular, throwing away hundreds of years of the Catholic Church's hold on its people. For Jack and other non-Catholic students, notably Jews, this meant little, other than the bible stories, the prayers and all things Christian would fade from his everyday routine. New routines would be established in their place.

Jack didn't mind the prayers or bible stories. He listened to them as did all the other students in the class. It gave him some sort of comfort, allowed him to fit in with his classmates, whom were for the most part not Jewish. Fitting in meant that he was the same as them, which in many ways was true. But in others ways, not so. His father always would remind him with that jarring, if not true phrase, "Di bist a Yid. Farsheist?

As he always did, Jack looked at the calendar on the wall. It was Thursday September 10, 1964, or 4 Tishri 5725 in the Jewish calendar. Jack celebrated his birthday last week, on September 3, born six years earlier in 1958. Or 18 Elul 5718 in the Jewish calendar, ten days before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.This made Jack one of the youngest boys in the class, since the cut-off date was September 30. He was also the shortest and skinniest kid in the class. But he was already showing promise as one of the smartest and keenest to learn. He shared that distinction with his friend James Wong and Caroline Sung.

Jack's thoughts moved to the new year and the opportunity it gave him to be better. For the Jewish people worldwide it was Yamim Noraim— ימים נוראים— Days of Awe, the Days of Repentance, the High Holy Days, a ten-day period marked by increased personal introspection, asking for forgiveness from those you wronged, works of charity and increased humility. Jack thought of things he could do better, like being kinder to his older brothers and more helpful and obedient to his parents, whom he loved. After all, Jack's mother said a few days ago, "It's to ensure that you are inscribed in the Book of Life."

Mrs O'Brien began roll call, her book in front of her on her desk, and called out the names of the students in alphabetical order:

"Mark Adamson," she called out.

Mark raised his hand, and said, "Present," and placed his hands down on the wooden desk.

"Susan Amour," the teacher said.

Susan did the same as Mark, except she smiled at the teacher when calling out "present."

The names of all the students in the class were called, with a similar action, of hands going up and down with an audible confirmation that they were present. Robert Burns, Charles Coleman, Debbie Jones, David Lawson.

"Jack Millerman," the teacher said. And Jack did the same as the others, hand up, an audible affirmation of his presence and hand down on the desk. This continued for Costa Moranovous, Caroline Sung, Tony Versace, and finally the last on the list, sitting in front of Jack, James Wong. All the students in the class, save one absence, were present, thirty-five in all, sitting in six neat rows of six. Jack was in row 3, third seat, behind James. Caroline Sung sat behind him, and to his right was Mark Adamson, and to his left Tony Versace.

His mom was right, a veritable League of Nations sat in his classroom. Jack had to negotiate in good faith all the aspects of living together without any conflict. To cast aside prejudices held, both by him and by others. Jack as the sole Jew in the class, represented the Jewish people, having a big task before him. To do justice by his people.

Jack wanted to please his parents and the greater Jewish community. But he also wanted to have fun and play with his school buddies, who were not Jewish. He wanted to fit in, and to have friends. He knew nothing about the larger issues and ideas contained in cultural affiliation and identity politics. That would come later. Jack wanted to have a place, where he could safely be himself.

To put it simply, Jack Millerman wanted a place where he could comfortably stay.

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To be continued.

Copyright ©2011. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved.

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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