Most of the boys I teach love to learn. They dive into the strangeness of English. The silent "k" of "know" and the funny -ed ending of past tense verbs. Why "spoke" and not speaked? Questions abound from them about curiosities in language. English words are like rare finds. "It's a pity," I said today, "few boys don't want to learn." One astute and perennially smiling child asked, "Teacher, what means 'pity'?" I say, "It means, 'It makes me sad.'" "I say you something, yeah?" I don't hear what he says because I'm distracted.
The classroom is loud. The boys are supposed to be doing a Spelling review. Spur, snap, rub, scrub, run, etc. Joel, Shloma, and Shloma are out of sync with the lesson. I motion towards the trio of boys who are huddled around a drawing of an oversized rebbe and a picture of horse.
No spelling words in sight. "Get out of my classroom if you don't want to learn," I say. This is not a first warning. Earlier Shloma had eaten into the husk of a pen splattering ink over his face and onto another boy's pants. This is not the first time these three have completely ignored the lesson. I'm not adverse to drawing. But it is insolent to not even have at least one spelling book.
The rebbe comes into the classroom. "Boys no discipline?" I say only a few boys, pointing to the three huddled together. He takes the three boys outside.
This is life in the Yeshiva. I try to teach English to children who barely speak the language or seemingly have interest in it. If you walk the streets of Brooklyn in certain areas one only needs to know Yiddish (or Jewish, as they call it).
I love the chaos, though. Sometimes the school day is electrifying. Hundreds of kids rush by me on a late weekday afternoon. In class we talk about the Amazon Rain Forest, or exponents, the normal fare of American elementary schools.
But, it's different though when I'm the minority. It's not that the students are vile or mean spirited or even apathetic. There is a huge throb of energy in my students I find contagious. But, this energy is directed toward Jewish studies. "We boys are Talmud," one boy with sharp blue eyes and round glasses says.
The task is to get that energy focused on English. One father tells me, "I'm not so good with the Math either." And his son tells me, "I not love English." So what am I supposed to do?
I embrace the chaos. I go with the flow.
Today I became frustrated. The three malcontents who seem to be completely furious I turned them in return. The rebbe tells me in front of the boys, "You good teacher. But too good. No discipline. Boys take advantage of you." I listen to his wisdom. All the boys grow quiet when he speaks. Any boy who not learn send them to me. If you teach and they not listen send them to me. But, you are the teacher Whose fault is it that boys not learn?" I say, "mine," feeling just as chastened as the punished boys. "Right," he says. "You must have the discipline," he says and leaves.
The three promptly do the work. For a time. I walk around the classroom. All the boys are seated in benches like they do in the old schoolhouse style. I answer questions about "slept" and "over slept."
I've been with these boys seven months now. I know them well. I know who loves English and who doesn't. I envy their love of Torah. It's so unbridled and passionate. I envy the rebbes who command attention. They stand like gods. If only the boys would listen to me like that, I think.
"Teacher, I say you something, yeah?"
Ok. I say.
"All boys learn English, no? Why you not learn Jewish, yeah?"
Tomorrow will be no different. And the next day. Boys will learn a few words. Some boys will simply do nothing. Others will talk loudly and incessantly. I'll manage to conjugate "to be" or tell a story about a boy who rides in an ambulance in the snow. Lately, I've noticed stories grab their attentions. And it's in English. A plus! More on storytelling later. For today it's about the discipline.
It's a normal day at the Yeshiva.
Location:Brooklyn, New York