25.5.11

Why One Should Not Teach Roman Numerals to Satmar Hasidic Jewish Boys

On that time I taught a lesson on Roman Numerals to a classroom of Satmar Hasidic children in Brooklyn.
Hands
image credit: Greig Roselli
The Romans Dominated Israel Two Thousand Years Ago, but What Does that Have to Do with Teaching Roman Numerals? 
    The boys enjoyed the lesson on Roman Numerals. After forty minutes, the class was decoding X, XCC, MDC, MMXI, and MCMXCVIII.
     Feeling accomplished, Mr. Roselli slept well that night, having been liberated from the usual anxiety that comes from an unsuccessful teaching day at the Yeshiva. Unruly boys and orthodox rules made the Satmar school in Brooklyn a world within a world. Mr. Roselli knew a bad day at the Yeshiva. His first day, he wrote the lower case letter "t" on the board, and since it too much resembles the cruciform shape, was outrightly chastised by his pupils. "The 't'! The 't'! The 't'!" they cried in unison.
     Coming down the stairs, Mr. Roselli exclaimed to another secular teacher who also taught Math, "They crucified me."  The co-teacher said simply, "They didn't tell you not to do that on the first day's meeting?"
There were other incidents (and other things you should not teach). 
     For example, we were not allowed to individually single out the kids. "Don't count the kids," Rabbi Teitelbaum said. "No counting." Check. "No short sleeve shirts." Check. "No bible stories." No religion. "No politics. No women. No sex. Just teach the curriculum." Check.
     It felt like an especial feat to teach class Roman Numerals without a flop-ending. Shlomo, leaving class, said, "Thank you, teacher."
     Arriving at school on the following afternoon, however, the actions of the previous day of teaching bore its inclement outcome.
Called into Mr. Schermerhorn's Office
     "Roselli," said Mr. Schermerhorn from inside his nondescript office next to the teachers' mailboxes. He was an unnecessarily stern and brittle man who appeared to have had clocked too many hours in the New York City Public School system. His hair was a fragile grey "Come to my office for a minute, won't you?"
     Feeling the worst after having felt so proud, Mr. Roselli let himself into Mr. Schemerhorn's office.

Here is the Gist of the Conversation With the Yeshiva's Assistant Principle:
"What were you teaching your class yesterday?"
"Roman Numerals."
"Roman Numerals?"
"Yes, Roman Numerals."
"We don't pay you to teach off the curriculum, Roselli. We pay you to teach the book. Nothing more nothing less. Don't get too creative or we'll get parents calling."
"But, Roman Numeral are in the book, Mr. Schemerhorn."
"Do you want me to receive a call from a parent asking why their son is learning Roman Numerals?"

I didn't answer. Schermerhorn was not a Satmar. It was easy to tell. Schermerhorn was a man without joy. The Satmars are normally a joyous bunch. Despite their strict religious rules.
"We pay you to teach the curriculum. I don't want to have to explain to a parent or to  Rabbi Teitelbaum. Are we clear?" 
"Yes. Don't teach Roman Numerals."
"Right." 
"And turn in your lesson plans on time."
"OK."
"We want a good teacher better and a better teacher best." 
"That's true." 
"Is that all?" 
"Yes, that's all Roselli. Get to class."
Feeling Dejected Who Are You To Turn To?
After school that day feeling puzzled and slightly dejected, Mr. Roselli asked his co-teacher, "Are we not allowed to teach Roman Numerals to the kids?"
"I've never heard that one." 
"Schermerhorn just told me not to." 
"Did he tell you not teach off the official curriculum?"
"Yeah, he did. And he gave me that better good best teacher shtick."
"Maybe because the Romans tortured enslaved the Jews? Haven't you read about Roman imperialism?"
"Yeah, maybe that is it."
"Wouldn't it been funny if Schermerhorn had said, 'Roselli. Stop torturing the kids with Roman Numerals. I want you teaching them the cardinal numbers, not the Roman numbers.' That would have been fucking hilarious, don't you think?"

"Yeah what if he had said, 'Roselli, since we pay you to teach the curriculum, goddammit, I want you —' and at this point, he bangs a ruler on the desk -- "to teach the goddamn curriculum.'"
"Yes, Mr. Schemerhorn, of course!"
***
If you liked this story, read more from the book Things I Shouldn't Have Said and Other Faux Pas.

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