Middle-School Angst

In eighth grade, Mrs. Kornbluth taught us parsha in the morning and math in the afternoon.

This was not the first time my class had encountered Mrs. Kornbluth. She taught us navi in sixth grade as well. My notes on Shmuel Aleph were exact dictations of Mrs. Kornbluth’s words. That’s how she taught: dictating in half-sentences at a time. We would all write down her exact words, and she would wait until we finished to move on to the next half-sentence.

Out of sheer boredom, most of my classmates took to decorating our notes with fancy little scrollwork; that was the birth of the hooked g’s and y’s, the backwards-pointing p’s, and forwards-pointing d’s.

In eighth grade parsha class, my group of friends and I took it to the next level by pretending to write down the dictation but in reality writing letters to each other. It took a lot of skill, because we had to figure out how long it would take to write down Mrs. Kornbluth’s words each time, and then wait to finish our sentences during her next bit of dictation.

My friends were the star students throughout our twelve+ years of grade school, so Mrs. Kornbluth would not have continued her dictation until they were done writing. Being a role model is sometimes (okay, most times) very limiting.

As for me, I vacillated between being a star student and being a total slack-off. When I knew something was ridiculous, I had a hard time acting in self-preservation and not making it known. My friends were a good influence on me, but there were times I just couldn’t rein it in.

This particular day, during parsha class, I felt like Mrs. Kornbluth kept an extra-sharp eye on me.

I was writing really slowly – I wasn’t writing a letter to a friend, but I also refused to engage in the futile activity of writing down pointless dictation. So I engaged in the far less futile (and, okay, passive-aggressive) activity of taking ages to write each word.

For all her ineffective teaching methods, Mrs. Kornbluth wasn’t exactly stupid. She realized I was writing extremely slowly and asked me about it. I answered, she was placated, we went on, until it happened again. By the end of the period, I was done. Mrs. Kornbluth was thoroughly exasperated with me, I was exasperated with her, with the situation, with futility and useless pretenses at learning.

During lunch, I made up my mind: there was no way I could sit through her math class in the afternoon. My friends were sympathetic. I mention this because if you knew them, the best girls in the grade, this would have great import, that even they acknowledged the impossibility of me sitting through class.

One friend, Nechama, offered to cut class with me. I tried to persuade her not to get involved – she didn’t need to get in trouble along with me. I was ready to take the consequences, but she didn’t have to. She convinced me the risk of consequences was minimal, and so she and I waited until first period English was over, then darted out the door as the teachers switched classrooms.

We found a quiet stairwell right outside the pre-school floor and spent the forty minutes of math period there. We’d brought along some work to do, but mostly we just chatted and tried to keep our minds off what might happen. Well, that was me. Necahma tried to convince me nothing would happen.

But I was right. As luck would have it, the attendance monitor came to our class when Mrs. Kornbluth was teaching.

Every day, during morning sessions and afternoon sessions, an attendance monitor would come around and the teacher who was in the room at the time would write down the names of anyone who was absent, which would then be reported to the principal’s office and recorded in our files. When exactly the monitor made it to each classroom was unpredictable. And this time, it was during second period math class.

Nechama and I got back to class when recess had started. The rest of our friends told us what had happened.

“She asked who’s absent, and we told her, and of course we didn’t say your names, but she looked around, and she asked ‘Where’s Esther Shaindel?’ And we tried to say that you were called out of class, but her mouth got all thin like it does, and I’m pretty sure she wrote down your name. Probably Nechama also, but she didn’t ask about her.”

Well, of course. Get into a spat with her in the morning, she’ll remember I was there and would write me down as absent in the afternoon. More tension.

Third period started, and our history teacher, Miss Lichtenstein, came in. Halfway through the period, Mrs. Kornbluth opened the door, and Miss Lichtenstein went over to talk to her. My friends looked over at me and Nechama, and I felt myself dying inside.

Miss Lichtenstein and Mrs. Kornbluth looked over at us. “Esther Shaindel and Nechama,” Miss Lichtenstein said, “Miss Berliner wants to speak with you.”

We stood up and followed Mrs. Kornbluth to the principal’s office, where we attempted to pass off our prepared lie about spending time in the library during first period English to do work for the school paper, for which I was editor, losing track of time and deciding not to interrupt class when we realized the next period had started. She didn’t buy it.

Miss Berliner asked how she could trust us on our senior trip to Washington if we showed such a lack of responsibility. Washington was a dangerous place, and if we can’t be responsible, they couldn’t take us on the trip. She said she’d need a few days to think about it. The trip was the next week.

“They wouldn’t do that,” everyone assured us. “They’d never dock you from Washington. They’ll punish you, but I’m telling you, don’t worry, they won’t dock you from Washington.”

They didn’t, of course. Nechama and I had to come in the day after the trip, when our grade had a day off, and do some math examples in an empty classroom. We sat in opposite corners, as instructed, and whispered to each other when we were left alone, acting studious and serious when Mrs. Kornbluth came to check up on us.


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