We were very quiet in Mrs. Rodriguez's second-grade class late that morning. Our teacher had the lights off, and we were working by the sunshine that came in through the open windows. It was spring. The weather had only just gone from cold to hot. The warm breeze and the smells it carried made even the school's old asphalt playground seem like it would be paradise if I could touch my sneakers to it.
I looked around the room. Everyone was still working on their math problems but me. The teacher had just finished teaching us to subtract a one-digit number from a two-digit number and then she had given us an assignment. I had already checked over my work like I was supposed to, but I was waiting a few more minutes to turn it in because Mrs. Rodriguez got angry if anyone got done before she finished her coffee. That's how long it was supposed to take us to do our work.
She drank a lot of coffee.
I admired the classroom's bulletin boards once again in an effort to kill some time. They were still full of happy cartoon children wearing primary colors who had been reading and writing and playing at recess in stasis since the beginning of the year. They all seemed as if they were near exploding with joy for being at school. The letters of the alphabet still lined the top of the chalkboard, big A and little a to big Z and little z, and numerals too. The chalkboard itself was colored a modern green instead of the traditional black, and it always had our schedule for the day written on it in yellow chalk. The flag on the wall to the left side of the board waved in the little breeze that was passing on and off through the room. Our teacher's desk was along the same wall as the main door to the classroom to our right. On the other side of the room was the exit to the metal fire escape that always scared me when we climbed down it during fire drills. The glass in the windows was laced with wires. I had always wondered why, but I never seemed to remember to ask.
I was almost always done with my work first, and my work was usually right. I never forgot to write Simon S. at the top. Sometimes I even wrote my full name, Simon Shulman, if there was enough room for it. I was also usually the first one to finish my English and science and social studies too. Mom told me at the beginning of the school year that they wanted to skip me to third grade. The way she talked about it made me think that she wanted me to skip, and I wanted to skip too. When my mother asked my father about it, he said he had been skipped, and he didn't like it, so I had to go through the second grade with the same classmates as I had had in kindergarten and first grade.
Mrs. Rodriguez wasn't finished with her coffee yet, but I couldn't wait any longer. I brought it up to her desk and put it in the "In" basket. She still had most of her coffee in her mug. She looked from the mug to my work and frowned. Her eyes flicked across the ditto and then she nodded grudgingly. That meant I was done.
The best thing about finishing my work first was that I had more time go to the reading corner and sit on the padded seats and read a book. My favorite book was The Runaway Robot. I'd read it three times even though we weren't supposed to read a reading corner book more than once. It was the only rule I remember breaking on purpose.
Eric, Leah, and Norman got finished with their work right after I did. That was strange. They usually didn't get done with their work until last, so they didn't make it to the reading corner often, and that was fine with me. When Mrs. Rodriguez called on them during class, they never knew the answer. Half the time they didn't know what the question was. They didn't pay attention. Sometimes they tried to get me to tell them the answer so they could raise their hands, but I wouldn't because it's against the rules.
The three got up at the same time and put their work in the "In" basket. She narrowed her eyes at them the way she did when she thought someone was doing something wrong, but she didn't say anything. After turning in their work, the three of them came over to the reading corner. I could tell by the cruel smiles on their faces that they were going to do something mean to me.
Without bothering to look at the titles, they quickly grabbed books from the reading corner shelf and sat down next to each other and across from me, blocking my view of Mrs. Rodriguez, isolating me. They opened their books and pretended to read while sneaking peeks back at her, waiting for the coast to clear. They got their chance when Robert went up to her desk to ask for help with his math problems. He almost always needed help.
"You're going to Hell," Leah whispered at me over her book. I noticed her book was the dictionary. At first, I thought she had read the word "hell" out of it. This wasn't the usual thing they picked on me for. They usually made fun of my clothes or my curly hair or my glasses, or they'd call me a teacher's pet. Hell was something new, and I didn't know what hell was, so I didn't whisper anything back.
"Jews killed Christ," Norman said. "That's why Jews are bad. That's why you're going to Hell."
I'm wasn't too sure about what a Jew was. My mother had tried to explain it to me once, but it didn't make a lot of sense. It didn't seem like I was any different from the other kids, but from that moment on I was different whether it made sense or not. I didn't know why I had to be a Jew. I wished I was like the other kids. Being a Jew had suddenly become just another reason to get picked on, and there already seemed to be plenty of reasons.
I had almost no idea who Christ was either. Mom had told me that he was someone who had lived a long time ago, before televisions and schools and cars. She said that people who went to church liked to talk about him. When I asked her why we didn't go to church, she said that God and Jesus Christ were make-believe.
"Christ is make-believe," I said.
Mrs. Rodriguez started coughing. Everyone looked at her until she stopped. When it seemed like she was distracted again, my Sunday school lesson continued.
"You don't believe in God?" Eric asked incredulously.
"God's real. Everyone knows that," said Norman.
"If he's real, why doesn't he come?" I asked.
Norman started to say something but didn't. He made fists with his hands, and his face got all red.
"You still killed Christ even if you don't believe in Him," Leah said.
"I didn't do anything."
"Jews did," Leah said. "So you did too."
I thought that was ridiculous, but I didn't dare say it was stupid.
"My dad says that Jews are dirty," Eric said. "He said you're worse than rats. He said you shouldn't even be allowed to go to school with us Chris-en kids."
"I am not dirty!" I protested. They must have sensed the anguish in my voice.
"We're going to tell everybody in school how bad you smell," Leah taunted. "Si-mon Smelly-jew!" she sing-songed. "Si-mon Smelly-jew!"
Eric and Norman cackled. I stood up so I could see Mrs. Rodriguez. Robert wasn't at her desk anymore, and she had stopped coughing. She had to be able to hear us because no one else was talking right then. Not only that, but it looked like she had been watching the reading corner, but when I looked at her she looked down at her desk. I didn't understand why she wasn't stopping them. Normally she would have sent them away from me. This was different; it was different for me, and it was different for her. I didn't know why or what was different, but I could feel it. I knew that the reading corner would never be safe again.
The unfairness stung. It was one thing to be picked on by other kids when the teacher wasn't around, but she was letting it happen, and I didn't understand why. I tried to go to her desk to ask, but Eric pushed me back down into my chair, hard, almost making me topple backward in the chair. I thought that the teacher must have seen that, but she didn't say anything, and I didn't hear the sound of her scraping her chair along the floor, the noise that always preceded her rising from the fortress of her desk.
"Leave me alone!" I said loudly so that Mrs. Rodriguez was sure to hear. She must have heard because everyone in class turned to look at us. She didn't stop my personal Inquisition, though. The lunch bell did. She told the class to line up to go to lunch. I tried to get as far away from my three inquisitors as I could, but no one in the class was brave enough to stop Norman and Leah and Eric from shoving their way in front of me in line.
The three of them had made walking home traumatic for a few weeks before my first religion lesson. My nemeses had taken to forming a walking roadblock in front of me as we walked home for lunch and at the end of the day. They liked to walk slowly, and every time I tried to get around them, they would jump in front of me and block my path. They never did it in front of the crossing guard outside the school, so if I could leave before them, I wouldn't have to walk behind them.
Not only did I have to walk behind them once again, but I had to listen to them say "What's that smell?" and "Ew, it's Si-mon Smelly-jew!" to each other over and over again, giggling. It seemed like forever to get to the second crossing guard where they went in a different direction than me.
Lunch was on the kitchen table when I got home. It was cottage cheese on a lettuce leaf with fruit cocktail on top. I didn't like it very much, but my mother made it at least once a week, maybe more, depending on how my baby sister was acting. She was in her high chair. A smaller and more finely chopped version of the same meal was in front of her, and she hadn't bothered to wait for me. Her baby spoon was the only thing that didn't have food smeared all over it.
"What's the matter?" Mom asked as I sat down.
"Nothing," I mumbled. I took a breath, held it, and swallowed a spoonful of cottage cheese and canned fruit. Holding my breath made it taste less bad than it was.
"Tell me," Mom demanded.
"I don't want to," I said.
"You need to. You'll feel better if you get it off your chest."
"They're picking on me again," I said softly after a further moment's hesitation.
She sighed. "Why does this always happen to you?"
"They're picking on me because I'm a Jew. They said that I'm going to Hell and I'm dirty and Jews killed Christ. Is that true?"
"Well, technically you're not a Jew," Mom said, answering the wrong question, "because I'm not a Jew."
"I don't think they care about that."
"You have a Jewish name because your father is Jewish," she continued.
"Can't I have a different name?" I asked.
"It doesn't work like that."
"Children always get their father's name. It's a rule."
I forced another couple of swallows down my throat. I almost choked on a whole grape.
"You need to stop letting yourself get picked on," Mom said after a few moments.
"How?" I asked simply.
"Stick up for yourself," she said. "Don't put up with it. Tell them you don't care what they think. And you shouldn't."
"But it hurts my feelings."
"You need to stop being a victim. That's why they pick on you, not because you've got a Jewish name."
I didn't know what a victim was or how to stop being one. My mother seemed to think that I should, so I pretended that I understood.
My baby sister started screaming, so we didn't talk much after that.
* * *
Right after the class got back from lunch, Mrs. Rodriguez took us to the bathroom like she did every day. Leah and Eric and Norman had been busy on the playground after getting back from lunch because as we walked down to the basement where the bathrooms were the kids took turns chanting "Si-mon Smelly-jew" in harsh taunting whispers, chuckling at each other each time someone did it. Eric tried to push me down the stairs, but I caught myself on the banister, unfortunately not soon enough to avoid bumping into Norman. Norman punched me lightly in the face for the misstep. I raised my hand to try to tell Mrs. Rodriguez, but somehow she didn't see my hand even though it seemed like she looked right at me.
In addition to bathrooms, the basement contained the gym, the eraser cleaner, and other things we didn't understand in places we were not allowed to go. We automatically lined up as we had been trained to, girls outside the girl's room and the boys outside the boy's room. I was bracketed by Eric and Norman. It always seemed to happen that way when we were in the boy's room line.
My hand was still up when the teacher sent the boys and girls into the bathroom. I tried to stay back so I could tell Mrs. Rodriguez what they were doing to me, but her eyes seemed fixed on some distant point beyond the basement walls, and she shooed me into the bathroom sternly without listening to what I was trying to tell her or even looking at my face.
Going into the bathroom was scary. Everyone had learned my new nickname. Soon it would be all over the school. The first graders and the third graders and even the kindergarten kids would be calling me "Si-mon Smelly-jew" by the end of the day too. The name would stick for a while.
I could tell by how clever they all thought it was.
"Does anyone smell anything?" Norman asked.
"Just Simon Smellyjew," Eric and a few other boys called back. Forced hilarity ensued.
"Phew! What stinks?" asked Robert.
"It's Simon Smellyjew!" came the happy reply from Norman.
My eyes started to tear up. I knew it would just make things worse, but I just couldn't help it. Hot wet tears of anger rolled down my face.
"Crybaby! Crybaby! Cry, baby!" Eric said gleefully.
"Fuck you!" I sobbed.
All talking and motion ceased as the words registered in their brains.
"Ooh!" they chorused gleefully. A second later they were all rushing out of the bathroom to be the first one to tell Mrs. Rodriguez. I could hear them buzzing around her telling her that I had said the F-word. I stood alone in the boy's room, trying to think of a way to get out of the mess I was in. No excuses and no plausible lies leaped to mind. I wondered if maybe I did smell bad.
"Simon!" Mrs. Rodriguez barked from the doorway to the boy's room. "Come out here now!"
I did what I was told. She grabbed me by my left arm and dragged me almost far enough away from the class for them not to hear us. I remember thinking that we weren't far enough away and everyone would hear everything.
"Did you say a bad word?" she demanded.
I said nothing. Her hand clamped down a little harder on my arm.
"I said, did you say a bad word," she asked again, angrier than the first time she had asked. I got scared.
"Uh huh," I answered.
"What did you say?"
"I don't want to say."
"Well, you don't have a choice. You can tell me, or you can tell the principal."
"Am I in trouble?"
"First you tell me what you said. Then we'll see about that."
I couldn't bring myself to say it in front of my teacher. She shook me a little to work my confession loose.
"Fuck," I whispered. She gasped and put her hand over her mouth. The class failed to resist tittering over what they had heard. I didn't know why Mrs. Rodriguez was so shocked. It was an adult word. My parents used it all the time.
"They were picking on me," I tried to explain. "They called me Simon..."
"We're not talking about them," Mrs. Rodriguez said. "We're talking about you. Two wrongs don't make a right."
"But nothing. You've disappointed me, Simon. Your parents probably don't care, but I do."
She was wrong. My parents would care. My ears burned with shame.
When we got back to our classroom, Mrs. Rodriguez took a long time to write out the note to my parents. She didn't give us anything to do, so the room was full of low murmurs about how much trouble I was in. She addressed it to Mr. and Mrs. Shulman, stapled it closed and made me fold it and put it in my pocket even though school wasn't over yet.
During the reading lesson, a wad of paper landed on my desk while my head was turned. I uncrumpled it. It said, "I gong get you afer scol." I turned and looked at the class, trying to figure out who it was. Norman was staring at me, and when I looked at him, he made a fist with his right hand and silently punched the palm of his left hand. I raised my hand again, but I had once more become invisible.
After I got the note the school day went a lot faster. I spent the rest of the day in dread of hearing the dismissal bell. After the bell rang I hung around inside the front lobby of the school until a first-grade teacher made me leave. Eric and Norman and Leah and a boy named Brian were waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. I knew what was going to happen. As I walked down the stairs toward them, my legs were shaking.
"I don't want to fight," I said when I got to the bottom.
"You have to," Norman said.
"Take off your glasses," he ordered in lieu of an answer. "I'm not allowed to hit someone with glasses." I took off my glasses. Brian put out his hand to hold them, and I handed them over. I looked at the blur Norman had become and balled up my fists. I had never won a fight before. I wasn't sure how. While I was trying to screw up the nerve to throw a punch, Norman hit me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me. I fell backward and landed on the pavement on my butt.
"He's not crying!" Brian shouted. "He's not crying!" I didn't understand why that was important, but I didn't even feel like crying. I just wanted to get it over with, so I could go home and get that over with.
Once I was able to breathe again, I got up and made fists and held them in front of me like I'd seen on TV. Before Norman could hit me again, Mrs. Rodriguez came out the front door. She looked at us. Norman, Eric, Leah, and Brian lit out of there, leaving me to face Mrs. Rodriguez alone. I was scared, and my guts were aching, and I had to squint at the world because Brian had run off with my glasses in his hand.
My teacher grabbed me by the arm for the second time that day and pulled me up the stairs to Mr. Capella's office. I had never been to the principal's office before for being in trouble. I had always been deathly afraid of being sent there, and there I was in the same room as The Paddle that stood in the corner. It felt like a nightmare. Mrs. Rodriguez shoved me onto a chair while the principal stared at me with anger and disapproval.
"Cursing and fighting on the same day," Mrs. Rodriguez said to Principal Capella. "You need to paddle him."
"Do I really, Mrs. Rodriguez?" the principal asked, his stare falling on her instead.
"It wasn't my fault," I said quickly, seizing the moment. "Norman said I had to fight. He hit me first. I didn't even hit him back."
"Is Norman the boss of you?" my teacher asked.
"What should you have done?"
"Tell a teacher. But I tried..."
"But nothing, mister."
"Do you know your phone number?" Mr. Capella asked me.
"Uh huh. Yes, sir."
"You're going to call your mother," Mr. Capella said, "and you're going to tell her to come and get you so we can to talk to her."
"I don't want to call my mother!" I begged. I knew how angry she would be to have to load up my baby sister into the carriage and walk to the school. I was sure to get a spanking. "I won't do it again, I swear!"
My teacher turned her head away from Mr. Capella and grinned at me. It was the second time I had seen that kind of smile that day.
"You have to," she said.
"No, I don't," I said, surprising myself with my backtalk.
I crossed my arms intransigently, and I felt the heaviness of the day float off my shoulders and into the air. I smiled back at Mrs. Rodriguez, and for once I was not afraid.