Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.

A Dream

In early 2018, fourteen of Clan Goldenberg descend on a vast villa in the Dominican republic. We have not been long in DR before we start to feel its bite. While we reside in a vast house of huge rooms and lush grounds the world outside is very different. Simply put, the people are poor. While the sun-and rain-drenched soil feeds most of its 13 million people more-or-less adequately, measures of relative poverty place DR 19th-poorest on the planet. Schooling is free but generally brief and standards are deplorable. We read of teenage pregnancy – 28 percent of girls aged eleven to fifteen have undergone termination of pregnancy. Unemployment and sub-employment drive a cycle of generational poverty. The poor attend poorer schools for a shorter period. They leave, they marry too young, and it all starts again.

There is, it appears, something of a solution. For every additional year that a girl stays at primary school there accrues a 3% rise in her employability. But for every additional year of high schooling, employability rises 26%.

 

 

So far, so regrettably common. But there’s something uncommon about this particular half-island. In 1938 two of the worst humans of modern history found themselves at cross purposes. While Hitler worked to persecute, and finally to exterminate Jews, Trujillo, the Dominican butcher-dictator, strove to save them.

At the ill-fated Evian Conference, convened by Roosevelt to find countries of shelter for Jews, thirty-two nations gathered. The setting was elegant, the food sublime, the sentiments uniformly noble. The outcome was disastrous: America remained obdurately closed; Britain accepted children but kept Palestine closed to Jewish immigration; vast, empty Australia piously declared: we are a young nation without a racial problem (really?) and we have no wish to import one…

 

 

Nation number 32, the Dominican Republic, vowed to take 100,000 Jews.  Why did Trujillo make his offer? While opinion is divided about his motivation it seems he was anxious to improve his image following his recent massacre of 20,000 of his countrymen. Trujillo, himself partly black, was a racist who used to powder his face white for public appearances. He stated he sought Jewish immigration to raise the standards of Dominican agriculture and industry. He added openly his wish that by intermarrying with locals, European Jews would whiten his citizenry.

It is this mixed package of information that bites us. In Sosua, in the neglected north, we find a remnant Jewish community, proudly Dominican, proudly Jewish, unashamedly religiously ‘impure’. Sosua speaks to the grateful heart. A friend from New York helped to endow a school here for the children of the poorest, dedicating it to the memory of his mother Flora, herself an early childhood educator.

Sosua bit our friend and it bit my family too. We are accommodated between Sosua and Cabarete in a gated community of vast villas with yawning ceilings, timbered walls and picture windows opening onto lush grounds. Cheerful Dominicans bearing weapons protect us (from cheerless Dominicans?), patrolling the grounds day and night. Their guns have the look of the blunderbuss, somehow horrific and laughable at the same time. It is all very comfortable – just a little too comfortable for comfort. A comfort from which our New York friend relieves himself by working relentlessly for the people of DR, both Gentile and Jewish.

Two days ago we visited the school named for Flora, a part of the DREAM Project. The drive from Sosua to Cabarete was punctuated by the now-raining, now-sunny weather and the familiar dicing with death of the weaving motocyclistas along the perpetually slippery roads.

When we reached Cabarete’s sole traffic light we turned right, as directed, along Callejon de Talloga. This little ribbon of road twists and turns though the Dominican village, a place vivid for its street life and stark for its street life. People here abide in evident vivacity and in evident want.

We become lost repeatedly in side streets too narrow for a U-turn. Few of the villagers speak English but everyone knows the two words, DREAM Project. Faces light up, people point, someone materializes as designated interpreter and directions are given.

The roads are narrow, footpaths are lacking, and soft human bodies share the roadway with battered cars, bikes, motorcycles and hungry dogs. Dwellings are tiny and insubstantial. They will not survive the next hurricane season. Eateries are very numerous, generally someone’s front room. Bright colours, lounging youths, slim-hipped schoolgirls, their bodies advancing to a ripeness far beyond their years, smiles everywhere, people moving with the grace of dancers; life is pinched but never mean.

We turn a corner and here are the DREAM Project’s Flora Rabinovitch premises. By chance our visit coincides with the inauguration of something. The fundraiser, a charming American called John, shepherds a small herd of pink visitors to an outdoor shelter where he explains the DREAM in fluent and quite accessible Spanish and in English.  Seated on the ground before us is a class of three-to five-year olds, the pupils of the beginners’ grade. The children observe deep decorum, their bodies unmoving, their grave faces a mute challenge to all: behold my irresistible humanity.

 

 

The fundraising man is handsome, utterly charming, and he is paid to charm us. He certainly charmed me. If he told me he was going to campaign for the re-election of the incumbent President of the United States I would probably follow him and drink at his Tea Party.

But charm is needless. Outside on the street the need is visible and unpretty. Here in the bricks and flesh of the school is a serious gesture towards cure. John-the-Charming reels off figures and facts: We now have ten regional and rural schools, we have 750 students, we teach by the Montessori System…

 

 

Montessori! My own children attended a Montessori school. It stands for a learning which is neither rigid nor structured; rather the child chooses what to task to learn, and having once learned it, moves onto another. The teacher explains: The child learns tasks of living. We prepare the child for life at each child’s pace. The pace can be quick: many of our four-year olds are reading.

In the USA Montessori means private; private means money. These kids of the DREAM receive schooling that most Yanquis can only dream of.

  

 

We sweat for a while in the blaze of day then follow John and the teacher to the classroom of Beginners. The flesh and curls teacher closely resembles the young woman of the billboard, at work among her charges. We stand, towering above children who are impossibly small, impossibly beautiful and so, so solemn.

The children will invite you to come and sit. They will teach you what they have mastered.

 

 

One child takes my hand in hers and sits me down at a tiny table. She turns, walks a little distance to some shelves where she selects a tray, which she carries studiously to our table. She sits. Upon the tray I see small sheets of coloured paper and a small bucket filled with sharpened pencils. I ask her name. Facing downward she makes a small sound which I cannot make out. Rather than disturb her composure by asking again, I hold my peace.  My nameless little teacher takes a yellow pencil and traces a fairly straight line on the bottle-green page. At the termination of the line she draws a roughly circular shape. Gravely she looks up. I nod. Once again Anonymous Child draws something linear which runs to and joins something circular. I might be looking at a balloon on a string, an olive on a twig, or a circle and a line. I nod again. Little teacher hands me a pencil and I do my best to emulate the task she has mastered and taught me.

My lesson is over. I thank the small teacher and approach the adult teacher. I describe an outback school in Australia’s Top End where I saw undernourished children, and where the school feeds them. The pupils eat two hot meals a day on every school day, their sole reliable nutrition. Does the DREAM in Cabarete feed these kids? At mid-morning we have Snack. The government supplies milk and bread. The school supplies cookies. At lunchtime some children have no food and we teachers feed them from the lunches we bring from home. At the end of the day we give leftover bread and milk to children of hungry families to take home.

It’s time to go. A quiet word to John Charming. Yes, the school does accept donationsOne hundred percent of donated money goes to work in the classrooms.

I trust the DREAM. I donate more than I imagined I might at http://www.dominicandream.org/ and so can you.

A Visit to the Dentist

You could say it’s all my mother’s fault. It was Mum who made me go to the dentist. It was Mum who made me wash. Like many mothers Mum had a religious belief in soap and water.
When I was a small child Mum took me to the dentist, Mister Mc Auliffe. In those days dentists were Mister and doctors were Doctor. Mum tried to make it sound like a treat: ‘Afterwards we’ll go across the street to Mr Iano’s shop and I’ll buy you the biggest apple he’s got.’ I had better reasons, anti-dental reasons, for going to Iano’s. As well as being the fruit shop it was the milk bar: you could buy lollies there. Mum said, ‘Afterwards we’ll get the biggest and brightest and greenest apple in the whole shop.’ Afterwards! I heard a rat. What would happen in-betweenwards?

In between the honeyed talk and the greenest apple was the climb up to Mr Mc Auliffe’s second-floor surgery. From there I had an excellent view of Iano’s lolly shop. Inside that narrow chamber I smelt smells, I heard sounds, I felt vibrations, all novel, all taking place within my mouth. The drill moved with all the speed and softness of a peak-hour cable tram. My teeth were the rails. I felt smoke but could not cry ‘Fire!’
Afterwards, as promised, there was the apple.

Five years later, attending my expensive new school in Melbourne, I stood on the top step of the slide. A pushing-in kid, hostile to this newcomer, tried to push in. I stood my ground. Push came to shove in the back, I fell face-first onto the steel side rail of the slide, arresting my fall with my right front upper incisor. I left part of that upper front tooth in the Mount Scopus playground in St Kilda Road. My parents decided I looked odd and sent me to a dentist. A Melbourne dentist, I discovered, had modern methods of preventing pain by causing pain. The dentist – still mister – squirted local anaesthetic into the nerve nearest the front upper tooth. He said, ‘This will stop you feeling pain.’ Perhaps it did do that, but the injection hurt in a way that was new to me. Mister dentist asked me, ‘Do you want a gold filling?’ I didn’t want anything more this man might do to me. But I didn’t say no so I left those premises unaware of the new vertical glint of gold in my smile. It was a long time before I smiled, longer still before I saw myself in a mirror.

Many decades later grandchildren arrived. They learned to speak. They looked at me, they looked at other humans, and they asked, ‘Saba, how come you got a gold tooth?’
I told them the truth of course. I told them how I fought a gold toothed dragon that no-one else would fight, how I’d killed it and kept one tooth as a trophy.
Every time they saw me, the grandboys would ask, ‘Tell us how you got that golden tooth, Saba.’ I told them how I’d swum into the deepest ocean and fought barehanded the Giant Shark, fought tooth to tooth, how I’d bitten out his black heart, how his blood-red tooth had bitten my gum, had lodged there and rusted and turned gold.’
And again, ‘Saba how did you get that gold tooth?’ I told them about the dinosaurs that caused so much wreckage in my childhood days. ‘You know how Tyrannosaurus wrecks, don’t you, kids?’ I was forced to tell them of my desperate struggle in the dark jungles of Paris, how I saved the Parisees, how Tyrannosaurus died, his black blood turning the dirt streets of Paris black, his last tooth taken as a souvenir – a French word I borrowed from the Parisees – how I had that tooth implanted in my own brave gums. ‘And, kids, today you never see any dinosaurs any more, not even in the dark jungles of Paris. And the streets of Paris are all black.’

All went well for some time. The gold tooth stories nourished hungry young minds, filling them with useful knowledge of geography, of history and of pre-history. The gold tooth gleamed modestly from behind my bulbous lip, a stamp of my enormous, self-effacing courage.

Then my Mum stepped in. Not physically, but in habit ingrained and indoctrinated, Mum’s habit of soap and water, a habit I am embarrassed to admit survives her, years after her death: I showered. And while showering I ran my idle tongue along the inside of my upper teeth, where that slippery pink rasp felt something that was not there: my tooth, my gold tooth, had gone!
That’s life, I said to myself. Sixty years a gold-toothed person, now ungolden. I grinned at myself in the mirror. I looked like a failed terrorist. Something gleamed from the floor of the shower recess. I picked it up and placed it in a urine jar.
I asked the nurses, ‘Is there a dentist in this small town?’ There was, there is. And the dentist’s receptionist had more bad news, ‘You can see him today.’
So I went. The dentist is Doctor now. But he was not the real, dinkum, authentic dentist of my childhood. He covered my eyes to protect me from my own germs. He showed me a horror show on the screen above me: the images were those of my own teeth, my receding gums, my doomed dentition. He did things inside my mouth, asking me questions I never heard in childhood: ‘Does that hurt? Please tell me if I hurt you.’ He used a drill and he didn’t hurt. I think he doesn’t know how. He glued back my bit of gold. I lost my terrorist’s grin.

Nowadays a dentist has lost those old skills, those old black arts; now that a dentist is a Doctor it’s only your wallet that hurts. So a dentist who is a Doctor employs a failed dentist and calls her a hygienist. And she knows how to hurt.

Sexual Misconduct

A first grader I know confided in me recently. He said, I’ve got a problem. You know my girlfriend, Tori? She kisses me and she wants me to kiss her. At school!
I didn’t see his problem: Is that bad?
Yes! What if the teachers find out?
What would happen if they did find out?
They would send me to the principal.
Why?
The child looked at me as at a simpleton. Because you can’t kiss people at school! It’s against the rules!
Really? I never saw any rule like that? Especially if the girl wants you to kiss her. And if you do.
Exasperated now: Look, if we kiss and other kids know about it, soon the whole school would be kissing…
That’s better than fighting, isn’t it?
A deep breath. He tries a different tack: What if Tori’s parents found out?
What if they did? If your parents wouldn’t mind – why should her parents feel differently?
You don’t understand. Tori’s parents aren’t like mine. They… they live in a great big house…They would go crazy if they knew I kissed Tori.

The Reunion

We met in the grounds of our old school. Cars drew up, old faces emerged, old bodies, sagging here and there, supported by stiffening joints. Faces lit in recognition or knitted in puzzlement – I can’t place you – then opened upon discovery. Older faces, stiffer frames – these were teachers, old and treasured. The pleasure was of a novel sort: it was as if one discovered an aged aunt or uncle not seen for fifty years; and the aged one was as delighted we were at the encounter.
Fifty years. A large chunk of time in anyone’s lifetime, an epoch unimaginable when we left in 1963.
We toured the school, the new and the old. The dunnies hadn’t changed except they were clean.
Afterwards we gathered in the dining hall.
I volunteered to speak about the lost eleven of our classmates. I didn’t want the ninety survivors of the class of 1963 to bee-suck on nostalgia and leave the dead unsung. So I read the following:

Here we are fifty years on.
We have become, I realise, walking memorials to those we have lost.
We travel the roads and the paths of our lives and our minds register: Aunty Sylvie lived in this street…Dennis used to walk his dog in this park…that’s the Shule Dad and his bothers walked to when they were kids…this is the street where my grandparents lived…

Now, gathered here at Scopus again, in this dining hall, beneath this roof, shadows of old friends, old rivals, flash across memory. Teachers we loathed, teachers we revered, those we mocked, those we feared, all move across the mind in their chalky academic gowns. They lived, they did their work and they passed on. And we – we who were once seventeen, eighteen years old and full of wonder about the future – we approach threescore years and ten, full of amazement about the years past.

But we have left some behind. I name them now.

Manny Olian, dead in 1964.
Faye Broons, dead only a few years later – in 1971.
Ephraim Bergner – died early – I haven’t been able to track down the year.
Leon Fust and Suzanne Gescheit in 2006;
Miriam Hamer, Norman Stern, Shareen Fremder – all in 2007;
Joe Serwetarz in 2008.
Zelda Slonim in 2009.
Michael Kowadlo, just over a year ago, in 2012.

The names are the bones. Some I can clothe in the flesh of concrete recollection.

Manny Olian.
Many memories, warm, smiling memories of a thin, manically funny boy, a stranger to malice, a friend who stood out from our glorious contemporaries for his originality of mind. Manny was the source of extraordinary insights that always astonished me. I see Manny holding a pen, grabbing a footy, his fingers spidering, hyperextending, exclamation marks at the extremities of a boy at the extreme.
Manny was a pioneer in death by drugs. During a trip on LSD, Manny stepped off a cliff in England and died.

In my imaginings I see Manny’s parents in 1946, at the time of his birth. They look upon their firstborn and they choose a name. The parents see their child before them and put the unspeakable past behind them. They called him Menachem, “comfort”. Eighteen years later, in 1964 – what comfort do they find?

Fay Broons.
I hardly knew Fay. I wonder how many did know her. Pretty, quiet, shy, ladylike, almost ephemeral at school, Fay was a mother of three little kids by 1971. She started the last weekend of her life in good health and was dead 48 hours later – of fulminating infection, or a brain haemorrhage? – even her family does not know to this day.

Ephraim Bergner.
Ephraim, Effy – that gifted, creative, wild child. Those fabulous good looks, that innocent disconnect from the rules, from the mundane, from consequences.
Our class’s James Dean.
Who was surprised that Ephraim’s life ended early?
Only the exact year, and the precise drug escape me.
What shadows, what secrets, what ghosts, was Ephraim escaping?

Leon Fust, skinny, nimble, fearless on the footy field, subtle and gentle in his thought; I last saw him in an Australian bank in Piccadilly, in an impeccable suit and a bowler. Leon looked the epitome of an English gentleman.
Never sighted again, what did Leon die of? Whom did he leave to mourn him?

Sue Gescheit, her kidneys failing after decades fighting off her viciously severe diabetes; Miriam Hamer, marrying for the first time at sixty, marrying for love, knowing her lung cancer had already spread to her brain; Norman Stern, one so jovial, often an innocent magnet for mischance, Norman, whom I had not sighted since school; he and Joe Serwetarz – the tall, the gregarious, the good looking, athlete – both of them, following just before or soon after Miriam and Sue.

Zelda Slonim – I think I knew her. Did I know her?

Shareen Fremder – I’m sure I didn’t know Shareen.

What does it mean that one passes and passes unknown?
Who knows? Who mourns?
Who carries their memory?

Finally, Michael Kowadlo, passing in 2012.

My first memory of Scopus is of Michael. This big friendly kid takes this very lost, very strange new kid –Howard Someone – from the country! – under his wing.
A week or so later I am climbing the steps of the slide when a bunch of interlopers races up the steps, pushing me aside. My face collides with the steel rail, a tooth chips, my mouth fills with blood and Michael, Big Michael, steps in and pushes the interlopers away. I take my turn and slide down. I meet and enrich a dentist. I become closest of friends with the principal slide aggressor – great to see you again Tommy – and Michael becomes a dentist.
The last 100 times I saw Michael occurred when we both spent a year reciting kaddish in memory of loved ones.

I want to recite kaddish now, and I invite everyone to stand and join with me, in memory of all our lost friends. In memory of Manny – “after the first death there is no other’’, as Dylan Thomas reminds us – in memory of youth, in memory – and in forgiveness – of our lost selves…

Yitgadal ve’yitkaddash sh’mei rabah…

***

After I delivered that sombre material, my voice dying at the end, I looked up. Fifty serious faces looked down. My schoolmates, silent for the first time in our twelve school years and in the following fifty years, did not meet my gaze. Gone was the buzz, the gaiety of moments ago. I had spoiled our evening. Or so I feared.

Mount Scopus College was born in Melbourne just after the end of the War. Fiercely partisan community leaders in their congregations and their factions came to historic agreement to bury difference and to create a school. The compromise they made was without precedent or subsequent. The leaders, the secular with the devout, the Yiddishists with the Hebraists, the political with the cultural, agreed on one thing: this ragged remnant of Jewry must educate its children if Jewry were to survive. So Mount Scopus was born at the same historic moment that we, the class of ’63, were born.
What did we know of the Shoah, what did we learn? Precious little at Scopus, only dark and unspoken shapes and silences from our parents. We did not realize until later that ours was a generation without grandparents.
Our Jewish teachers, burning with an intensity that burned us, cared unaccountably that we learn, that we incorporate the burden of their scholarship; while we, dull and distractible, remained unforgivably innocent, even indifferent to the heritage they were transplanting. Only in Rabbi Schwartz was truth writ clear in the body: his throat, a terrible terrain of wound and scar, remained red and swollen these years later. Somehow we all knew – the Nazis had pulled out his beard.
We are the result, their fruits, this class of 67-year olds, gathered again in the old Scopus dining hall that was also assembly hall and concert hall and community banquet room. Was I the only one to gaze about the room and to marvel at the achievement of Scopus, at the fruits of our parents’ sacrifice? The room crawled with professors, with doctors a dime a dozen, with lawyers, teachers, psychologists, with businesswomen, artists, computer greats. I could see how middle-of-the-roaders in our Scopus class rose to enduring distinction in the wider world. Truly the fires of the fathers had kindled huge drive in the children. Starved parents raised a generation hungry for success. We took our opportunities. Some seized the future, becoming pioneers and creators. We flamed, we made our mark.
Most of us had married Jews and produced Jews. Many of us had sent our kids to Mount Scopus. Making the real sacrifices needed for this costly schooling we endorsed the vision of the founders. Some of us had grandchildren at Scopus.

***

The class of ’63 has been decimated in two quite different ways – one in ten has died; one in ten has emigrated, made aliya – literally ascended – to Israel. Of these latter, three classmates have journeyed here solely for this occasion. It is a long and costly trip; why have they come? Why have others travelled from Western Australia and Queensland? Why have the remaining fifty-odd Melbourne residents bothered?
In the course of our four hours together clusters form and drift. Old intimates greet each other but do not linger, instead moving on to find others less known, less loved. A genuine thirst for connection, a tenderness, a respect – the things we all needed and often begrudged in those rougher days.
In place of the empty phrases of everyday greeting, men and women shake, hug, regard; they take in faces that have ripened and withered and deepened; they see and they don’t need to ask; the face of the other is the face they see in the mirror, a face stricken, blessed, stripped by the years. No-one is measuring, no-one comparing: that which we are, we are…

Four hours, equivalent to half a school day, long enough to discover

Equally interesting to me: why have others chosen not to come?
Two, I know, are disabled by mental illness. A third, with whom I am closer now than fifty years ago, told me she could not imagine a more distressing experience than to return to the terrain and personnel of her schoolday trauma. Having rebuilt herself from her remains, she has retreated to another state where she rusticates and has some peace. She begged me not to press her to come. She forbade me to explain. The committee was to erase her contact information. This friend would be astonished to know how many missed her, how many wondered aloud about her. In the face of this goodwill it was difficult for me to hold my peace. I fed friends scraps: She’s doing well…she couldn’t make it…
In the course of the reunion, another – likewise closer in adult life than in school days – turned up unannounced and stood at the rear, listening to the few speeches. The longest speech was my elegy for the lost. Upon completion of kaddish my friend turned and left in silence.
Not everyone won academic laurels. Not everyone had a stellar career. Some of those present at the reunion, vibrantly present, knew their unsuccess didn’t signify. As we toured the school, one removed his adhesive lapel tag and placed it between the names on the Honour Board. There he was, Dux of Mount Scopus College, now, after fifty years. There he was among us, huge in his mirth and delight.
There would be some who decided not to attend, conscious of ‘failure’ – in career, in material status, in family – unaware that no-one measures any more, no-one judges. We missed them.

***

What is the measure of the years? After fifty years what does it mean? I imagine the survivor of the Shoah washing up on this godforsaken Jewish wilderness, this godspared paradise, looking around, looking forward, never backwards, no never back to those places, those times. He stands, he mates with another survivor. Together they work, they scrape, they venture, they struggle and persist. They raise a generation, often of one only child – the previous children lost, burned – they find the tuition fees, they send the child to Scopus…

The Scopus of today dazzles. I venture to suggest there exist university campuses in Australia which would envy the facilities and the faculty of this school.

In all the vivacity of this evening, the buzz, the energy of this still radiant class of ‘63, in all the softening, the love, there abides among us grandparents the uneasy understanding that a Scopus education is beyond the means of many of our children to provide. Some of my contemporaries, I know, quietly pay their grandkids’ fees. Others work for the school, raising funds for scholarships and bursaries.

What would the founders say? Would they count Scopus a success if the rising generation were locked out?

Reunion in Eden

We left school a long time ago. After a decade it already seemed a long time had passed. We had become parents. Ten years further on a score of years separated us from those embarrassing teenage selves and, perhaps as a result, from each other. Now, it is half a century. A few of us have been meeting every few weeks to plan the Reunion.

I entered the most recent meeting and found I was the only male. Not unhappily. There was Leah, the hot blooded fish who brought me to a quick boil on my first day, still gorgeous. There was Virginia, brown skinned Virginia, flashing that smile that subverted my every chaste thought. Not that I had many. That tanned skin, that exposure of teeth in that open mouth, how her name seemed an impossible lie, a taunt. There was Bee, an artist now, an artisan in precious metals, in lapis, buxom Bee smiling broadly, Bee whom I never approached, never touched, too shy. Shy? Shocking, unforgiveable callous neglect!

Carmel was there and Carol, whom I have seen oftener and often, whom the years have kept real, who developed beyond the hot fancies and shapes of my adolescent mind.

And one was there, smiling. I didn’t know her at first, couldn’t place her. But her smile – of greeting, of welcome, of recognition – Howard, it’s me. It’s us – such a smile, so pregnant of shared knowing, of secret pleasure, of more, of something never reached. The smile waited upon dawning but the sun rose slowly. Meanwhile, what to do? I kissed her, a nice, slight, chaste kiss, that social gesture so easy now, so charged then. She spoke, her gaze, her smile unwavering, “Hello, Howard.”

Carmel’s voice broke the mystery: “Lilith has brought photos.”

Lilith! More quickly than for all the others I would fall for Lilith. More rapidly and more often. And equally quick in dissolution. The sun never set on our love. Falling in on the school bus, falling out by morning recess, burned by the abrasion, by the intensity, of Lilith’s mercurial moods.

“We’re all fucked,” she would tell me half a century later, “All of us, our parents, ourselves, our generations…”

I sat down at table with the ladies to plan the Reunion. Seated on the sole vacant seat, which happened to be at Lilith’s side, I didn’t contribute much. Neither did Lilith. Instead we whispered like two Grade Five kids, just like the two who met and fell in 1956, the country boy from Leeton, the tiny blonde from Bratislava, fresh from the embers of the Shoah.

 

 

 

Mr Jones has a Great Big Carrot Between His Legs

“Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot between his legs.”

John Wanklyn, Johnny Wank, my oldest friend in the world, is addressing an audience of venerable country folk in the Yellow Room of the Leeton Library. Wank is launching My Father’s Compass, the memoir of my father. This excellent book describes memories of the childhood years that Wank and I shared; now he is treating the audience – which includes my ancient Mum – to an anecdote.

Johnny begins: “Our teacher in Fourth Class was Noel Henry Jones. Noel Henry Jones was a kindly man who liked children and wouldn’t punish them, even when that would have been a wise and a fair thing to do.

There were two boys in his class for whom Wisdom and Justice would have prescribed punishment frequently.

“One morning, Howard arrives early. On the blackboard he draws a large stick figure of a man, whose legs are in the position that the military calls “At Ease”. In the space between those two great limbs, Howard draws a long cigar shaped object. He writes some words above the picture, then operates the hinged mechanism that folds his art work out of sight behind another blackboard.

The class arrives. Noel Henry Jones arrives and brings the class to reluctant attention. Instruction commences, with Mr. Jones writing on the vacant blackboard.

So far, so good.

In time the board is full. Mr. Jones swings the hinged mechanism, ready to write on the second board. The text and the artwork swing into view.

Howard’s classmates look and read.

Mr. Jones looks and reads.

Noel Henry Jones surveys his pupils, identifying at a glance the Usual Suspects. Noel Henry Jones looks hardest and longest at John Baikie Wanklyn and at Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.

He knows John Wanklyn cannot spell carrot correctly. He knows there is only one person in the class who can…”

I confess that I had forgotten entirely the events that Johnny describes. His description is accurate.

I do remember Mr. Jones.

We enter Fourth Class after the summer holidays, a period of healing from the year-long winter of Mrs. Savage’s Third Class.

Mr. Jones is tall. He bends over us and his long body is like a shelter above and about us. He does not shout.

Mr. Jones creates an orchestra. People who are musical are given instruments to play. Others play percussion. My instrument is the triangle.

No-one is left out. As a result, there is an audience of one, namely Noel Henry Jones. Mr. Jones conducts, we play, he hears the sounds, but he does not complain.

It is hot. Summer blazes on the tin roof of our schoolroom. The windows along the side of the classroom are opened. The sills are precisely at the level of our desks. Just down the road from Leeton Public School is the municipal swimming pool. Its turbid waters are cool and inviting.

Mr. Jones turns his back on the class to write on the blackboard, a modern, hinged affair with a series of boards that fold, one behind another.

While Mr. Jones writes, Wanklyn and Goldenberg exeunt by the open window.

This is the naughtiest act of our lives to date.

We take with us provisions, in the form of the large  lollies that you buy at the Milk Bar. I have funds, liberated from the desk in Dad’s consulting room.

Wanklyn and Goldenberg swim and suck, all the hot afternoon.

At school the next day we front Noel Henry Jones, who makes no mention of the events of yesterday.

He must have told our parents.

After school we front our parents. Mister and Missus Wanklyn say nothing, ask nothing about yesterday afternoon. My own parents seem pleased to see me. No questions.

Noel Henry Jones becomes a father. On the day of the baby’s birth, Mr. Jones is absent from class. This is a good opportunity to examine the contents of his desk. Nothing much of interest there, mainly pens and pencils. One pen has a silver cap, with a clasp in the form of an arrow.

Upon his return to class, Mr. Jones smiles a lot. His baby is a little girl, but he does not complain.

From time to time, Mr. Jones walks around the class as we do our written work.  He pauses at my desk and admires my pen. It has a silver clasp in the form of an arrow.

“Nice pen, Howard.”

(It is a nice pen. I chose it myself.)

“I believe that’s my pen, Howard,” – a remark tantamount to an accusation of theft.

“No, Mr. Jones. It’s mine.”

Mister Jones looks unconvinced.

“My parents gave it to me.”

“Really? Is that your name?”

Mr. Jones points to the engraved words that read, Noel Henry Jones.

For the sake of peaceability I surrender the pen.

It is the same Noel Henry Jones who opens the hinged blackboard and reads his name and confronts his likeness.

When, a short time later, I leave that school and my hometown, it is that same N.H. Jones who prepares a report for my new school. He writes of my excellent results in the half-year tests. He writes of my charm. He writes warmly and he wishes me well.