When I was six

When I was six the teacher said: “We’re going to learn a poem today. It’s called Ding Dong Dell.”

I knew that poem. Surely everyone knew it. But I’d also heard a Revised Version, much better than the original. I think it was my elder brother who taught it to me.
I said: “I know that poem”

“Good boy, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

So I did:  

“Ding Dong Dell

Pussy’s in the well.

‘How can you tell?’ 

‘Go and have a smell.’”

 

It was funny but Mrs Paulette did not smile: “Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. Leave the class. Go to the storeroom.”

 

I went to the storeroom, a narrow room lined with shelves stacked with classroom necessities. 

I stood there alone and listened to the silence. I felt a thumping, fast and hard, in my chest.

I knew perdition. I knew exile. I knew terror.

I stood in fear and misery. When would a captive be released from the storeroom? How would Mum know where to look for me when she came after school?

 

A sound at the storeroom door. I shook harder. The door opened and I stopped shaking. I knew the face, the freckles, the buck-toothed grin, the red, red hair. I knew my older brother Dennis.

“What are you doing here, Howard?”

I shook my head.

Dennis went to a shelf and selected a piece of red chalk, one of blue and a white one.

“What are you doing, Dennis?”

“Mr Frobisher sent me for chalk.”

Dennis opened some packets, discovered a treasury of pristine plasticine. Methodically he peeled off thick strips and pocketed them.

“Does Mister Frobisher want plasta too?”

“Nope. I do. You can have some. I’ll leave a bit for you.”

Dennis left.

I looked around and saw riches. I saw Aladdin’s cave. I saw opportunity.

I touched nothing. I stood and trembled at my own thoughts of wrongdoing.

 

A sound at the door. Mrs Paulette’s face and pony tail and round bosoms appeared in the narrow space. I saw what she must see, the open package of plasticine. I saw the signs of theft and I thought  – not of Dennis’ actions – but of my own wicked impulse.

 

Mrs Paulette said, “It’s recess, Howard. Go outside and play.”

In truth, I am beshat*

In my days in the Diamond Valley I made the acquaintance of a man who enjoyed conversation, a school teacher. He saw that I enjoyed the odd excursion from the straight narrows of medicine and so he told me stories. A tall man, he needed his height to ferry his round tummy, pregnant with decades of plentiful daily ale. His face was merry, his cheeks red, his nose pitted and fretted and bulbous with the veritas of his vinous ways. His skin fell in furrows over his wasted muscles.

The teacher told me stories, breathing over me the rich aroma of his vegetable of choice, tobacco leaf.

He enjoyed company, he liked stories, he was avid to hear mine and generous with his own. Some times the teacher came to consult me about his health, but even then there was always a story.

Doc, I had diarrhoea yesterday. It was funny in a way.

“Are you any better today?”

Fine, as far as diarrhea goes. It’s just the cough. I’d better explain.

Yesterday we took all the Grade Twos and Grade Threes on an excursion. Great excitement. First excursion for those kids. We were taking them to the Museum, forty-one kids, two teachers, two aides and a few parents as volunteers.

 

There was this great buzz. You know the excitement of a bunch of kids? You can feel it, the hum, the excitement.

We herded the kids onto the bus, forty-plus of them, chirping, a bunch of chicks on a first flight from the nest. It took forever to get them aboard, get them seated.  Finally, are we all aboard? I was Senior. I called the roll: all present, all correct. Just to double check, I walked the aisle and did a count: forty-one kids. Two were away sick.

 

I stood up front, next to the driver, to make my little speech. I told the children how lucky we were, how we would visit the museum and see exhibits from olden times as well as models of dinosaurs.

At mention of dinosaurs all the kids are excited. One child near the front pipes up with a question: “Did you see dinosaurs when you were our age?”

You know a question like that, it can be a smartarse wisecrack from some show off, but this was spontaneous, straightforward curiosity. A little girl, free of artifice or design, just wanting to know. I saw myself as she saw me – old, clever, full of knowledge and memory, a relic, a museum piece. As a teacher you live for that freshness, those moments. You relish the child’s gravity and your own absurdity.

 

So the child asked, filled me with delight. And hilarity. I laughed. That’s where I went wrong. I laughed and laughed. Everyone joined in. I laughed until I started coughing. I coughed so hard I lost control of my bowel. I felt my pants fill. I felt it run down my legs.  The children up front smelled it.

We have arrived now at the symptoms – cough and diarrhea: “What did you do?”

The teacher’s face radiates mirth. He sees what the children saw.

What could I do? I said, ‘There will be a short delay while I duck home and clean up and change.’ And that’s what I did. Ten minutes later we were on our way.

I’ll tell you something, Howard. We all had a great day. And those  forty-one kids will never forget their first excursion, that day, that famous day the teacher shat himself in front of them.

*From The Sot Weed Factor, John Barth 

Bullying in Fifth Grade

Fifth grade is a long way behind us. The party is full of old faces. The boy I bullied back then walks towards me, his gait uneven, his face smiling. “Good to see you, Howard.”
Good to see me? Really?
“Hello Isaiah, great to see you. Hurt your leg?”
“Car accident, shortly after I got my Driver’s Licence. I was driving on the Hume. I hit a tree, hurt my head. I didn’t know I’d fractured my leg, not until three weeks later, when I came out of the coma.”
Three weeks in a coma! A shock.
“Will your leg heal?”
“They told me at the hospital I’d know after a year how good the leg would be. It’s been eighteen months…”
Isaiah leads me to a table where he takes the weight off his damaged leg.
“A single car accident. You’d know from medical school that a single car accident is usually a sub-suicide.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well it’s true. And I have no doubt that’s what mine was.”
I want to ask: what drove you to it? But the accidental pun will add hurt; and I am pretty sure I know the answer.

***

In grade five in our rural school, Isaiah is a philosopher and I am a social climber. Already taller than most of us by half a head, his hair a thicket of lustrous black, his manner professorial and his elocution like that of a news reader on the ABC, Isaiah is different. He wears glasses with wide black rims. He is an intellectual who is no good at sport; he’s neither rich nor fashionable nor popular. His voice is deeper than ours by a couple of octaves, a voice racing into puberty, but he is hopeless with girls.

It is fun to tease Isaiah for his mannerisms. We all do it from time to time and it raises a laugh. My social rise is based on performance, on raising a laugh. So I persecute Isaiah systematically. I organize a squadron of followers, to stalk Isaiah at recesses and at lunchtimes, and to chant my witticisms at his expense in a loud and public manner.

After one such lunchtime of bloodsport, Isaiah rises in his seat and addresses our teacher: Miss Redfern, allow me to introduce to you the Anti-Isaiah Army, organized and led by Howard Goldenberg.
Isaiah describes the marching and the stalking and the chanting, how the army surprises him in every nook and corner where he tries to hide. He lists the names of my volunteers and conscripts, he details the misery and humiliation, the desperation of his plight. Hearing this testimony the army deserts. Its generalissimo shrinks in shame, looks down, away from that tall figure, that crop of hair, that deep, true voice.

***

Isaiah’s speech marks the end of his persecution. He befriends me, confides in me. In his forgiving he heaps coals of fire upon my head. Neither he nor I speak again of the Army. School year follows year, Isaiah matriculates in unsung distinction and disappears. Three years on, he limps into my life at the party. He is glad to see me again. Really. He speaks and acts towards me as if his forgiving has been superseded by forgetting. As if his brain were injured.

***

The next time we meet we are in our sixties. Once again Isaiah is glad to see me, and I – glad in his gladness – feel relieved and warmed. And a strong need to be absolved. I tell him how sorry I am for my behaviour towards him in Fifth Grade. He searches my face for a joke. Or irony. Or mistaken identity.
Isaiah looks genuinely lost.
I explain, describing events that remain all too clear in my memory. Isaiah shakes his head, still crowned with its thicket: Howard I honestly don’t remember any of this. I do recall your friendship. I was grateful for it. Somewhere at some time over our lost decades someone has mentioned to me how Isaiah was one who suffered violence, real physical abuse, through his childhood years. Enough abuse, it seems, to obliterate the pain of small injuries perpetrated by Howard Goldenberg and his militia.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 4 April, 2013

My teacher, my lover

My teacher in the Second Class is Miss Paul. She is tall and slim. She has very fair hair, which she bundles high on her head. Her bosoms are not large, but in her case this does not matter.

Miss Paul speaks in an unusual manner, rather like the news reader of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It is a very precise sort of diction. Although her speech is different from ours, I can understand whatever Miss Paul says quite easily.

Miss Paul is beautiful. And precise. And exacting. I look up to her and I want to please her. She requires her pupils to sit up straight. I sit very straight. I follow her with my eyes and I do as she says to do.

Mum says Miss Paul is English. Early one morning in 1953, while I am a student in Miss Paul’s Second Class, something happens in England. Dad is listening to the news on the ABC. He says something to Mum that I don’t catch. My older brother, Dennis, says, “I’ll run down to the Council Chambers and look at the flag.”

A few minutes later, Dennis is back: “The flag is at half mast.”

That means the king has died and someone else will wear his crown and sit on his throne and be our ruler. The king had no sons, so the new monarch will be our queen.

Miss Paul loves and admires the Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. She has shown us a large photograph of the two. Like all photos of my childhood, this is black and white. “Notice the beautiful posture of Princess Elizabeth. She carries herself almost like a queen. Only her knees are a little apart. ”

Now the princess with parted knees will become the queen.

Miss Paul arranges for us to view facsimiles of the Crown Jewels. I cannot believe that these robes, the crown, the orb and the sceptre are not real. Miss Paul teaches us everything we should know about the coronation. It is very splendid.

We children of Second Class at Leeton Public School are intimate with royalty because Miss Paul is herself from England. She is England, with all the authenticity and superiority that England means.

Miss Paul lives in the elegant Hydro Hotel, the highest building in the town. Her suite is on the second storey, looking out at the water tower that gives the hotel its name. It is a long and arduous task to walk up the hill to the Hydro.

One Saturday morning, Dennis decides that we should pay a call on Miss Paul. His initiative is audacious beyond imagining.

What if she’s not home? What if she is at home? What if they won’t let us in?

What I really mean is, What right have we commoners to pay a visit to royalty?

Dennis is certain it will be alright. All the way up the Hydro hill, I lag behind. I voice my doubts, I threaten to turn back, I tell Dennis this is wrong.

Dennis plows on. My fears cannot touch him. This idea of his is too frightening for my tiny courage, but I cannot resist it. This is the land of Danger, where Dennis always ventures, where I cannot help but follow.

The Hydro Hotel is a large building set well back in spacious gardens. It sits behind its high stone wall like a castle, a palace. Dennis leads me into the foyer. There is red plush everywhere. A grownup appears. I want to run, but Dennis strides forward and speaks to the grownup. He says. “We have come to visit Miss Paul.”

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