The Reluctant Namesake – Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
The first day of school was always a major event in Miss Agnes Smith’s calendar. This is a moment of renewal, a fresh start, as much for teachers like me as for the pupils, Miss Smith thought to herself, as she did each year at this time. The carefree days of summer were over, and the children would resume their education and the teachers their calling. Parents would now be free of having to plan for their children’s daily activities. She was well aware that these were not new insights, that children and adults the world over since time immemorial experienced this same feeling. Still, Miss Smith liked to remind herself of this change, to feel the change inhabiting her being, to allow the approaching school year itself to infuse some measure of spring into her no longer springlike step. She felt a sense of communion with all of those others, now and in history, going through this same ritual: gathering newly purchased pencils, notebooks, and other supplies; reviewing multiplication tables, and preparing or helping to prepare “What I Did This Summer” essays, to name but a few.
Even at her advanced age, Miss Smith remembered well how, as a child, she always looked forward to the first day of school, excited to begin her studies, and, relieved that the summer was finally over. Her relief stood in such stark contrast to the dread of her younger brother Gerald who played out in the summer sun all day with his friends getting into God knows what kind of trouble. Their mother was relieved to see both of them back in school: little Agnes, whose unfeminine, bookish presence unsettled her and Gerald whose antics only served to underscore the absence of a male role model and the tenuousness of the family structure.
A few days ago, the school faculty met with the principal Dr. Jameson to ensure a smooth start to the academic year and to apportion the various duties, including recess, cafeteria, and hall monitorships, as well the supervision of extra-curricular activities. Miss Smith practically chaired the meeting. She had no problem doing that, although it was Dr. Jameson’s duty by right and by precedent. Sometimes Dr. Jameson just needed a bit of assistance, and Miss Smith was happy to provide it.
After the faculty meeting, Miss Smith personally supervised the cleaning of her classroom by Reggie Johnson, the custodian. She had to be certain the cleaning was done to her specifications; this was one task that could not be delegated to others. Miss Smith simply wouldn’t allow that. When Mr. Johnson completed the cleaning to her satisfaction, Miss Smith said, “Thank you so much, Mr. Johnson. I wish you and all of us a successful new year.”
Mr. Johnson lowered his eyes in response. Didn’t say much, that man, but that was just fine with her. His work spoke for him, and Miss Smith was always pleased with his work. She’d have to mention that to Dr. Jameson. Outstanding workers deserved to be commended. And Mr. Johnson was so dignified, too—as if he were tending to the treasures greater than the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre, instead of Miss Smith’s public-school classroom. Which, as Miss Smith saw it, he was. Her young charges were to Miss Smith more valuable than all the artistic masterpieces in the world’s most renowned museums.
“That will be all for now, Mr. Johnson. Please do have a wonderful day,” Miss Smith said, dismissing the custodian with an approving nod. He’d once asked her to call him “Regie,” but Miss Smith did not oblige him. He was a professional, just like all of the other school staff and ought to be treated accordingly. She’d noticed with satisfaction that Dr. Jameson followed her example. “Set the bar high, and folks will rise to meet the bar” was Miss Smith’s motto. It was exactly what she demanded of her students every day.
After Mr. Johnson left, with his wheeled bucket, mop, broom, and other instruments of sanitation, Miss Smith surveyed the classroom in satisfaction. As much as she loved the smells of chalk dust, books, pencils, crayons, and pens—the smells of learning—Miss Smith loved a clean classroom even more. She breathed in the smell—no, aroma, really—of the cleansers, feeling her skin tingle in her pleasure and anticipation. More than that, these aromas conveyed the sense of possibility, a young mind opening wide in discovery. In a classroom, anything can happen.
Under Miss Smith’s tutelage, the children, her children, would be beginning their education. Sure they would already have absorbed some basics in nursery and kindergarten, but, as Miss Smith was fond of reminding parents and (most) colleagues alike, first grade was where education really began.
Not that Miss Smith would ever have put it quite that way to Miss Scheid, the kindergarten teacher. She had far too much tact for that, but it was what she knew to be true. The children might have become familiar with the alphabet (and frankly not all had) in kindergarten, but first grade was where they took it from a rote sing-along to writing their letters and composing words of their accord, to the joys of reading and writing. By the time they completed the first grade, her children would have mastered the basics of reading and writing, both print and cursive. Miss Smith would be there to oversee it all. She was their guide, or sculptor, as she liked to see it, molding them from raw clay, unformed savages really, into literate beings with an unshakeable foundation in the ways of civilization.
Their clothes would be freshly pressed, their hair neatly combed. And if Miss Smith would have preferred that her students would be wearing uniforms—to shine in their uniformity—as the students at the private schools did, well, this was public school, and Dr. Meade, the District Chancellor would not permit it. When she had the rare opportunity to speak with Dr. Meade at a district “meet-and-greet” function, she discreetly raised the idea of school uniforms, but he politely rebuffed her. Another teacher might have tempted to campaign for uniforms, but Miss Smith didn’t dare circumvent the edicts of her own principal, let alone the District Chancellor. As far as Miss Smith was concerned, the lack of student uniforms only made her work that much more challenging. She would have to look out for stains and tidiness and overall presentability. There was little that escaped her. Even at her advanced age, Miss Smith felt fortunate to have retained her sharp eyes.
Today was no different. Miss Smith entered the classroom, pleased by the hush. While other teachers might have delayed their entrance to create a sense of drama, Miss Smith always entered the classroom at precisely the moment the class was scheduled to begin. 8:30 a.m. sharp. It was essential for Miss Smith that she herself serve as a paradigm of punctuality for her children. Besides, she had no need to manufacture a moment. The “drama” of her entrance arose from the force of her character and the impeccability of her morals.
Miss Smith walked down the aisle in her sturdy shoes, pleased that they made no clicking sounds or hardly any sound at all on the wooden floors. As she walked, Miss Smith swerved her head ever so slowly to the left and the right, making eye contact with as many pupils as possible. No, with all of them, in fact. Miss Smith could do that; she had that unique ability. She was aiming to establish an unbreakable bond with them at the very outset of the school year. And she nearly always succeeded.
“Good morning, students. Welcome to the first grade. This is a big day for all of you, and we have much to accomplish today and throughout the year. You are now representatives of our school. You will be ambassadors to the outside world. Much will be expected of you in this role, and I’m certain you won’t disappoint me. Conduct as much as scholasticism is of paramount importance here. There will be no talking or getting out of your seat without permission. There is no playtime except for recess, and there is no naptime. Kindergarten is over, children. You are now expected to be alert and productive young scholars. Failure to meet those standards will result in disciplinary action,” Miss Smith paused here for effect and then asked, “Is that clear? Am I being understood?” When all the young heads nodded, Miss Smith said, “Very well. I will now take roll.”
The names were mostly very straightforward, to Miss Smith’s relief. Joan Adamson, Roger Brenn, Stephen Caldwell … and on they went until … wait, what was this?
“Mindl Vakhtman” whispered a sallow girl, with a head of kinky dark curls in the back of the room.
“Stand up please, Miss V…, and say your name again in a loud clear voice. Enunciate,” Miss Smith commanded.
“Mindl Vakhtman,” the mite said, slurring the end of her first name and veritably coughing out her second. This matter had to be addressed … and quickly, too. Hmm.
“That won’t do at all. You will be called Mandy from now on,” Miss Smith pronounced, as if delivering an edict from Above, which she was. Should she have called her “Mindy”? No, that had unsavory foreign undertones. Good Lord, whatever would she do with that last name? “Mandy” it would be. Her peers would think it was a shortened form of Amanda. Now, that was a good strong name. Why couldn’t the poor girl have been named Amanda? Miss Smith wasn’t usually partial to nicknames or diminuitive forms of names, but she felt instinctively that Mandy was the right name for this girl.
“Yes, you’re in a new country now, and we, your compatriots, have certain rights and expectations. We shouldn’t have to struggle over the names of students. Mandy it will be. Class, do you hear me? I want you to say ‘good morning’ to Mandy,” Miss Smith informed them, turning her head quickly over the room to indicate that she expected all of the students to comply and that they must not treat Mandy any differently from any other student.
“Good morning, Mandy,” the students recited in unison.
“But my name is Mindl,” the child said futilely, her head lowered into the front of her jumper. If that sallow skin could blush, it would be fiery red, Miss Smith thought. She’d have to talk to the girl’s mother about that mass of kinky curls, too. They needed tending-to; they were distracting both to Miss Smith and surely to the students, as well And that last name? To whom could she possibly speak to get them to change that? Shouldn’t have that been done at the port of entry to the country? Was it too late now?
“That will be all for now, Mandy. You may be seated,” Miss Smith said, ending the matter decisively. “Now class, we will begin the lesson with the A-B-C’s, which I know you’ve already learned in kindergarten. All together now, A, B, C, D …”
* * *
The girl did seem to be adjusting, just as Miss Smith knew she would. All that was needed was the opportunity to learn the proper ways and Miss Smith’s guidance. With those two variables, Miss Smith had witnessed miracles. Mandy was completing her work with diligence and care. Her print letters, in particular, were excellent. Miss Smith was certain her cursive penmanship would be even more outstanding. She just had that feeling; Miss Smith was rarely wrong about such intuitions.
One day, after Dr. Jameson and her assistant went home, Miss Smith slipped into her office. She had a key to the office. She didn’t tell Dr. Jameson that she had the key. There was no need for her to know. The key was made for her under Miss Stephenson’s tenure as principal.
Miss Stephenson was grooming Miss Smith to be assistant principal and wanted her to have access to the office in case of an emergency. But when Dr. Jameson took over after Miss Stephenson’s retirement, the District Chancellor removed the hiring line of an assistant principal from the budget. Miss Smith knew she would never be made assistant principal now. Privately, Miss Smith wondered if it was really Dr. Meade’s decision or if Dr. Jameson herself had a hand in it. Would she want to appoint someone of her own choosing once she was more firmly ensconced in the school? And would funding suddenly be found once Dr. Jameson found someone she wished to appoint? Time would tell.
In the meantime, Miss Smith was glad Dr. Jameson didn’t know she had the key to her office. And she was glad too that Dr. Jameson didn’t change the lock when she assumed her position just this last year. Yes, the key still worked, Miss Smith thought, as the dinner swung inward. Miss Smith wouldn’t enter Dr. Jameson’s inner office. What she needed was in the outer office.
She turned to the files, looking for “V” with speed. She didn’t want to linger. Mr. Johnson had gone, but still one never knew who might turn up after hours—someone might have forgotten a lesson plan or a purse in the teachers’ lounge or the coach might want his athletes to be practicing or one of the extra-curricular clubs might be meeting. Miss Smith had checked the calendar beforehand, but still one could never be sure.
Ah yes, there it was. Vakhtman. Miss Smith quickly scanned the girl’s folder. Language: English, Father’s Occupation: Proprietor of Vakhtman’s Ladies’ Garments, Interests/Hobbies: Founding Member of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Miss Smith closed the folder knowingly.
A feminine underwear merchant? Good heavens! Well, someone had to sell that, she supposed. They were needed, she thought, inadvertently adjusting her girdle. And she couldn’t even begin to wrap her mind around that name of that congregation. But “Haverim Ahuvim”? Whatever could those words mean? What was wrong with Beth Israel or Beth Shalom … or something sensible like that? She closed the drawer, shaking her head. Some people just had to make life so difficult. Why? It really didn’t have to be.
Once she located the address of the synagogue in the telephone book, Miss Smith did not delay. She needed to check this establishment out for herself. The address was not far from the school, and, for some reason, it seemed so familiar.
As she glanced down at the small piece of paper with the scrawled address and then up again about a half hour later, Miss Smith gave a start of surprise. My goodness, I’m here already, she realized. And a small hand-painted sign “Congregation Haverim Ahuvim” confirmed it. This synagogue was occupying the venerable Van Nuys mansion. How could this have happened?
Miss Smith knew the family was experiencing some difficult times, that the daughter Marguerite had been living there alone for many years. But she thought a cousin was working to save it from falling into the wrong hands. Hadn’t she read that in the society column? What a shame that the synagogue had to commandeer the home of such a distinguished family, one of the city’s finest. If it had to leave the family at all, Miss Smith wished it could have been donated to the city for the edification purposes of the general population, such as a museum or a gallery or a branch library. Miss Smith once saw Marguerite years ago at a charity benefit. For the central library, if she wasn’t mistaken. What a delicate creature she had been then! And now this, the family mansion gone … for this. Such a shame.
Miss Smith walked up the central path. She peered into the front windows. The shades were up, but the building was dark. She saw long benches, and shelves filled with dark books with gilt lettering. Very ominous, it all was.
“Yoo hoo! Good morning. Can I help you?” asked a young man hanging out the second floor window.
“Why no, I was just … viewing the premises,” Miss Smith responded, at a rare loss for words. It had been quite some time since she’d been “yoo-hoo”ed by a man hanging out of a window.
“You’re welcome to come to our services. The schedule is printed just outside the door,” he continued. And so it was. Very detailed. These people certainly prayed a great deal, although perhaps not quite as much as the Mohammedans, if she recalled correctly. Miss Smith prided herself on her knowledge of different traditions.
“Thank you kindly,” she responded and walked down the path. A man hanging out of the second floor window and shouting at her. So unseemly. And out of the Van Nuys mansion, no less. Most unfortunate, she thought again. Still, he had been friendly. Many of them were not.
Walking away, Miss Smith paused at what she hoped was just outside the man’s line of vision. What an elegant structure—the stone, the gables, the rounded corner with the cupola. That couldn’t be changed, or at least she hoped it wouldn’t be. She’d seen some terrible “renovations” over the years. More like travesties, they were, in Miss Smith’s opinion. She did so hope that wouldn’t happen here. For the community’s sake, for the cultural heritage of the city. Miss Smith was never personally acquainted with any members of the Van Nuys family. She knew that they didn’t even know she existed. But still she was sure they would be turning over in their grave.
And why did they have to do it here? Why in this mansion? Couldn’t they have built their own building? Why take one of ours? And one of our most architecturally distinctive ones at that? Why didn’t they build their structures in ways that were identifiable as holy? Like our fine Gothic churches with their steeples and bells and … ? Miss Smith struggled to remember some of the other distinguishing architectural features of churches? Shouldn’t the holiness be constructed in the foundation itself? Wouldn’t it just be plastered on if you took over a family’s private home? Miss Smith did not consider herself an enemy of these people. In fact, she considered herself to be their ally, friend even. Yes, philo- , as a matter of fact. They all did. By they, Miss Smith meant Dr. Jameson, Dr. Meade, the District, the entire country itself. Hadn’t these people been welcomed here with open arms? Miss Smith’s intentions, her actions were for the good of all involved. She would do her part where she could—in her school.
Miss Smith felt personally affronted by the presence of Congregation … whatchamacalit, although she never had been much a churchgoer herself. Too many intangibles. Miss Smith was all about results. Still, she respected the faithful—their dedication and service, their commitment to uplift. Those were values she could get behind. In fact, those were values Miss Smith embodied and sought to impart to her young charges. And so she would, including to Mandy, now under her care.
* * *
Miss Smith lifted her feet slowly onto her hassock. No, she didn’t kick up her feet. Miss Smith didn’t kick up anything. Her legs, once so slim, were thickening. She wouldn’t hide them with longer skirts. Years of standing on her feet and moving about the classroom doing the work of an educator, doing the work of spreading knowledge and instilling a moral foundation. Nothing to be ashamed of.
She was pleased by her sleuthing. Common sense and a bit of initiative, really, the product of a solid education. It had been a fruitful few days. She had sought information and uncovered it. Sometimes, she just liked to know that much more about a particular student. And this year, it appeared to be this Mandy … Vakhtman. Even her mind refused to allow her to accept that last name. A teacher always had to be prepared to take that extra step.
Miss Smith looked around the room. What was she forgetting? Ah yes, how could she have? Miss Smith removed her feet from the hassock, placing them on the floor. She slowly raised her body from her comfortable wing chair and went to the side table. She removed a match and lit the candle that stood next to a portrait of her niece Mandy, daughter of her brother Gerald and his wife Candace. She wouldn’t say Candy, as she’d been asked to do, even though she thought of her as Candy. No, that wouldn’t do. She had to light the candle for the girl; her own parents wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do it. Of course, Miss Smith knew that Candy had never really liked her. But Miss Smith didn’t care, or rather didn’t let herself care. The important thing was that she was good to Gerald. She’d really turned his life around. Gerald acknowledged this repeatedly, and Miss Smith believed him.
Her niece Mandy had been everything to her, and Miss Smith had taken her under her wing and into her heart as her own. “Auntie Agnes” Mandy had called Miss Smith. They used to talk walks in the park together, feed the ducks, geese, and swans broken pieces of bread. Mandy loved the sounds the birds. Once, when she was surrounded by flocks of them, Mandy jumped up and down in delight. The birds didn’t fly away, only gave Mandy some space for her happiness. Miss Smith would then take Mandy to a small grocery store nearby and treat her to the candy of her choice, which invariably was red licorice. Dinner was always healthy to counteract the sweets, and Miss Smith made sure to include plenty of vegetables suitable for an energetic little girl. Sometimes Miss Smith still heard Mandy call out to her at night. She would rise to tend to her, and then the terrible truth would hit her. Thwack! Miss Smith felt it on the side of her head as a heavy, dull pain.
It all happened so quickly. The girl saw something in the street. What was it? A bird? A dog? A candy bar? Miss Smith was never sure. She’d only let go of the child’s hand for a moment. Something in a holiday window display caught Miss Smith’s eye, as an individual, not as a minder of a child. Some china setting, the holly on its border. She was about to lift the girl up to show her a teddy bear in the corner of the display. But it was too late.
Candy never spoke to Miss Smith again. Despite their starkly contrasting approaches to the absence of a father figure in their lives—Agnes retreating to books and Gerald sinking into antics and hooliganism, even a brief stint in jail for burglary—brother and sister remained in contact throughout their lives. Miss Smith visited Gerald in prison, remembering how pale and diminished he looked in his ill-fitting jump suit.
“Look at you! Are they feeding you here?”
“Of course, they are, Aggie. They even have a library. I’m catching up on the Shakespeare I never read in high school,” he said, winking at her.
“I’ll test you during my next visit,” she joked, surprised by her own levity in this grim surroundings. Oh, what would Mother have said, to have seen her favorite child locked away in a cage, she thought as heard the guards lock the gates behind her as her visit ended. Gerald, fleet of foot and hand, running, running, always running, now rendered sedentary. And all that time lost, never to be regained—over some baubles stolen. Apparently, Gerald had been involved in this “line of work” for quite some time and had achieved some renown as a thief of jewelry and other household valuables. Miss Smith never asked him why he’d done what he’d done. Was it the excitement of the crime? The evasion of discovery? Please don’t let any of my children—my students—end up here, she invariably thought, turning around to gaze furtively at the other prisoners that shared her brother’s home. Surely they too had teachers just like her. Perhaps some of her former students were now also locked up in these walls. What a fragile line separated a student from her classroom from a man ensnared in this unforgiving maze of stone!
And was Gerald’s incarceration the reason Miss Smith wasn’t promoted? She never told anyone, of course, but it was in all the papers. Word got around; Dr. Jameson would surely have heard about it. Ah well, I’ll never know. The prison had receded from view, but Miss Smith felt its influence extend beyond the visits. Its indifferent visage dampened her days. Gerald’s furrowed brow, his failure to meet her eye during those visits flitted through her nights.
And even after this tragedy—the loss of his only child as a result of his sister’s momentary lapse in attention—Gerald didn’t have the heart to cut Miss Smith off. But his visits to her were perfunctory, strained, far more than hers to him in prison had been. Gerald always refused the tea and biscuits Miss Smith offered him, and the two mostly sat in silence after the exchange of pleasantries. A silence no less terrible than the one that greeted her after the moment of silence that followed the screeching of brakes that fateful day. The absence of Mandy and Candy hung like a pall over them. And then seemingly only moments after lowering his still narrow bottom onto one of Miss Smith’s clean but worn wing chairs, Gerald made excuses and left without even meeting Miss Smith’s gaze. She didn’t blame him, didn’t blame either Candy, either. It had all been her fault. She’d been so careless. Only just for a moment, but still so careless. Sometimes all that catastrophe needed was a single moment, the proverbial tiny chink in an otherwise flawless armor.
Each time she lit the memorial candle, Miss Smith replayed the incident in her mind. When did she let go of Mandy’s hand? When did she turn away from the display? The thud. The (aforementioned) screeching of brakes. The wailing of the car’s driver, his upper bent forward, his hands clutching his head. The commotion all around. Miss Smith wasn’t sure what she was looking for, what she was hoping to find. More clues? Some crucial detail she’d missed? A more clearly delineated sequence of events? Still, she looked, searching desperately for … .
She should have done better, Miss Smith thought. Forgiveness of self was out of the question. Forgiveness by others—equally so. And by whom? A clergyman in a church? What right would he have to do that? No, this was Miss Smith’s burden to bear. And bear it she would. Alone.
She would do better with her students, her children renewed every year. She told herself this repeatedly, and not just in late August and early September, either. The memorial candle to her niece flickering in the background, tonight was no different.
She would do better with this Mandy. Miss Smith knew she couldn’t blame the child for belonging to a synagogue occupying the mansion that ought by rights still belong to one of the most venerable families in the city. Nor could she possibly blame her for a name saddled upon her by her parents. She would steer the girl in the right direction, wherever that was. The child’s new name was only just the beginning. It would be a new start for them both. And of course, a student could never hold the same place in her affection as a niece, and yet … Miss Smith vowed that her vigilance over this girl would be thorough, unrelenting even.
This time, she wouldn’t look away.
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of the short story collection Prodigal Children in the House of G-d (2018) and six books of poetry, including A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). In 2014, Multikulti Project released Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Górczyński. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). Taub’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hamilton Stone Review, Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing, Typishly.com, and Verdad, among other publications. Please visit his website at www.yataub.net.