I awoke! Startled when my elbow slipped suddenly off the edge of the desk,
causing my right hand to fall away in support of my chin, I glanced around
quickly hoping there had been no witnesses. Nobody had seen it, thankfully.
The class was hushed. I guess we were expecting a volcanic eruption.
We watched the clock. One, two … three interminable minutes
passed. Nary a sound. Just as the fourth began, the door opened. David
emerged. Looking a little shaken up, he seemed relieved his ordeal had come
to an end.
As for the rest of us, we never did find out what had gone on in the coatroom
that afternoon-neither shouting nor whimpering let alone anything in
between. That fact should have led us to conclude (at least it did me) that
Mr. Gallo communicated his upset through the power of silence. I mean … how
would you feel if he or, for that matter, any teacher glared at you for three
minutes? Heck, I think I’d rather be yelled at. Oh sure, there was rampant
speculation, outside the class especially. Mr. Gallo had read David the riot
act in threatening undertone or that he had waved his right forefinger
menacingly in front of David’s nose for three minutes. There were even those
who circulated the rumor he had hung David up on a coat hook by his fruit
I never believed any of the rumors. David, to my knowledge, told
no one other than perhaps Rebecca though I never did ask her about it.
The class as a whole, I suspect, was inclined to believe, though our
eighth grade civics teacher may have looked like an ogre, he was
more like … well, Shrek, I guess.
Twelve Years Later
The Week Begins at Resurrection School
I wasn’t prepared that Monday morning for religion class. The time was 7:50
a.m.“Oh boy, I’m in trouble now,” I paced the hallway, trying to brainstorm.
“All I need now is for Father Jim to show up and see me unprepared.”
All homeroom teachers were expected to teach religion in homeroom class on
Monday morning, from 8:00 to 8:40. As I understood it, the expectation was
that the children learn catechism at the start of the week. Now mind you, I
didn’t even know what that was, no less able to teach it. Neither the pastor nor
Sister Jayne ever questioned me about this. After all, here I was, a Jewish
man, teaching religion in a Catholic school! I wonder if either of them ever
thought about what I did during those forty minutes.
There remained but one minute before the bell when, out of nowhere, the
entire religion lesson flashed before my mind’s eye. I raced back to my room.
The 8:00 bell rang. The kids filed in before me from the hallway where they
were required to form two lines. I spotted Father Jim coming down the
hallway. I shut the door behind me.
“Class, may I have your attention?” Bernadette knocked her books on the
“Over here everyone. Bernadette can manage quite nicely by herself.” I tapped
the chalk as loudly as I could against the board.
Father Jim snuck in quietly and sat down by LeShaun. Several of the girls
nearby giggled. Kids liked him: young, good-looking and very
idealistic, Father Jim wanted very much to be the kids’ priest. I guess he
thought he could relate.
I drew an enormous oval on the board.
“Class, this is our universe as we understand it,” I began, inserting the
planets at different points in their elliptical revolutions around the sun.
“Hmm, good. The kids are paying attention, Father Jim is smiling. Seems
interested. Okay, now Fidel, Fidel … ah, there you are.”
Fidel was the ace up my sleeve.
“Class, imagine our planet and everybody who lives on it, the billions and
billions of people … imagine everybody as ONE, ‘kinda’ lumped together. Got
Thirty heads nodded up and down.
“So far, okay, good.”
“Now, am I correct to have placed this gigantic “one” at the center of our
universe?” pointing to the celestial body I had placed in the center of my oval.
“No,” responded the class almost as one unified voice.
“It’s the sun, the sun,” several cried out.
“Very good, so we are not the center of the universe-not you, not me, not
any one of us,” I said while looking at Fidel.
And now the kicker. Father Jim was on board, the kids
were enjoying the lesson, it was already 8:35, and I had set everything up to
ask the last question.
“Where is God?” I asked, anxiously scanning the room for a respondent.
“Ye ….sss, Fidel!
“I knew he’d take the bait.”
“Everywhere. God is everywhere!!” Fidel triumphantly exclaimed.
“And …” I probed.
“But, but …”
“But what, Fidel?”
He paused. I waited.
“Class, what Fidel may be thinking but hasn’t the words is … our lives are like
the planets that revolve around the sun, the center of the universe whose
maker is God. Life goes on with or without us. No one among us is the center.”
Fidel lowered his hand. I looked at him. He seemed ‘okay’ with that. Father
Jim, too, seemed pleased. He got up to leave, adjusting his Roman collar on
the way out.
“Fidel, be quiet please.”
“Yes, Mr. Busch.”
I scanned the classroom of some thirty seventh-graders, my kids, my
classroom, a first year teacher at Resurrection Parish School on
Chicago’s west side.
Of these thirty there stood out one kid in particular. Yes, you know him …
Fidel. Something about him left me feeling he was the brightest kid in my
They say it’s in the eyes. Fidel’s shone with a sparkle of natural intelligence.
He was the kind of kid every teacher desires in the pinch. Smart and enjoyable
… most of the time, a kid who, when needed, can answer a question like an
adult and, in the next instant, return to his childish ways.
It was that most precious time of day, silent reading, when each kid was to
ready himself for his book interview with me.
Truth be told, I knew virtually nothing about implementing a Random House
reading program successfully other than ... ‘Keep the kids quiet.’
They never taught us this stuff at the university.
“Fidel, please be quiet.”
“Yes sir,” he responded sniggeringly.
“Okay, I’ll give him one more chance, then I’ll …”
Several moments of silence ensued.
Then the unsettling effect of that same sole voice, unmistakably Fidel’s,
spread to his entire group table. What had been a studious table
of six seventh-graders Fidel transformed into a giggly cabal which, if left
unchecked, would have spread to the whole of the class like a virulent
“God, what if Sister Jane walks in?” I alarmed myself.
In Sister Jayne’s Office Several Days Before
“Alan, please, take a seat.”
I was very nervous, my first review by Sister Jayne Daly, the principal of
“Thank you Sister,” trying to be and appear as pleasantly unconcerned as
Alan, the seventh grade is a tough age.”
“Yea, it sure is,” I said agreeably. I kept smiling, adding an agreeable nod and
“uh huh” here and there.
“Classroom management is the prerequisite for effective learning, You know
“Yes, Sister, I do.” Something was up. I fidgeted in my chair.
“You’re having some difficulties in that area, aren’t you?” She was right. I had
been having some problems with classroom management.
Thirty seventh grade youngsters against one freshman teacher, all of twenty-
two years of age. Frankly, I did not like the odds.
“Well, Sister you just said it’s a tough age, right?”
“Indeed I did, but what would you say to a little assistance?”
“I’d come and observe your class for an hour or two every day until I see the
“Sister Jayne, if you do that, I’m done for. I’d lose all credibility with those
kids. Remember you hired me to take charge of that class. I’m the
expert,” I asserted, exuding self-confidence.
My God, is she ‘gonna’ buy this? I hardly believe it myself.”
Don’t misunderstand. I liked Sister Jayne, respected her. She was a member
of the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns that allowed its members to
wear regular clothing and a diminutive leader who inspired a balance of fear
and respect in those around her. When she walked softly-as she always did-it
was with a “big stick”. That’s right. Sister Jayne was a throwback to Teddy
Roosevelt’s Bullmoose Party. When you’d see her in the hallway, one heard
whether from students or staff: “Good morning, Sister Jayne. Yes ma’am,
But that was precisely my point. Were she to ‘visit’ my classroom, sure the
kids would be well-behaved, but not due to anything I had done.
Sister Jayne considered my self-defense thoughtfully. It did not take her long
before she made her decision.
“Alan, you’re right, of course, my coming to your class will not make of you a
better classroom manager. You’re on your own.”
She smiled knowingly, gently putting down the pencil she had been
twirling between her third and fourth fingers. She had seen this sort of thing
“Thank you Sister. You won’t be sorry.” I got up to leave.
“See ya tomorrow,” I waved.
Again, that same smile.
“She’ll be watching,” but I was okay with that because I felt I could
stand up straight again.
Dealing With Fidel …
As much as I liked Fidel, I had to act. Swiftly and decisively.
“Fidel, step outside.”
His only response came from the scraping of his chair legs on
the floor tile as he pushed himself back from the table. I relished
the pervasive hush. Twenty nine heads snapped back into silent reading
mode, noses barely off the printed page.
Fidel sulked out of the classroom, head bent, shoulders slumped, hands
thrust into pockets.
I strode out after him.
“So … this is what Mr. Gallo must have felt like.”
We stood facing each other in the hallway, eye to ... chin (his eye, my
“Fidel,” I blurted out, thankful I had not said ‘David’.
His wide eyes stared up. He swallowed. Adam’s Apple bobbing.
“Remember Mr. Gallo’s approach,” I reminded myself, squinting,
trying to look fearsome.
“Fidel,” I spoke now barely above a whisper.
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Busch,” he swallowed a second time.
“Fidel, I like you. You’re a good kid. Did I tell you how pleased I was with you
yesterday in religion class?”
“Well, I was.”
“Gee …uh, thanks,” his eyebrows knitted together.
“Still, you disturbed silent reading this morning, Fidel, twice. You understand
that a teacher's classroom management is essential for the class to learn, you
do know that, right, Fidel?”
“Uh, yea … I mean ‘yes sir’ Mr. Busch.”
“Good. But at this moment, the very worst thing I can say to you is …”
I paused deliberately to make him sweat. He gulped a huge breath as if
about to take a plunge under water.
“May you be blessed with a son one day who is as bright as you.”
Utter, pin-dropping silence!
“Huh?” his mouth agape.
Fidel’s face at that moment could have been the pictorial definition of
“nonplussed” on one of those refrigerator magnets-you know the ones with all
the facial expressions.
“The center, Fidel, remember? You’ll understand. Just not right now,” I opined
We smiled; me … contentedly, knowing I had handled this much like I thought
Mr. Gallo had done; Fidel, slightly bewildered but relieved … as if the jury
foreman had said “not guilty”.
I turned the doorknob. The shuffling of feet and the clatter of chairs against
desks made a huge racket as Fidel’s classmates scrambled to return
to their places. He preceded me into the classroom.
I followed, sat down at my desk, quite pleased. The bell rang.
Chapter Two … Mr. Birenbaum
“Alan,” my sixth grade teacher called me over to his desk.
“Oh, no! He’s not gonna do this now?”
“Yes, Mr. Birenbaum.” I looked at the clock. Just moments before the
“Alan, your fractions test?”
“Yes, Sir,” I said reluctantly.
“I see a problem,” he stated, as I knew he would. He had given them back to
us earlier in the day. Mine was littered with red ‘x’ marks.
“Yes Mr. Birenbaum, … uh, I just don’t …”
“Indeed, I’ve spoken with your mother. Perhaps a half hour after dismissal.”
“But, but …” I protested weakly, looking downcast.
It had been a bad day.
I vomited about an hour after eating ‘mac and cheese’ in the school
cafeteria. I did make it to the bathroom in time but not by much.
The guys and I had been eating lunch when Billy reached for the salt shaker.
You know what happened next, don’t you?
“Ah geez,” Billy exclaimed, shoving the plate to my side of the table.
“I don’t want it either,” I said, laughing uproariously along with the rest of the
guys at Billy’s misfortune.
He looked at me, nodding his chin upward as if to say “Behind you.”
I turned around. There behind me stood Mr. Van Kurin, six feet, six inches tall
Mr. Van Kuren, the frighteningly lengthy but neatly attired principal of
Dielman School. You did not look “at” Mr. Van Kurin but “up at” Mr. Van
Kurin, invariably with a crook in your neck after all was said and done.
“My office, please,” which, as it happened, was just across the hallway.
“I don’t know who really did it but it wasn’t me,” I pled my innocence. Mr. Van
Kurin weighed my words.
“Hmm … take this note to Mr. Birenbaum.”
“Yes, sir,” getting up to make a hasty retreat.
“And Mr. Busch, stay away from salty foods.”
I ran down the hallway, into the bathroom just in time to lose my lunch.
After the Final Bell
Just me and Mr. Birenbaum.
The other kids? Gone home. Wished I had been there too. I didn’t feel so good.
I sat at Sara’s desk, center spot, first row. Best seat in the house.
Sara Applebaum was one of the really smart kids in our class. Always
attentive, prim and proper. Her penmanship had lots of curly ‘q’ (s), and she
dotted her ‘i’ (s) with a tiny heart. Girls! Go figure … but she was pleasant
and quite pretty except for those darn eyeglasses she wore. Thick lenses.
She took some ribbing from some of the kids, she did, but she showed them.
Mr. Birenbaum wrote several proper fractions on the
board: ½, 1/3, ¼, 1/5 and 1/10.
“You see the numbers above the line?”
“Do you mean the ‘ones’?
“Yes, the ‘ones’ in this case, but they could be any number. That’s the
‘numerator’. Here look at this pie,” he suggested, drawing a nearly perfect
circle with one of those oversized wooden teacher compasses. You know … the
ones with the chalk.
“Remember this from class?” he asked, extending his hand holding the
compass toward me, as if I were nearsighted.
“Yes Sir, protractor.”
He set it aside. He peered down the length of the aluminum chalk tray
attached to the bottom edge of the chalkboard. It hadn’t been wiped clean in a
while, thick, as it was, with a quarter-inch accumulation of chalk dust. He slid
his fingers along the metal extrusion.
“Got one!” he exclaimed with the enthusiasm of an archeologist finding a
shard in the sifting tray after a long dry spell.
“Numerator, numerator, numerator,” Mr. Birenbaum emphatically
instructed. He tapped the tip of the chalk on the blackboard which, when
combined with what sounded like a kid banging erasers on
the other side of Mr. Birenbaum’s classroom wall, created a plumb of chalk
dust. It floated a short while before settling onto the shoulders of his vest. This
had happened before. Some of the kids used to giggle at what they called Mr.
“Huh, wonder why it’s called a blackboard? Looks green to me,” my thoughts
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Birenbaum,” refocusing my attention.
He sighed, yet determined to carry on.
“Tell me, Alan, what kinda pie u like?”
“Apple,” I quickly responded, my mood picking up. I was feeling better.
“Okay, here’s the idea. Your mom is planning a dinner party and you’re
helping her. Got it?”
“How many guests are going to be invited?”
“Ten!” I exclaimed.
“Ten? Wow, quite a crowd.”
“Well, okay five,” I conceded.
“No no. Ten is fine. One slice of pie per guest, right?
“Right,” I agreed, feeling sated, as if I had eaten my slice before the
He placed a dot right in the center of the pie from which radiated five
carefully drawn lines.
“You see these lines?” placing the tip of his chalk on each while he counted:
“one, two, three … they divide the pie into five equal pieces, fifths,” he
emphasized. He drew an arrow from the pie to the 1/5 he had earlier
“But I thought we’re having ten guests?”
“You are! Now watch this.” Starting at the center point, Mr. Birenbaum drew
another five lines, each one cutting every fifth into equal halves.
“Now take a look,” stepping back from the board. He searched quickly
for the yard long wooden pointer with the black rubber tip but had to settle
for the oversized compass opened out fully to 180 degrees. He started
“How many slices do you count?” Yet another arrow, this time from the pie
to the 1/10.
“Right. That ‘ten’ is the denominator, the number below the line. Same with
the ‘five’, you know the ‘fifths’ before I cut them into halves. Remember?”
Again with the chalk tapping.
“This denominator ‘5’ means I cut the pie into ‘fifths’, five equal slices.
I nodded again, hoping to reassure him.
“Okay, then what did I do?
“You cut them into halves.”
“And I ended up with how many slices?”
“And the ‘10’ is called the ….”
“And which “denominator” of apple pie would you rather have?”
He reached for the eraser.
Mr. Birenbaum served that pie up fractionally just the way he liked it, as
would any good host. Since that day, apple pie has never tasted better, but I
never ate ‘mac and cheese’ again.
Alan D. Busch