At the beginning of ninth grade in Hermann Ridder Jr. H.S., a stranger entered our classroom – algebra. As an introduction, Miss Clarke said, “x could be anything and you will have to find the solution to solve it.”
Well, if x could be anything, could it be that Nazi janitor across the street from my apartment building? And, could I find a solution to eliminate him as the Nazis did to my family in Lithuania?
With my algebra text and loose-leaf in hand, I left for Donny’s apartment on Bristow St. to see how we could manage our algebra homework.
There was no response from the bell, so I knocked a few times. He opened the door to total darkness then led me to the kitchen and pulled the ceiling light string.
A glossy, brown undulating crust covered the walls of the kitchen. Projecting from it, threadlike antennae were scanning the air. The white paint on the wall was hardly visible. It was the assembly area for an army of cockroaches. I grabbed a newspaper and rolled it up into a funnel, and was about to strike. Donny grabbed the newspaper from my hand.
“Leave them alone! They have a right to live.”
With one eye on the wall, I dropped the newspaper and opened my algebra book.
“OK, let’s get to the homework.”
A potent odor of perfume drifted into the kitchen. Without a word to her blind husband who was sitting in the living room, Donny’s mother entered the kitchen. With a smile on her face, and confidence in her appearance. She asked,
“I’m going shopping Don. How do I look?”
“I still can’t tell the difference between you and my ass,” he replied.
“Danny, do you talk to your mother like that?”
Donny quickly interjected,
“She doesn’t drown herself in perfume to go shopping. You’e not going to Jake the Pickleman on Jennings Street. You’re going shopping for a man who could see your fat ass.”
“Again with the ass?” she shouted.
Hostile words bounced off the kitchen walls without endangering the roaches. I was an innocent trying to withdraw from the combat before I was hit by shrapnel. I closed my book and was about to leave.
“Alright,” said Don. “Let’s get to the homework.”
We opened our thick algebra books to the written problems.
If there are 24 apples in a basket, and there are are three times as many red apples as green apples, how many green apples are in the basket? Show this by writing an equation using symbols. Explain each symbol.
“I don’t like green apples,” grumbled Don. With that, he tore the page from my algebra text.
The next problem was about two locomotives.
“I don’t like locomotives,” I replied to Don while tearing out the page from his text. This went on accompanied by laughs for at least ten minutes. I left with an algebra book as thin as the spellers we were issued in elementary school.
Rather than return home via Jennings Street, I walked past the tailor on Boston Rd who made my stainless steel, brown corduroy knickers. Although they still appeared to be brand-new after four years of constant wear, it was time to bench them. After all, I was in junior high school. Mature students didn’t wear knickers any longer.
Moving on, P.S. 61 was on my left where, in fifth grade, I first met Donny. I suspect that under his influence my rowdiness and occasional homework began.
Perhaps Don’s reputation followed him on to Hermann Ridder Junior High School, because the first day that we stepped into our General Science class, our teacher, Mr. Rosenthal, asked us to line up around the seats in the room. He looked over the class then said,
“Before I seat you, I’m going to separate Wolfe and Rubin.”
“What did you say, putz?”
“Rubin, take your books and go to room 227 where you will be a student in Mrs. Spagnol’s class, and don’t come back.”
Don wore the scarlet letter and some of its dye trickled onto me.
Until 9th grade Donny and I were never programmed for the same class. In 9th grade we connected, and had Mr. Kavenoff as our official teacher. Don was a habitual latecomer. It reached a point that whenever Don was late, Mr. Kavenoff would send him down to Mr. Hawkins, the assistant principal to receive a warning and a late pass.
One stormy day, Mr. Kavenoff arrived late. Donny left his seat, held the the door ajar, and told Mr. Kavenoff to go to Mr. Hawkins for a late pass. The class was in hysterics.
Fun was the package we carried from room to room. Clever fun had its fertile field in our English class with Miss Goldberg.
One day she assigned the class to write a letter to a government agency to request their service. Leon Taeger wrote a letter to the fire department asking them to come as quickly as possible because his house was on fire.
After reading an edited version of The Odessey by Homer, Miss Goldberg assigned the class to write a two-page composition using Homeric epithets.
My partial version follows.
Our General Science Class Discovers Acid
His glistening scalp and his piercing blue eyes glared down at the eager young faces. They edged forward in their hard oaken seats. With a trembling hand Mr. Rosenthal dipped a sliver of blue litmus paper into a beaker of a clear, unknown liquid.
“Ah pink. Yes, clearly pink,” he happily exclaimed.
With a gravelly voice he asked,
“What does this tell us?”
“It’s an acid,” erupted a chorus answer.*
“How can we tell?”
“Pink means an acid,” the class boisterously replied.
“What if the litmus paper remained blue?”
“It’s a base,” the chorus replied.
“Or?” quizzed our master of science.
Clever Philip Brody waved an eager hand.
“It can be neutral!” he cried.
Finally, the reverberating bell told us it was the end of the period with the man with the well-polished head.
Miss Goldberg enjoyed it and asked me to read it to the class.
* As a high school biology teacher I did not allow chorus answers.
It was our class’ turn to perform choral speaking in the auditorium. We were arranged on stage in size place. Consequently, I was at the front of our group and tall Donny was in the rear. The curtains were drawn, and in chorus we began,
“Ours is a world of science. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat…”
From the rear of our group I heard, “Danny Wolfe, I can’t hear you. Danny Wolfe, speak up.”
I couldn’t contain myself. I burst out laughing. Like a virulent virus it spread to the entire class. There we were, standing on the stage shaking with laughter. The curtains closed. I was singled out by Miss Sanderson, my homeroom teacher as the instigator.
“Your mother will come tomorrow to explain why you ruined my program.”
The following day I saw my mother’s face in the window of my classroom. I accompanied Miss Sanderson, who greeted Mom and described the heinous crime I had committed on the stage of the auditorium. My mother looked at her and said,
“So what is so terrible if he made people laugh?”
Miss Sanderson dismissed me, then told my mother to go home and be careful when she crosses Boston Road.
This does not complete the story of my ninth grade class. We were convinced we were different, unique. Which ninth grade class had the curtains drawn on them while they were performing choral speaking? Which ninth grade class had a Donny Rubin who could, and has created a turmoil in the classroom? Which ninth grade class had to go from room to room with a conduct book identifying students who disrupted the class? How can we show it? Our class agreed that an economical way to be recognized would be to wear identical bow ties.
Donny and I went to a tie store on Southern Boulevard adjacent to the Leff’s Freeman movie theater. We left a five dollar deposit and ordered 35 maroon bow ties at twenty cents apiece.
So, there we were, boys and girls of 9B3, parading the halls of Hermann Ridder, flaunting our singularity with a bow tie. The bow ties did not miss our graduation photo.
But with the days whittling down to a precious few, graduation day arrived. Like a delta we separated but were headed in the same direction – high school. Don went to Samuel Gompers Industrial High School, I went to James Monroe. The only trace we left at Hermann Ridder was our names on our graduation program, but the prepubescent, undisciplined, ebullient joy we had at Hermann Ridder is still cherished, and has left an indelible mark in our memory.
Why do I remember all of this, but can’t remember why I went to the refrigerator?
Daniel Wolfe firstname.lastname@example.org