The Play

The Play

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

The Play

The hands of a grandparent are like the comfort of a favorite blanket. They surround us and warm us emotionally while protecting us from life’s little bumps and bruises.

Hanoch McCarty

She smiled a lot when she spoke to us, but it was not a smile that showed any human warmth. Her smile was for punctuation and for eliciting our choral response.

“Isn’t that nice boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeesssssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

“Aren’t you glad about that?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeesssssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

She saw her work with us as her personal burden: training her fourth-grade Brooklyn street urchins to use the King’s English.

“Jack in the booox,” I practiced, watching my unruly tongue flick out, off-cue, in the little hand mirror. “Awl shuttt uppp tyytte.” When it was my turn to come up to her desk and perform my language feat, her cold, hard smile formed around her thin lips, and I knew I was the source of great displeasure.

When we were well into the spring of that school year, she told us we were to give a play so that she might show off to the rest of the school her success in teaching us to speak properly. We sat very still, sweaty hands folded politely, as she explained behind the joyless smile that every one of us was to have a part.

“And who would like to play the king?” Eager hands danced in the air and collapsed, deflated, after she named her choice. “Bobby will make an excellent king, don’t you think, boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.” But none of us had truth in our hearts.

“And now, who would like to play the part of the fairy godmother?” Smile.

I thought I would explode with longing, as my hand shot up, waved and then fell with my hopes, as Arlene Herbst was named. I felt my overweight body, dressed in Irma Klebanoff’s cast-off clothes, like a penance and knew that I’d never be chosen. Never.

She continued to call out the parts, selecting the few more attractive children from a flurry of hand-waving hopefuls. Her choices had already been made, but she kept up the deception, teasing us with the possibility that we still might be named. We, unsuspecting, continued to play her cruel game.

The characters with speaking parts had now all been identified, and I sat there nervously, biting my thumbnail, my ugly brown shoes tripping on Irma’s too-long dress, hoping for a miracle. To be unchosen is the great pain of grade four. The unchosen were the detritus of classroom life.

“Now, who wants to play the role of the announcer?” Smile.

Melvin Taub and I were the only ones who dared to brave one more rejection. We shot our hands up. Her birdlike eyes took all of me in, like a candid camera, from Irma Klebanoff’s dress, down to the world’s ugliest brown shoes, and without smiling, she turned to Melvin. It was my last hope to be chosen, and I’d have cheerfully knocked Melvin off to increase my chances to move out of the rejects.

Her eye fixed on me again.

“Do you think you can do this? It’s an important part you know.” Smile.

I almost cried out loud with my reassurances. I could. I could. Oh, please. I could.

“You need a white blouse and pleated skirt for this part. Do you have one?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Yes. I have one.”

“All right then.”

I never gave another thought to Melvin, who ended up as one of a small chorus of elves, that nondescript group of back-stage castoffs. As it turned out, a far luckier fate than mine.

That afternoon I told my mother the hard news. I had a part in the class play. The announcer. I had to have a white blouse and a pleated skirt. The teacher said so.

My mother fell into her quiet fury, the most terrible expression of her anger. We were in the midst of the Great Depression, and my father hadn’t worked in months. There was no money. There could be no new blouse and skirt. I would have to give up the part, and the teacher would have to choose someone else.

She didn’t understand that that was impossible. To give up after having been chosen was simply, totally impossible. I cried. I wailed. I sulked. Never did I think that the cost of a new white blouse and pleated skirt was a week’s food budget; that we ate lung stew because lung cost five cents a pound because that was what we could afford. So we went to war, my mother and I, using every verbal weapon we owned. I told her that she was a bad mother. She said that I was too fat to wear a pleated skirt and would look like a baby elephant. We knew exactly where to aim—the most vulnerable and tender parts of the psyche. When my father came home, we were both casualties.

My parents spoke quietly for a long time, and after supper my mother took me to the shop around the corner on Blake Avenue and outfitted me in a week’s food budget worth of white blouse and pleated navy skirt. She was right about one thing. I did look like a baby elephant.

The next day at school the class was herded in a long, single line to the auditorium for the first rehearsal. Miss Stellwagon pinched an edge of cloth from the shoulder of the leader’s dress and held her at arm’s length as she led the file down to the front of the hall. We were instructed to sit, and we settled, in an unnatural quiet, into the two first rows in the center, just under the sign etched DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE OTHERS DO UNTO YOU.

Miss Stellwagon began by organizing a tableau of look-alike, gunny-sacked elves rear stage, admonishing them in advance about any bad behavior. Walking authoritatively to center stage, she pointed her index finger at me and beckoned me to come up and begin the announcement.

With equal amounts of nervousness and eagerness to please, I rushed from my seat toward her, the toe of my brown shoe catching the lip of the platform step. In a thud that echoed in my heart for the next twenty years, I fell face down at the feet of my fourth-grade teacher, pleats billowing, rump exposed.

She looked down at me, her eyes cold and unforgiving. The words, precisely formed in perfect King’s English, fell from that cold, hard mouth, like stones. “Get up and return to your seat. You could never be the announcer for our play. Suppose you fell during the actual performance? You would make the entire class a laughingstock.”

I watched from my seat as Melvin Taub replaced me, and I sat there numb with shame, as the hands of the clock made their painful way to 3:00. I could feel every classmate’s eye on me, sucking the breath from my body.

When the bell sounded, I ran out the door and down the block, past my own apartment, and over to Wyona Street, to my grandmother’s house. She was waiting at the window, and all she needed was to see was my face, to know the burden I carried. She opened her arms, and I fell into them, weeping. Her apron smelled of apples and cinnamon, and I buried my face into her largeness, her touch, like magic fingers, erasing the pain.

“Come, mameleh, and help me finish making the strudel,” she said in Yiddish. We rolled the dough together, stretching it over the large dining-room table, careful that it would not tear. She gave me the bowl of cut-up apples, sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and lemon peel, and told me to spread the apples evenly over the dough. Together, we placed bits of sweet butter over the apples. Then, for the first time ever, she allowed me to roll the dough up without her help. The unbroken strudel stretched from one end of the table to the other, the apples nearly bursting through the fragile pastry. My grandmother looked at my handiwork, and I could see the pleasure in her face. She put her arms around me and said in Yiddish, “You did that all by yourself! The first time! I’m going to tell your grandpa! I’m so proud of you.”

Safe in my grandmother’s house on Wyona Street, I knew that I could face the world again.

Selma Wassermann

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