Back in fifth grade, I had a teacher—Ms. Hart.
Despite her warm last name, Ms. Hart was bitter and angry and, as I recall, not even remotely friendly. She was a stern woman in, oh, her early 60s. She was short, with a slight waddle, and wore her hair in a tight bun. I vividly recall students asking whether they could go to the bathroom, and Ms. Hart snapping back with a cold, “No.”
This isn’t to say Ms. Hart wasn’t a good teacher. I’m sure she was fine. Just not friendly. Or especially approachable.
Alas, I digress. All fifth graders at Lakeview Elementary School were required to participate in the annual holiday concert. It was held in our big brown auditorium, and you either played the (dear God) recorder or sang. I loathed both exercises. So, by default, I sang.
We practiced once or twice a week, and I loathed it all. A. Because I was a sucky singer; B. Because I felt like a girl; C. Because there were, oh, 10 songs, and nine of them were strictly Christmas-related. At the time, I was one of four or five Jews in my grade, so the school tossed in the Dreidel song to placate our parents. But, still, I never fell comfortable belting out tunes about the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Lord, etc. Even then, as a little kid, it didn’t feel right.
Anyhow, a week or two before the concert Dave Clingerman, my pal and a member of Mahopac’s only known Jahovah Witness family, told Ms. Hart that he didn’t feel comfortable performing, because his family didn’t celebrate Christmas. The teacher didn’t flinch—”OK,” she said. “I understand. You don’t have to participate.”
I was thrilled.
I, too, tapped Ms. Hart on the shoulder and said that, as a Jew, I, too, did not want to sing. The old woman considered my request for all of 1/8 of a second and barked, “We have Jewish songs, too. You’re singing.”
And that was that.
Maybe a decade later, Ms. Hart died. Word had it she fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. The couch or bed caught on fire, and she burned to death. It was an awful way to go; one I wouldn’t wish upon even the world’s worst person.
But, every holiday season, I think of poor Ms. Hart, and a cigarette, and a couch.
Just because she made me sing.