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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 4/102 -
religious education I had become acquainted with a considerable number of them
Sometimes when a teacher or his wife tried to oust me, I would clutch at the table and struggle sullenly until they yielded
I may explain that instruction in these cheders was confined to the Hebrew Old Testament and rudiments of the Talmud, the exercises lasting practically all day and part of the evening. The class-room was at the same time the bedroom, living-room, and kitchen of the teacher's family. His wife and children were always around. These cheder teachers were usually a haggard-looking lot with full beards and voices hoarse with incessant shouting.
A special man generally came for an hour to teach the boys to write. As he was to be paid separately, I was not included. The feeling of envy, abasement, and self-pity with which I used to watch the other boys ply their quills is among the most painful memories of my childhood
During the penmanship lesson I was generally kept busy in other directions.
The teacher's wife would make me help her with her housework, go her errands, or mind the baby (in one instance I became so attached to the baby that when I was expelled I missed it keenly)
I seized every opportunity to watch the boys write and would practise the art, with chalk, on my mother's table or bed, on the door of our basement room, on many a gate or fence. Sometimes a boy would let me write a line or two in his copy-book. Sometimes, too, I would come to school before the schoolmaster had returned from the morning service at the synagogue, and practise with pen and ink, following the copy of some of my classmates. One of my teachers once caught me in the act. He held me up as an ink-thief and forbade me come to school before the beginning of exercises
Otherwise my teachers scarcely ever complained of my behavior. As to the progress I was making in my studies, they admitted, some even with enthusiasm, that mine was a "good head." Nevertheless, to be beaten by them was an every-day experience with me
Overworked, underfed, and goaded by the tongue-lashings of their wives, these enervated drudges were usually out of sorts. Bursts of ill temper, in the form of invective, hair-pulling, ear-pulling, pinching, caning, "nape-cracking," or "chin-smashing," were part of the routine, and very often I was the scapegoat for the sins of other boys. When a pupil deserved punishment and the schoolmaster could not afford to inflict it because the culprit happened to be the pet of a well-to-do family, the teacher's anger was almost sure to be vented on me. If I happened to be somewhat absent-minded (the only offense I was ever guilty of), or was not quick enough to turn over a leaf, or there was the slightest halt in my singsong, I received a violent "nudge" or a pull by the ear.
"Lively, lively, carcass you!" I can almost hear one of my teachers shout these words as he digs his elbow into my side. "The millions one gets from your mother!"
This man would beat and abuse me even by way of expressing approval
"A bright fellow, curse him!" he would say, punching me with an air of admiration. Or, "Where did you get those brains of yours, you wild beast?" with a violent pull at my forelock
During the winter months, when the exercises went on until 9 in the evening, the candle or kerosene was paid for by the boys, in rotation. When it was my turn to furnish the light it often happened that my mother was unable to procure the required two copecks (one cent). Then the teacher or his wife, or both, would curse me for a sponge and a robber, and ask me why I did not go to the charity school
Almost every teacher in town was known among us boys by some nickname, which was usually borrowed from some trade. If he had a predilection for pulling a boy's hair we would call him "wig-maker" or "brush-maker"; if he preferred to slap or "calcimine" the culprit's face we would speak of him as a mason.
A "coachman" was a teacher who did not spare the rod or the whip; a "carpenter," one who used his finger as a gimlet, boring a pupil's side or cheek; a "locksmith," one who had a weakness for "turning the screw," or pinching
The greatest "locksmith" in town was a man named Shmerl. But then he was more often called simply Shmerl the Pincher. He was one of my schoolmasters.
He seemed to prefer the flesh of plump, well-fed boys, but as these were usually the sons of prosperous parents, he often had to forego the pleasure and to gratify his appetite on me. There was something morbid in his cruel passion for young flesh something perversely related to sex, perhaps. He was a young man with a wide, sneering mouth
He would pinch me black and blue till my heart contracted with pain. Yet I never uttered a murmur. I was too profoundly aware of the fact that I was kept on sufferance to risk the slightest demonstration. I had developed a singular faculty for bearing pain, which I would parade before the other boys. Also, I had developed a relish for flaunting my martyrdom, for being an object of pity
Oh, how I did hate this man, especially his sneering mouth! In my helplessness I would seek comfort in dreams of becoming a great man some day, rich and mighty, and avenging myself on him. Behold! Shmerl the Pincher is running after me, cringingly begging my pardon, and I, omnipotent and formidable, say to him: "Do you remember how you pinched the life out of me for nothing? Away with you, you cruel beast!"
Or I would vision myself dropping dead under one of his onslaughts. Behold him trembling with fright, the heartless wretch! Serves him right.
If my body happened to bear some mark of his cruelty I would conceal it carefully from my mother, lest she should quarrel with him. Moreover, to betray school secrets was considered a great "sin."
One night, as I was changing my shirt, anxiously manoeuvering to keep a certain spot on my left arm out of her sight, she became suspicious
"Hold on. What are you hiding there?" she said, stepping up and inspecting my bare arm. She found an ugly blotch. "Woe is me! A lamentation upon me!" she said, looking aghast. "Who has been pinching you?"
"It is that beast of a teacher, isn't it?"
"Don't lie, Davie. It is that assassin, the cholera take him! Tell me the truth. Don't be afraid."
"A boy did it."
"What is his name?"
"I don't know. It was a boy in the street."
"You are a liar."
The next morning when I went to cheder she accompanied me
Arrived there, she stripped me half-naked and, pointing at the discoloration on my arm, she said, with ominous composure: "Look! Whose work is it?"
"Mine," Shmerl answered, without removing his long-stemmed pipe from his wide mouth. He was no coward
"And you are proud of it, are you?" "If you don't like it you can take your ornament of a son along with you.
Clear out, you witch!"
She flew at him and they clenched. When they had separated, some of his hair was in her hand, while her arms, as she subsequently owned to me, were marked with the work of his expert fingers.
Another schoolmaster had a special predilection for digging the huge nail of his thumb into the side of his victim, a peculiarity for which he had been named "the Cossack," his famous thumb being referred to by the boys as his spear. He had a passion for inventing new and complex modes of punishment, his spear figuring in most of them. One of his methods of inflicting pain was to slap the boy's face with one hand and to prod his side with the thumb of the other, the slaps and the thrusts alternating rhythmically. This heartless wretch was an abject coward. He was afraid of thunder, of rats, spiders, dogs, and, above all, of his wife, who would call him indecent names in our presence. I abhorred him, yet when he was thus humiliated I felt pity for him His wife kept a stand on a neighboring street corner, where she sold cheap cakes and candy, and those of her husband's pupils who were on her list of "good customers" were sure of immunity from his spear. As I scarcely ever had a penny, he could safely beat me whenever he was so disposed
CHAPTER IV THE Cossack had a large family and one of his daughters, a little girl, named Sarah-Leah, was the heroine of my first romance.
Sarah-Leah had the misfortune to bear a striking resemblance to a sister of her father's, an offense which her mother never forgave her. She treated her as she might a stepdaughter. As for the Cossack, he may have cared for the child, but if he did he dared not show it. Poor little Sarah-Leah! She was the outcast of the family just as I was the outcast of her father's school.
She was about eleven years old and I was somewhat younger. The similarity of our fates and of our self-pity drew us to each other. When her father beat me I was conscious of her commiserating look, and when she was mistreated by her mother she would cast
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