It was 1953. I was eight. I had known California for over five years and knew bits of New York and Pennsylvania through my parents’ stories.
Miss Jones was from someplace between the coasts. I’ve forgotten her first name, and I’ve forgotten the state. Iowa, maybe Nebraska. She was my fourth grade teacher, and as I recreate her image, she was light-haired, pale-skinned, bird-like, under 25, and orderly. She did not laugh aloud. She was a first-year teacher. She was a Christian.
I remember the unfolding excitement of the Gold Rush. I remember being very alive. But unlike all my other elementary school teachers, K-6, I have only one narrative memory of Miss Jones.
Winter was a just week away, but Oxnard weather was always mild, making snowy Christmas decorations oddly inappropriate in our schools and streets. That day it rained, and the inclement weather limited our recess, so we were treated to some extra art time.
“Draw your favorite Christmas character,” Miss Jones urged. Pupils took out materials and began. I didn’t. I took out a Hardy Boys book. For a while, Miss Jones sat at her desk, grading or reviewing papers. After a few minutes the first quiet of coloring had passed into chatter and comment, so she stood and went desk-to-desk to tamp the noise and gauge artistic progress. When she came to my desk, she stopped.
“Stevie, where is your drawing of your favorite Christmas character?”
“I didn’t do one.”
“I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
She was wordless for a moment, then, “Everybody celebrates Christmas.”
“I don’t. I’m Jewish.”
“What difference does that make?” She asked.
I gave an eight-year-old’s explanation, so the rest of the conversation was repeats, in various rewordings, of the above exchange, finally ending with Miss Jones shaking her head and continuing with her lesson plan.
Three days later, with Christmas vacation a nearby reality, some of us in the classroom were in a manic state. One of my mates said something exciting, and I reacted, “Gee whiz!”
Miss Jones, several desks away, attending to a student’s needs, spun around, strode over, and escorted me quickly out of the room and into the corridor. I had no idea why. “What did you say?” Her voice was shaky, but not loud.
“Did you say,” she paused…then lowered her voice, “Gee whiz?”
I wasn’t exactly sure what I had said…but I maybe I did, so I nodded. She leaned a bit lower, and with a stern, yet pitying tone, told me, “Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Since you do not participate in that holiday, you, more than anyone else, must not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“I didn’t.” My plaintive defense was based on confusion and inexperience. My family belonged to the one small temple in Ventura County. But in school I had never given being Jewish much thought. I had been, and would be throughout elementary school, the one Jew in any class I was ever in. My uniqueness in this little farming town—a community, I supposed, like Miss Jones’ in Iowa—had been completely unremarkable until then.
I then got a lesson in Christianity and euphemism. Gosh darn it! Golly! Gee willickers!
I was fascinated. I loved words. I asked for more examples. She began, “Cheese and crackers!”…then realizing that the lesson was being lost on me, returned us to the room.
I had been one of her favorites until then. No longer. I was treated politely, but thinly, for the rest of the school year.
My fifth grade teacher was also a first-year teacher. She was dark-haired, olive-skinned, curvy, and vivacious. She was from New York. Her name was Doris Diamond. She was Jewish.
Gee whiz! I loved her.
(She hated Oxnard and left the next year.)