It all started as a dare.
It was circa 1981. I had just married into the Schneider household and was getting used to being regaled every evening at the dinner table with Hasmo stories related by Tony, Daniel and Saul, my new husband’s three boys. My children, Nadia, Adam and Gideon Levene (who attended non-Jewish schools), were already most adept at affecting brilliant imitations of “Cyril” and “Mad Dog” without ever having encountered either.
One evening, the Hasmo story-of-the-day seemed even more outrageous than usual and I quipped “Oh come on, it can’t really be like that. You’re exaggerating.” To which Daniel, who usually remained quite quiet until he wanted to drop a bombshell, retorted “If you don’t believe us, why don’t you come and see for yourself? They need a new French teacher. I dare you to apply.”
All eyes were on me.
“Go on, mum.”
“You’ll be able to tell us what goes on in the staffroom.”
“You’ll be able to see if Cyril can actually speak French.”
Before I knew it I found myself in Rabbi Roberg’s office.
I had the strong feeling that the ensuing interview was only being conducted because it ought to be, and that, as far as Rabbi Roberg was concerned, it didn’t really matter anyway because, after all, I was only a French teacher. When he heard that my degree was in German and Spanish too his eyes lit up, presumably thinking of the cost-effectiveness of this arrangement. I insisted that I had had no experience of teaching German and had forgotten most of what I had learnt. So, of course, I was told I would be perfect for the sole A-level student (who, incidentally, was quite brilliant and taught me a thing or two).
Rabbi Roberg – who must have noticed my Ealing, or at least non-Golders Green, accent – also asked me if I could teach English. When I told him that I didn’t think I was qualified to do so, he assured me I would be fine and that he would give me a GCSE class!
Thus I found myself sheepishly agreeing to start teaching almost immediately. And I thought the dare was just to apply for the job.
I did, however, stipulate that I couldn’t possibly teach from the legendary Whitmarsh, which resembled a pre-war soldier’s manual using expressions which hadn’t been used in France for more than a century. Each chapter in the book told an inane story using the grammar of the week and was followed by equally inane questions lacking a glimmer of originality, creativity or initiative (probably why Hasmonean boys loved it so much, as it almost invited them to be chutzpadik in their answers). I was cordially asked to choose whichever textbook I pleased. Needless to say most boys preferred the “manual” to the modern “whole language” approach that I introduced with the text book called Tricolore.
Besides the nightly dinner time stories, I knew very little about Hasmo, and after my first day there, I assumed that it was a school for mainly disadvantaged families. This was occasioned by the scruffiness of the uniforms: blazers hanging at all angles, scraggly ties, scuffed shoes and kippot that seemed to have been deliberately stamped on and rubbed in the ground – I’m sure they had been. I remember how dumbfounded I was to find that one of the “deprived” children, who I had already picked out as needing extra care and attention, was picked up from school in a Rolls Royce.
Somewhat miraculously, I taught at Hasmo for four years and was, I think, the first female member of staff to tackle a full-time job there. In truth, I had, until Mike contacted me, subconsciously erased these four years from my memory. For those in the know, it wasn’t exactly a recommendation on a CV. I subsequently took an amazing EFL teaching diploma, taught in universities in Israel and became a teacher-trainer myself.
I shudder to think what I would have thought if I had supervised my own teaching at Hasmonean. I do remember being quite insistent upon trying out new methods, speaking French in the classroom and being considered a bit of an idealistic “new girl” in the staffroom for attempting the impossible. I was also considered to be rather weird because I could be constantly found marking homework, not something approved of in that environment. I also remember the withering feeling of having to give in to using the “old methods” if I wanted any sort of quiet in the classroom. Only the magic words “test” would have the desired effect. Nothing but nothing produced silence like this holy word.
Talking of holy, it’s altogether quite amazing that I was accepted in the staffroom at all since I didn’t fit into any particular category. First and foremost I was female, quite an anomaly in itself. Then I was a practicing Jew (the newly Bnei Akiva‘d variety), who fraternized with the gentile/secular elements . . . and, horror of horrors, accompanied them on pub lunches. I’m sorry to report that these weekly sessions were no more than a jollied-up version of our staffroom capers. That is to say, more quips about the antics of the pupils and grouses about the “others”. Which reminds me that one of Jeff Soester’s favourite comments was that he loved it when certain Rabbis wrote on reports “Learns good”.
Nonetheless, I felt quite comfortable talking to most of the Rabbis, some of whom were extremely genial. Rabbi Abrahams always used to bounce into the staffroom smiling and singing some trendy song and would often tell jokes or talk about his time in Shanghai. Also Rabbi Kahan was always very pleasant and partial to a joke or two. I was constantly moving between the two sections of the staffroom while the bewildered members of the “opposition” bemusedly looked on.
When I think about it now, there was comparatively little real tension in the staffroom, given the differences of world views. This presumably was because we needed a rest from the “enemy” outside the staffroom doors. The only real “fight” was focused on the ubiquitous tea towel that the Rabbis insisted on drying on the urn and which Mr. Marks always snatched off the urn, wrinkling up his nose and complaining bitterly of the smell.
I was treated with the utmost respect by all the staff. Cyril, of course, never mentioned the “ridiculous” book I had introduced as it didn’t matter anyway as far as he was concerned because he didn’t use it and it was only for the lesser mortals that I taught!
Jonny Bokor, had he not been such a lovely man, might have gained a black mark from me because he insisted on calling me “Polly”. You guessed it – he allocated me to put the kettle on if I was free before the morning break. My gentile/secular friends couldn’t suppress their smirks when I went into servile mode rather than defend my usual feminist approach. I do remember having some amazing laughing sessions in the gentile/secularist corner. Ivan Marks, Jeff Soester and Liam Joughin were masters of satire when it came to caricaturing the pupils. It works the other way round too you know.
One particular occasion in the staffroom that I haven’t managed to erase from my memory was when an extremely plain, portly, homely, ultra-Orthodox lady who had come in for a few days as a substitute fell back on her chair and landed with her legs open and in the air. The men in the gentile/secular corner who were all facing her had to sit upright, attempting to stifle their guffaws and after I had helped the poor lady up and she had left the staffroom, Ivan Marks gasped “I’m so glad she had her head covered otherwise I might have been turned on!!”
Entering the Hasmo world from the Ealing one had introduced me to a completely new view of religion, some aspects of which really shocked me. I naively assumed that Judaism would be taught in such a positive way that pupils would be able to enter the world confident about their religion and convinced it was the right way. I had hitherto been completely unaware of the culture of fear of the secular demon. Fear of coming into contact with any thoughts that might be contaminating. Fear of anything that did not adhere to the accepted way of thinking.
I remember bouncing in one morning having watched an excellent programme on TV – with David Attenborough, I think – and singing its praises, only to find that there had been an emergency assembly forbidding the boys to watch it (which of course meant that it would now be watched by the majority of them, who otherwise wouldn’t have dreamt of doing so). I also have memories of history teacher Mr. Johnson painstakingly drawing bra and pants on every single female nude statue that appeared in the new history textbook he had ordered about Greece and Rome.
I suppose one of my biggest crimes (and I’m sure there were many) was teaching some Beatles songs to my English GCSE pupils. Happily, they were far more worldly than me and warned me of the significance of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” before Rabbi Roberg embarrassedly asked me not to teach it (how did he know what it meant when I didn’t?!)
I have to praise to the hilt the gallant boys in my son Gideon’s class who sympathized with his predicament and acted like angels for me. Gideon had begged me to take him out of Latymer and allow him to go to Hasmo with his friends and have a good time. Mr. Marks never forgave me for allowing my son to commit such Hari Kari. The rest of my pupils? Well, apart from them forcing me to run out of my classroom on a couple of humiliating occasions, shaking from head to toe in fury, to Rabbi Roberg and/or Mr. Joughin (one of the few teachers pupils were terrified of), I came out relatively unscathed.
The real miracle of Hasmonean in those times (and perhaps nowadays too) is that it managed to turn out some wonderfully articulate, upright, worthy young men, who are now proud parents and successful professionals. Some of them I have the privilege of bumping into in Israel, where we have lived since 1986. And I feel very proud that I knew and taught these “miserable wretches” . . . as most of them undoubtedly once were.
Sue Schneider, Jerusalem, October 2009.
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part XVI: 1959 School Photograph