Hasmo Legends XV: “Polly” Sue Schneider

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.

Sue SchneiderI 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


42 responses to “Hasmo Legends XV: “Polly” Sue Schneider

  1. Thank you, Sue, for providing some welcome calm following the storm whipped up by your former colleague from Stamford Hill!

    Interesting that Cyril allowed you to get away with using the “ridiculous” book, but continually vilified “the wretched Mrs. Samuels” for daring to set her “lesser mortals” her own end of year exam.

    Needless to say, we would never let a lesson with the great man pass without mentioning her name . . . 😉

  2. I was in your 3rd form French class in about 1983-4. My good friend Marc “Louis” Lewis, (who is getting married very shortly) knew you from Kingsbury.

    We weren’t exactly the best behaved bunch. True, we didn’t have much time for “Tricolor”, and loved winding Cyril up about it. I remember him declaring that “what’s neweeest, isn’t necessarily beeeest!”

    Interesting to hear things from your perspective 25 years on, thanks for sharing. You refer to running out to call Rabbi R or Mr Joughin to impose order – but do you have any memories of Chishios bursting in from time to time to intimidate us? Was that at your behest, or was it unsolicited?

  3. Hello Dan, Good to hear from you! I suppose if Chich came into my classes (which I don’t remember at all – but that’s no surprise:-) I must have been complaining during a tea – break or something and he came to the rescue. Hope things are good with you. Regards Sue

  4. Mrs Schneider, I don’t recall any nicknames other than calling you “Sue” in classic Hasmo chutzpa style but then maybe I just didn’t see “Polly” as a fitting nickname.
    I had the good fortune of being a “lesser mortal” in 2 years of French classes leading up to O-level. I recall you explaining that to learn a language we need to get our heads out of the book and live the language a little – even if it meant breaking our teeth – or nostrils – trying to use French to communicate in class. This was all kind of strange to us – like seeing something in color after having got accustomed to black and white. Indeed I recall your determination to teach in this way and not give in to teaching language in the way we expected – i.e. as similar to Maths, Physics and Chemistry.
    The one thing I recall we did learn by rote were expressions one of which I haven’t yet forgotten “dormir comme une souche”.
    Anyway, thanks for the tri-coloured learning experience, your efforts are appreciated by this former pupil. I’m even willing to overlook any punishments you may dished out deservingly.
    One last question out of curiosity – was Hasmonean really totally different from any other school you experienced as a teacher?

  5. Anthony Mammon

    I was a few years older, and had left school before Mrs Schneider, but it was good to hear about Hasmo from the other side of the fence. Thinking back, I sometimes think that maybe we do over exaggerate what went on at Hasmo, but reading this blog just confirms that my memory does serve me well, and Hasmo was… well Hasmo… Mrs Schneider, thanks for providing an honest insight, especially after the one sided, true to Hasmo, opinion of Osher.

  6. Jonathan J Bernstein

    I am the proud owner of a CSE grade 2, vintage 1984, hardly used since. I also remember Mr Chichios’ abrupt entrances (nobody expects the Greek Inquisition) and I suppose I will never forget how to say “mettez vous la cartable sur le plancher” even if it was filled with cans of coke and mars bars. But I did enjoy the classes immensely. Thank you Mrs Schneider!

  7. Baruch Solomon

    You mean your son Gideon actually chose to be sent to Hasmonean instead of a normal school? What can I say in theface of such sheer courage? Given the choice, I’d definitely prefer to commit Hare Kare.

  8. Jeremy Cardash

    My only memory of your classes was your constant threat of throwing me out. Your rhetorical threat of ‘Cardash you have a week’ still echoes today. Just last week nearly a quarter of century later Joe Bernstein (see above, proud owner of CSE grade 2 French, one careful owner low mileage) used that line on me. Sorry for being a chutzpan in your class, which I now deeply regret, because I am sure under your guidance I would at least have been able to swear at the French in their own language!

  9. I am sure I was in your French class with the little midget from Iraq and F’fee Numdar, we used to sit in the front row and the little guy used to run onto your desk while your back was turned writing on the blackboard

    Hi Jeremy, loooooooong time no see ;0)

  10. What teacher in her right mind would turn her back on Hasmo boys. Couldn’t have been me!! 🙂

  11. Mrs Schneider (sorry but even 2 months away from my 40th birthday I can’t quite call you Sue)…….do you remember Hammer from my year? Surely the cheekiest and most hilarious pupil ever?

    All well with me thanks.


  12. Well how about calling me Dr Sue ….. that’s what I’m known as here! Please enlighten me about Hammer, I’m afraid I’ve gone blank on him. It’s been great finding out about things I never knew about (Thank goodness).

  13. Jeremy Cardash

    Hi Daniel,

    Its been years.

    Good to hear from you.

    Who was the little Iraqi?

  14. Hi Jeremy

    I hope you are well :0)

    I can’t for the life of me remember his name, he only stayed for a few years before going to another school in a different country. I think his first name was Ephraim!

  15. geoffrey hollander

    Hi Dr Sue

    I was one of those in the class with your son Gideon. I haven’t heard from or about him for years and do hope that he is well; please send him my best regards. Apart from other fine attributes, he took to being a teachers son very well, although to be honest, I rarely remember pupils having reason to give him a hard time about you.

    Your French teaching was a breath of fresh air, or at least a breath of perfumed air, if I remember correctly… and the lack of outrageous stories about you, on this blog should be testament to the high quality of your teaching.

    Best wishes

    Geoffrey Hollander

  16. Ellis Feigenbaum

    Hi Sue,
    Thanks for a teacher’s perspective that doesnt involve a need for self hatred by the pupils.
    By the way I hate to disabuse you of long held urban legend beliefs, but Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was written about a girl called Lucy O’Donnell, one of Julian Lennon’s school friends.

  17. Whilst I have refrained from commenting for a long time on this blog, I have followed all the chats/arguements etc with great interest.
    Mrs Schneider (I’m another post 40 year old who still cannot call ou Sue), there is one story that I recall from your french lessons that I must report.
    You taught us in the (in)famous Room 1 (Cyril’s room) where there were two desks directly to the left of the teacher at right angles to the rest of the class. That day you were not wearing a bra and your blouse was somewhat tight allowing those “lucky” boys sitting to your left a view between the buttons…. Well the first boy to notice (super-frummie actually) pointed it out to his neighbour and so on…. Well eventually you noticed and tried unsuccessfully to pull your blouse forward. I think you ran out of that lesson quicker than ever before…….

  18. On a similar note to Henry (or should I say Freddy?) above, I’m amazed no-one has mentioned a certain incident involving Clive Marks yet!

    Sue, great piece. Interesting that you were employed to teach English/German despite being under qualified. That was Hasmo all over. My time at the school pretty much coincided with yours, though luckily for you, I was never in your class. I’m sure you would have been familiar with my name though, as it would have come up frequently in the staff-room.

    Am I alone in being amused at the thought of R. Roberg uttering the phrase “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” ?

  19. “Dr Sue”

    – Shloimie Hammer had the genuine chasidic head-shave and peyos wound round the ears, and was the funniest and wildest of Cyril’s anti-heroes, and probably yours too – remember him now?

  20. Shloimie Hammer’s hairdo was probably the work of the immortal Lambros of Brent Street (why has he yet to be mentioned on here?). He was always up for a bit of sheep-shearing as it took him all of 30 seconds to complete and there was nothing for him to cock-up. Why the frummers didn’t save their money and do it themselves I don’t know.

    Anyone with the temerity to ask Lambros for a proper haircut was treated to the famous Lambros ‘diagonal fringe’ treatment. One time, mine was so severe that by the time I was ready for my next haircut, I was being mistaken for a new romantic by the St. Mary’s reprobates.

  21. And do you remember Lambros’ successor, the mad “Twitchy Paul”?

  22. geoffrey hollander

    The same “twitchy paul” who would frequently exhale tobacco smoke all over your haircut for no extra charge

  23. Yitzchak Landau

    . . . and the sign which proclaimed “Hendon’s most hygeinic barber’s shop”!! If it was, I shudder to think what the others must have been like!

  24. There was also Bernard & Gino’s on Vivian Avenue . . . and, if you had a bit more class (like me), Keith Fisher on Brent Street.

    They had this stunning Greek girl working there for a while. Her name was Morelle (how could I forget?!) I used to go there just to have her run her fingers through my soapy hair. Even now, some 25 years later, it gives me a “twitch” just thinking about it . . . and she thought it was just a “wash and rinse”!

    Talking of misleading signs, does anyone recall the one outside Albany College on Queens Road (the place bumbercluts would go to try and get a few O-levels)? “The College for Achievers” 😉

  25. Terry, did that incident with Clive marks also involve Daniel Cuby? I’ve a good idea what you’re referring to. Hi Sue, I’m not sure if you remember me…

  26. Hi Paul, Were you a friend of Giddy’s? As you can see from my blog I seem to have blocked out a lot regarding those days (and thank goodness for that) but do remember your name. Give me some more clues.

    I’d love to have news of some of my former pupils – do let me know where you are and what you are doing.

  27. Another “Twitchy Paul” classic:

    He’d halt your haircut for 3 minutes while making himself a dirty mug of coffee. Then he’d take a sip and a drag on his cigarette, put the mug down, and take 3 or 4 lopsided snips at your hair.

    Then he’d reach for the coffee again, and with the inevitable “Blu-u-u-u-u-d-i HELL….. HEE FULL OF DE HAIRRRS AGAIN” (he always personified his drinks, in the masculine), he’d slosh the whole thing down the sink.

  28. Mrs Schneider,
    Thank you for your entertaining thoughts.
    I certainly enjoyed your French Lessons and remember your suprised look when I got 86% in my 1st year French exam. (Unfortunately its been down hill since than!)
    Stay well.
    Jeremy Segel

  29. Hi Jeremy, So good to hear from you. Of course I wasn’t surprised – it must have been a look of jubilation – you just misinterpreted it 😉 All the best Dr Sue!

  30. moshe shatzkes

    dear mrs s,

    you taught me french in the 4th year and i think german as well.

    for the 1st 3 years i was entertained by the legend that is cyril, but either i or more likely he could take no more and so i was moved across to your class for the 4th year.

    your recollections of teaching subjects for which you were not entirely qualified, reminds me of the story a current teacher told me of his 1st day teaching at hasmo. (he shall remain nameless for his sake and my own son’s sake who has the great luck of having just joined the fun in what is now called year 7)

    he was there as a maths teacher for which he had a degree as well as a teaching degree, he was asked to teach french to the 3rd year, his reply was “but i dont speak french”, only to be told that this was in no way a barrier to teaching it.

    your lessons were always fun, especially as we never knew when chich (how can u not remember him doing this) would come in and shout at us for messing around. it was as if he was trying to protect you.

    he’d stand there in his purple addidas sweatpants and terrible polo shirts, arms folded and shouting. fabulous.

  31. Dear Moishe,

    Good to hear from you and I remember you well – you obviously made a lasting impression. 🙂

    It’s a bit demorializing to hear that so many people remember Chich in my class rather than anything I may have taught them. The lot of a teacher is not always a happy one. Best of luck to you and all your family.

  32. moshe shatzkes

    thanks for that.

    i think you should take it as a compliment. if you read the rest of the blog, the stories are about outrageous behaviour by both us and the teachers and to be honest, you were not eccentric or mad at all (other than to want to be teaching there) and that’s why there are no stories to tell other than those relating to things others did in relation to your lessons eg chich.

    we knew at the time that the whitmarsh was 50 years out of date, when we went to france on a day trip, the locals were very bemused by cyril’s classical french! It was this sort of behaviour that lives long in the memory.


  33. Mrs Schneider,

    How great to hear from you again! I don’t know if you recall, but you taught me for a year in the Sixth form.

    If I’d known you were a Beatles fan, I would have done everything (within my very limited ability to do so) to link our lessons to the fab four, as I was just starting to get into them at the time (thousands of pounds later, I’m still a huge fan).

    Being a teacher myself now, I got a particular thrill from reading your staff room memories. Things have changed in the teaching profession…but not that much!

  34. Hello Claude,

    Believe it or not, I do remember teaching you. How great to hear from you. Please let me know what you are teaching and where. I’m sure you incorporate the “Fab four” into your lessons now! All the best Sue

  35. Hi Sue (that feels a little strange!),

    I hope you remember me for all of the right reasons!

    I am teaching ICT at Yavneh College, having started there in September and absolutely loving it. I do try to incorporate a little of the “Fab Four” into my lessons, par example turning up on Monday wearing a Beatles’ tie, with the cover image of “With The Beatles” displayed in a vertical fashion along the length of the tie.

    Funnily enough, the kids didn’t say boo, probably because they’ve become used to my odd assortment of ties, ranging from Mickey Mouse to The Pink Panther playing saxaphone under a street lamp.

    Warm wishes, Claude

  36. Hi Sue

    It doesn’t feel at all strange to call you Sue as you never taught me. You taught my brother Simon though and I do believe he and Gideon were friends a long time ago.

    I am writing only to tell you that twenty-two years later, it is still deliciously naughty to hear stories of what went on in the staff room.

    All the best to you and yours


  37. A phenomenon really worth investigating!

    I saw a wonderful Youtube of you singing at your Dad’s birthday party. You were magnificent. Were you a Hasmo boy, too? Or, like my son Adam did you just go there “vicariously”.

    Send my best to Simon. Giddy will no doubt meet up with him soon. All the best to you too. Sue.

  38. Thanks Sue, yeah, that was me. And I was at Hasmo from 83 to 87 (4th year to U6th).

  39. Robert Amery

    Hi Sue,
    I am sure you dont remember me, your neighbour from the Paddocks, but I still remeber the lifts you used to give me to school and I know that I was one of the best students. Its lovely to hear you are in Israel.
    All the best.
    Hasmo 82-85

  40. “I was one of the best students”

    Didn’t know you too well in those days, Robert, though from memory . . . 😉

    There is also someone I know in Netanya – a friend of my mother’s – who may be in an excellent position to give evidence!

  41. Robert Amery

    I dont want to go there my 4 boys still think I was a חנון שא Hasmo.
    I still remember when my Parents came back from parents day after meeting with the Geography teacher and her telling my parents that she has no pupil called Robert in her classes due to me bunking off all her classes.
    By the way Derek Kelaty if you read these posts I hope you forgave me for throwing boiling water over you (but thats another strory). Last Sunday I was at Robert Reiss’s son’s Bar-Mitzvah and it was so great seeing so many ex-Hasmo’s acting in a mature manner as always and being great role models in the Hasmo special way. I will have to get together with Jonny.K at work to talk about this blog. Thanks for reminding me.

  42. Sue Schneider

    Hi Robert, How could I forget you!! Do look us up if you can, if and when you come to Jerusalem. All the very best Sue

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