A Present for the Teacher
On his first day in the first grade, my father briefly thought he had put the Bronstein family into a state of financial ruin due to what he thought was a standard social custom of putting the touch on teachers.
He walked to school by himself, even though it was East Harlem in the 1920s and the Jewish kids had to watch out for the Irish and Italian Catholic kids who often waylaid Jewish students and harassed them with such theological observations as "Your God killed our God." He made it into the school building, was made to get on line with other boys, marched into a classroom, and was seated. The teacher called the roll and each student answered "Present".
Heshie Bronstein, the youngest of four, was confused and afraid.
He'd heard his sisters talk of how, at Christmas, they had to get the teacher a present. The usual gift was a package of linen handkerchiefs that cost 25 cents. It was a utilitarian gift, nothing that smacked too much of bribery. But the Jewish families sensed that it was a bribe for good grades the rest of the year. "Besides," Heshie had heard his parents say, Teachers get paid well. They work for the city. They don't need presents from the poor-and for a goyishe holiday at that!"
And if Heshie had to get his teacher a present, so would his three sisters and at 25 cents a package of handkerchiefs, that would come to an entire dollar! A dollar out of the family's budget, needed for food, rent, clothing. Why, no one in the family earned enough to afford that!
Heshie's father was a cantor but couldn't get a regular job with a congregation due to his not having the right type of voice-he was a baritone instead of the fashionable tenor. He was also an ordained rabbi but in most of the immigrant congregations, there was very little money and rabbis and cantors came close to starving. So Heshie's father worked in a cigar factory and picked up a little extra from time to time with freelance cantor gigs on the High Holy Days. His mother worked in a garment factory. At least the union, which both his parents had fought for, helped them to earn a better wage than in the past. But still... between them they did not earn enough to afford all those presents.
And it was only September! Why was the teacher asking students if they were pledging to get her a present when it was still September? Getting the teacher a present had to be a very important thing if the teacher was asking students to pledge the gifts this far in advance. Maybe one's grades did depend on it.
Nevertheless, when the teacher called out his name, Heshie said "Present" like everyone else. He wasn't about to risk bad grades or appearing to not care about the Christmas gift ritual.
He passed the morning hardly paying attention to the lessons, for he had the financial burden on his mind.
At noon, the students were sent home for lunch. Heshie didn't go home-his parents were both working. So he walked to his Aunt Gittel's place which was close by. He thought of asking Aunt Gittel what to do about the present. Maybe they didn't give teachers presents when she went to school. (Actually, few of the adult Jewish women he knew had been to school at all). He kept his silence on the matter, ate lunch, and returned to the schoolyard to line up again and be led up to the classroom for the afternoon session.
And to his profound surprise, the teacher again called the roll and the students again answered "Present."
Now this was too much! Wasn't the first roll call enough of a guarantee that the teacher was pledged thirty or so presents (quite a lot of handkerchiefs-or whatever) come the Christmas season? Or was there a separate list of pledges for Easter presents which the teacher was compiling early? Or did she expect two presents from each student? With his stomach in knots, my father again answered "Present" and never doubted that he was increasing his family's debt to his education.
At three o' clock, the torture was over for the day. Heshie went home and waited for the evening. His mother would be back from her factory job and his sisters would be home, helping her with the dinner. They would know. They were the ones who had told him about the presents. Clara, the oldest, even intended to be a teacher. At fourteen, she was almost through high school. She knew about things. She would explain it.
The family sat down to dinner and Mama said "So how was your first day at school?"
He looked down at the table. "I'm scared," he said. "We owe the teacher a lot of money. I promised her fifty cents worth of handkerchiefs already."
"What's this?" said Mama, Papa, and the sisters.
"Well, the teacher called our names, one by one. And everyone said "Present". I remember Clara and Lillian said they had to get the teacher a box of handkerchiefs for a Christmas present. I said Present too. But if we all have to buy her a box of handkerchiefs, we will all have to spend 25 cents! And she called our names twice! I promised to get her two presents!"
The girls laughed at this outburst. "It doesn't mean that," they told him. "The word present has two meanings. In this case, it means 'here'. You were just being asked to say that you were in the classroom. You don't have to promise to buy the teacher a present!"
So that burden was removed from my fathers conscience. However, he always liked to say that years later, when he was Civil Service Director and Commissioner of New York City and had to decide on a cost-of-living increase in pay for New York teachers, he thought of his first day in school and gave the teachers the "present"-a 25 cent raise, exactly the cost of a box of linen handkerchiefs.