The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part One

Fellow bloggers,

I have been working for some time on a book-length memoir of my New York childhood.  Now that I am getting closer to completion of the manuscript, I’d like to offer a two-part sample of Walking to New Jersey for your perusal.  Today: “My Secret Desire,” part 1 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

Author’s Note:  All names have been changed.

With the Baby Boomers hitting junior high school age, many of our eighth grade classes were quite large.  Mr. Pettigrew’s English class in Room 109 was no exception.  Although this gang wasn’t quite as rowdy as what Miss Donnelly had to contend with the previous year, there were times when it seemed that more socializing than learning was going on.

As for Miss Donnelly, I wondered what had happened to her.  As I was half in love with her, I was disappointed that I didn’t see her around the school.  Room 116, in the alcove across from Mr. Pettigrew’s class, was where Miss Donnelly taught last year.  This year, however, the only teacher I saw going in and out of that classroom was Miss Rosenbaum.  I didn’t know anything about her, but I wanted to be in her class.  You see, she was young and beautiful, with palpitatingly gorgeous flaming red hair that hung straight down past her ass like a horse’s tail.  I would inwardly sigh as her tresses went swish, swish as she walked by.  Not only was I a sucker for redheads at a young age, I thought she could be a model for a modern-day Rapunzel, or just a model, period.

Girls were an enigma to me.  For the most part, I ignored them, treated them as part of the wallpaper.  They were just there, and the less I had to deal with them, the better.  There were female teachers, there was my mother, and of course, I had sisters.  No big deal.  But then, there was the other thing.  It was hard to ignore a pretty face, the Miss Rosenbaums of this world who knocked your eye out with floor-length orangey locks.

To most of my agemates, women were about one thing only, and no two ways about it.  Girls were a deep, dark, tantalizing mystery, an encoded message they were just dying to crack.  In my case, however, my wonder and curiosity were tainted with a heavy dose of Orthodox Jewish guilt.  What saved me from the grip of obsession, to which many of my classmates had given themselves over heart and soul, was the fact that I was inordinately late to develop physically.  Although I appreciated a kind word and long, red hair, I didn’t yet have the benefit of raging hormones to drive me off the deep end.

As much as I enjoyed reading a good book, most of what we covered in Mr. Pettigrew’s class didn’t interest me very much.  We studied Greek and Roman mythology and I put on an extremely lame skit with two of my classmates for which we cut a lightning bolt out of cardboard and played the role of Zeus hurling it.  We read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I memorized a stanza of “The Highwayman.”  I found memorization to be quite challenging, so I was flabbergasted when I learned that my father could recite the whole darned poem by heart!

As ho-hum as Mr. Pettigrew’s English class was to me, it wasn’t too far into the school year when I discovered with delight that, however unlikely it might seem, this class was going to help me progress toward my Secret Desire.

I wanted to be a babysitter.

My Secret Desire was not something to which I would readily admit for the simple reason that this activity was securely ensconced in the clubhouse labeled GIRLS ONLY (all others keep out).  For a boy to express an interest in such a thing was simply Not Done.  It would be akin to expressing an interest in makeup or Shaun Cassidy.  I would be laughed right out of junior high.  And, of course, more than anything else I wanted to be taken seriously as an upstanding officer of the Student Council.  So I kept my Secret Desire under wraps, at least for now.

We were a few weeks into the fall term when Mr. Pettigrew passed around book sale order forms.  Students were encouraged to look through the brochure of offerings from Scholastic, pick out some books for leisure reading and bring money from home to pay for them.  Perusing the selection, I didn’t find much to interest me, certainly nothing that captured my attention sufficiently to warrant cajoling my parents for money.  Then I saw it, and it stopped me cold.  Baby-Sitter’s Guide by Sharon Sherman, featuring Tizzy Teen cartoons by Kate Osann.  It was as if someone had read my mind.

Ohhhh, I get it.  Of course!  This wasn’t meant for me; it was for junior high girls who were considering following their older sisters into the entrepreneurial world of suburbia.  Teenage babysitters were an essential commodity in our little corner of the world.  Without girls willing to work on the cheap, how would harried parents ever get a Saturday night out on the town?  So it made perfect sense that there would be a manual that explained to girls exactly the thing that I wanted to know how to do.

I knew what I had to do:  I asked my father for three dollars to order a book through my English class.  I hoped he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions, and he didn’t.  He opened up his wallet and handed me the money.  It was fate, destiny, bashert!

When the books that my classmates had ordered arrived a few weeks later, I snatched mine as quickly as possible, hoping no one would notice the title.  I hid it inside the cover of another book and stashed it in my bookbag.

The timing could not have been more perfect.  It was the day before the school holiday for Yom Kippur, and I smiled thinking of the treasure I had scored.  I had to hold myself back from taking a peek before I got the contraband to the safety of my bedroom.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a very solemn holiday, and always a trial for kids.  The adults were fasting and irritable, and we had to go sit in boring old synagogue with them for hours on end.  When we’d finally get home, the adults wouldn’t be paying much attention to us and we’d have to amuse ourselves.

But this year was special for me, for two reasons.  For one thing, this was the last Yom Kippur before my bar mitzvah.  This meant that this was the last Yom Kippur for the rest of my days on this earth that I would not be obligated to abstain from eating and drinking for 27 hours or so. With my bar mitzvah a mere four months away, however, I was eager to show that I was ready for my new adult responsibilities.  When I refused to eat any breakfast just like the adults, my mother humored me.  We walked to shul, where we spent about five hours while the hazan chanted and droned his way through the Morning and Additional Services.  Then my mother walked the mile or so home with the three of us.  I can’t remember any year when we returned for the Afternoon Service.  However, my mother expected my father to walk back to synagogue for Ne’ilah, the Concluding Service and then to walk home again after hearing the blowing of the Shofar that announced that we could break our fast.  By this time, however, my father had started refusing to go.  As a nonbeliever, he simply had no interest and was tired of going just because my mother wanted him to.

My mother usually prepared food in advance for the three of us so that we could eat lunch and she could lie down and continue her fast until the sun dipped below the horizon and three stars were visible.  My father would usually be sitting on the porch when we got home, and he’d go take a nap with my mother.  This year, I refused to eat anything.  My mother became mildly upset and urged me to eat several times.  When I staunchly refused, however, she didn’t push the issue.  I, too, went off to bed, but not to sleep.

And this was the other reason that this Yom Kippur was important to me:  I pulled my secret out of my bookbag, crawled under the covers and began to read.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to read anything but the holy books on Yom Kippur, and perhaps indulging myself in this pleasure was proof that I had a way to go before reaching adulthood, but this was an opportunity I was not about to forgo.  I knew that no one was going to bother me to go anywhere or do anything for at least four hours and my agenda was set. I read through the entire book and stashed it under my bed for further reference, as if it were a girlie magazine I was trying to hide from prying eyes.

I haven’t seen this book in more than forty years, yet I still remember the author’s advice on dealing with fights between children:  Avoid descending to their level.  Don’t yield to the temptation to throw a few punches of your own!  I read Sharon Sherman’s book cover to cover many times and to this day remember the ending.  If you ever catch yourself chanting “rain, rain, go away, come back another day,” perhaps you have not yet lost the magic carpet of childhood from under your feet.  I was mesmerized by that statement.  Yes, yes!  She was talking about me!  Here I was on the cusp, still a child of twelve but about to be bar mitzvahed and assume the mantle of religious adulthood.  I had one leg planted on either side of the border and I was ready to spring forward into the unknown.  I knew I had what it takes to bust out, to break the mold.

I would be the first boy babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.


Tomorrow:  Part Two – The Pop Tart Malfunction


Apples, Honey and No. 2 Pencils

apple pencil

In the sunny, sunny hours
bees sip nectar from the flowers
To the hive flies the bee,
making honey for you and me
Shiny apples, round and sweet,
what a happy Rosh Hashannah treat!

At work, I was trying to explain to one of my employees about why I am going to be out for part of the week.  I was pretty sure that mentioning Rosh Hashannah was not going to get me very far.  I could just say that’s it’s the New Year, I thought, then realized that this might result in a mixture of confusion and disbelief since everyone knows that New Year’s is January 1.  Should I get into the differences between the solar calendar and the lunar calendar?  Sigh. Perhaps I can just cite cultural differences, saying that, like the Chinese New Year, the Jewish New Year is celebrated at a different time of year than most of us associate with tearing off the last page of the calendar and making funky resolutions that are long forgotten by the time we get a month or two down the road.

 Just then, it hit me:  The children’s song about bees and flowers and apples and honey that most of us who attended a Jewish school remember from kindergarten.  I hadn’t thought about this little ditty in decades, but somehow it all came back to me in a flash, along with memories of using blunt scissors to cut out paper apples that had our names written on them.

I smiled a goofy grin and explained to my employee that, in my faith, this is our holiday season.  Instead of Christmas and New Year’s, we have Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.

Later, I realized that this memento of childhood days probably came back to me because, here in California, the school year has just started, and the other day one of my employees took some time off to bring her son to his first day of kindergarten.  All went well at first, she related.  She introduced her son to the teacher, saw that her little one was happily occupied, left the classroom and began walking down the hall.  With a tear in her eye, she noticed the sign posted on the wall:  “Quick exits make fewer tears.”  That’s when she felt something tugging at her dress.  She turned around to find her son asking why she was leaving without him.  Reassuring him that she would be back in a few hours and that he would have fun in the meantime, she retraced her steps and returned her little one to the classroom.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the new school year and the new Jewish year both start at about the same time.  I probably hadn’t made this association because Rosh Hashannah falls extraordinarily early this year, late September or early October being a much more common setting for this holiday.  In both cases we start out hopeful; with new clothes and a positive attitude, we look forward to a fresh start.  Just as it was when we started kindergarten, we fear the unknown that lies before us and find it hard to give up the reassuring familiarity of the past even as we step over the threshold of opportunities for discovery and learning.  As we move forward through the grades of school, we often are eager to leave our mistakes of the previous year behind.  With a blank notebook and a cache of No. 2 pencils, we vow to get it right this time, whether it be in math, writing, getting along with the annoying kid who sits behind us or dealing with the bully on the playground.

Not much has changed over the years.  As in kindergarten, some of us have to be dragged out of our comfort zones, kicking and screaming.  Others go more willingly, albeit with a turn of the head and a tearful wave goodbye.  We resolve to be better stewards of our money and our time, to pay more attention to our children, to be kinder to our neighbors, to be more involved in our communities and to deal more effectively with the bullying influences of life that forever tempt us with frivolity as a viable alternative to self-improvement.

Like the bees sipping nectar from the flowers in the children’s song, we greet the New Year with with vigor and industry, intent on making this time count.  And like the butterfly that has outgrown its cocoon, we long to break away from the limitations of our past, shake off the dewdrops from our newfound wings, and fly away.

A Factor of Cubes

factor of cubes

I was trying to help my niece with her math homework the other night.  She has just started her first year of community college (I am very proud to say) and is struggling with the factoring of cubes.

My weak efforts at assistance were necessarily over the phone, as my niece lives in northern California, more than 600 miles from our small-town abode out in the Sonoran Desert.  I would much rather have been sitting on the couch next to her, poring over her textbook and trying out tentative solutions on scrap paper.

As if the challenges of long-distance math aren’t enough, it has been decades since I last studied algebra.  I have no confidence at all in my memory’s accuracy regarding x and y, exponents and coefficients.  And in any event, I have no clue as to how they’re teaching algebra these days.  I recall my parents bemoaning the “new math” back in the day; who knows what’s in vogue in the twenty-first century.

“There are three main methods of factoring,” I began explaining to my niece.

“Wait,” she said, “let me get a piece of paper to write this down,” as if I were about to impart some type of profound wisdom that must be preserved for the ages.

I proceeded to explain a little about the greatest common factor, the difference of squares and the quadratic equation.  I soon discovered that knowing the theory is very nice, but of little value when faced with a flummoxing string of constants and variables.

I suggested that my niece notice the cubed exponent and then notice that all of the terms in the expression are perfect cubes.  And then I became stuck.  All I could do was urge my niece to try to remember the lecture, go over her notes again, and take the approach recommended by her teacher.  The problem, she related, is that the professor has more than a bit of an attitude, insisting that the material covered at the beginning of the semester is solely in the nature of review, and that he expects his students to already know how to handle factoring.

After I hung up, I was seized by regret that I couldn’t be of more help with my niece’s math problem.  And that’s when I remembered that we’re not back in the seventies anymore, where the best you could do was call a friend in the class to see if perhaps he or she had already figured out how to calculate the answer.  No, indeed.  Today we have the internet.  In a minute or two I had performed a quick Google search and found the holy grail.

Calling back my niece, I revealed my online discovery that factoring cubes has to be done by formula, albeit a formula that I had never seen in my life.  She dutifully wrote down the additive and subtractive formulas that I read off my screen, after which I explained how to plug in the terms of her problem to the variables of the formula.  Sure enough, we came up with the answer listed in the back of her textbook!

Over the long distance phone lines, I could feel a light go on.  Yes, my niece admitted, the professor had mentioned this very formula, but not until the very end of the session, after the class had flailed helplessly through similar problems for most of the hour.  She thanked me profusely and I signed off with a “Yay, Google!”

Alas, my nieces and nephews have all reached the age when I am forced to step off my pedestal, relinquishing that lofty perch in favor of admitting that I am not as smart as they think I am.  As fascinating as I find mathematics, it has never been my academic strong suit.  I would be a far more valuable resource as a proofreader of my niece’s term papers than as a tutor fit to plumb the mysteries of equations.  Ask me the meaning of a word, and I will likely provide a mini-lecture on its derivation from Latin or Greek or Hebrew, while pointing out its root and suffix and comparing it to similar words in our own language or in French or Spanish.  But when it comes to things like algebra, trigonometry and (heaven help us) calculus, I’ll just have to key the problem into a search engine and hope for the best.

In other words, dear niece, I will just have to learn right along with you.  And maybe that won’t be so bad after all.