By Atar Hadari
Teaching English started for me in the dining room when I was sitting over my schnitzel and stewed greens and a voice hit me from the back. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the boy from England? Leah,” she said, moving from question to answer without pause and sitting in the empty chair. I tended to regard time eating my lunch as private time, unlike nearly everyone else on kibbutz. Never having eaten a private meal in their lives, or not since escaping from Europe anyway, they were accustomed to being accosted over their vegetables. I was, at the time, enjoying a welcome break from one of my shifts at the dishwasher, when along came this shadow and fell across my plate. Actually she was rather more substantial than shadow, a woman the thickness of an oil drum, with glasses round as little coins across her face and a gappy smile, slightly buck-toothed. “I’m Leah, my husband is Yaakov,” she said, “We’re a matching set. You’re from England, right? I learned English in England, on my way here, as a toddler. That’s what I do here, I teach the children. After school. I teach the little kids, maybe you can teach the big kids? Eight and up? They already need more than the cards and letters I can show. Maybe you can come up with something? I’ve got lots of things to give you. If you want the job? Do you want the job? I understand you’re working in the kitchen.”
I went up to the little house where lessons were given, which turned out to be more or less sixty seconds walk, in a straight line across the grass, from our hut. I literally had to walk out my front door, dodge slightly right to avoid the bench and if I didn’t turn left or right but kept on walking thirty seconds I couldn’t help but be on time to start teaching the next little varmint. There actually weren’t so many, and usually they were late, so I had time to take in the room.
The size of a little men’s toilet, maybe, given that the whole building was just a shack, split off into three rooms. There was a back room where one of the Francophone kibbutz founders taught after school math, another room where an Auschwitz survivor offered counseling for kids. (She was a widow.) Leah had the little front room to herself, with a TV for educational videos and a blackboard (which was actually white, to use with felt tips) and a tiny table with the alphabet in plastic littered across it, plus playing cards with words on them, a pile of folders with student work spilling out on yellow legal pads, dog eared and crushed. I never really saw what Leah did with the little ones, beyond the occasional time I popped in to pick up a book I left behind. She just showed me the room, the little fridge where there was milk for my coffee and the cupboard where the huge tin of instant coffee sat. (“You never let the kids get in here, right? They’ll drink every drop and leave the rest on the floor like I’m their mother. I’m not their mother.”). And she gave me the keys and that was that.
My first victim was Itai, an architect’s son. He came in, all staring eyes and buck teeth and turned out to be Leah’s great grandson. If truth be told, I don’t think I taught more than one or two children in that room that were not her distant relations. It occurs to me that Leah had managed to find a way to coerce both the kibbutz into ensuring that her grandchildren had better English and her grandchildren into accepting said improvement. Doubtless if she’d just offered, as Granny, to help them along they’d have said, “Thanks for the cookies but…”) He walked in with his homework and asked me to do it for him.
I took a look. Something about how Spot runs, how many dots, where the tractor is and so on. “You can do that,” I said.
“No I can’t,” he said. “What am I here for if you’re not going to do my homework?”
“You’re here so that I make sure you DO your homework.”
He looked with some skepticism at this proposition.
“You’re not going to answer the questions?” he said.
“What question?” I said.
“What does this mean?” he said.
“What does it say?”
“How many spots?”
“How many spots is right,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
“Is there a picture?”
“Obviously there’s a picture.”
“What is it of?”
“A DOG, obviously. Are you mad or something?”
“And what does the dog have on him?”
“I’m going to read my book. You do your homework.”
There was a fifteen minute break while the first victim vacated the premises and the next victim arrived. Lessons began on the hour, more or less, depending when they tipped up on their bikes, and lasted forty five minutes. In between I was supposed to get a coffee, refresh my notes, check my lesson plan, dig out some educational theory to guide me in the next half hour, that sort of thing. More often than not I would avail myself of the proximity of my own hut and pop back to check if my wife was back from the dairy, grab a yoghurt, finish up something I’d tried to translate before but never managed to. I started work later than other visitors to the kibbutz but kept working later too, and as winter set in I was often sitting there after dark, which they didn’t do in their manual labor. As Itai left he sometimes overlapped with his cousin, Ohad.
Ohad was another grandchild of Leah’s, but without the complementary buck teeth. A spindly boy with grim little coal black eyes, he looked as if he was sure you were going to give him the smallest portion of French fries. I tried him with a few of Leah’s card games, did his homework with him, but after a little while Ohad actually caught on and started doing his homework himself before he got to the lessons (which I thought was less than sporting, since it prevented me reading my book.) Eventually we settled into a routine of me setting up a board of mini-scrabble and him playing me short games of around twenty minutes, usually two games a lesson. At first he was stumped and needed a lot of help to make a word or two up but then he got the hang of it and started coming up with things himself and needing only the occasional nod for spelling. (“There’s a c in duck, traditionally.”) I would suggest words and he would look at me in wonder but they must have been there somewhere in the back of his head (he did have an English speaking grandmother) because after a while he started to come out with them himself. Leah reported that his school teachers were pleased and he had stopped making a nuisance of himself in class, even though he still hung at the back with his cousin, Itai.
The last of my trio of eight years old was in no way whatsoever related to Leah. He was however the son of one of my visitor course teachers, Ephraim, whom my wife and I nicknamed Extreme Ephraim for the energy with which he taught his one hour weekly lesson on the weekly bible portion. Ephraim shouted at everybody, at least everybody he was teaching. It was not ill-tempered shouting, just impatience to get the word out. (“Why did Abraham have to leave where he was born? Because there were… IDOLS!!”) And when he demonstrated how wicked keen Abraham was to get food for his angelic visitors he dashed around the tiny hut, leaping from one side of the flower filled bank of windows to the other so that his sneakers skidded along the floor.
Ephraim stood ram-rod straight in synagogue when the Torah portion was read, more or less the only one to do so amid a sea of sitting, lolling co-religionists, and his son Yonatan would come in dragging his bag as if stones were in it. He had the same red hair that flamed across Ephraim’s face, and small grey intelligent eyes and a way of flaring up in instantaneous anger, almost as explosive as his father’s classroom style. The only common language I ever found with Yonatan was basketball. When trying to hit upon something he might like to read between lessons the only thing we could agree he might peruse in English was the basketball teams write ups and their latest scores. The teams of the NBA were poetry in his ears and he chanted them like a devotee, priest of a cult from an antique land he had never laid eyes on. We went through the basketball words – hoop, basket, court, dribble etc. – more or less in one lesson. That left the words for teams, modes of attack and defense and opened up the field for all other terms for sportsmen, but he only really came alive when he talked about Kobe Bryant.
He knew his scores in every game, he knew where he went to college and who he played for after, knew the town he came from and where he was born. He didn’t know anything about the life of a sportsman or what money was, because sometimes he didn’t show for his lesson and I asked Leah about it and she said, of Ephraim, “He rides the boy too hard.” I tried to explain to Yonatan one day by asking him about money.
“What about it?” he says.
“Do you know what twenty five dollars is?”
“Kobe Bryant earns that in twenty seconds.”
“Probably less, but do you know how long it takes the kibbutz to earn it?”
“No idea, why?”
“Because that’s what English lessons cost in Tel Aviv, for forty five minutes, and you’re getting them here for free, but when you don’t show up, the kibbutz is flushing twenty five dollars down the toilet, because that’s what the forty five minutes is worth.”
He thought about it and said he’d try to get there. Then he missed the next lesson again, then he came back with a list of sports related words he wanted to know the meaning of, things he’d read on the basketball websites, and that kept his interest going for a while.
I first knew there was a problem with Itai the day he refused to leave the classroom when Ohad came in. Itai arrived late, so we were late starting, and then Ohad arrived on time and Itai wasn’t done with his homework, so I said, “Take it with you, we’ll finish the day after tomorrow.”
“No I won’t,” Itai said. His little dark eyes looked round the room just like the first time he set foot in it. He looked like a little owl, with buck teeth. A hungry little owl.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“I’m not leaving,” Itai said.
“Itai, come on, get outta here,” Ohad said.
“He’s always asking things,” Itai said, “Nobody ever lets me stay anywhere.”
“I’m going to get a coffee,” I said, “You two talk among yourselves.”
And I went out into the little tiny kitchen that Leah kept under lock and key (I let my own students go in and out of there at will, but not when we were running late). I poured milk into a polystyrene cup and added some coffee powder, hot water. By the time I was out of the kitchen Ohad was on the other side of the little teaching room’s door and Itai was holding on to the handle from the inside, saying, at the top of his lungs. “You’re not coming in here you bastard, it’s my room, it’s my room. You go away.”
Ohad looked up at me, I looked at him.
“His mother is very busy,” Ohad said, “She’s on the committee for everything.”
“So?” I said.
“His brother looks after him.”
“His brother’s no good?”
“I don’t think he likes him very much.”
“Do you want a milk chocolate?”
“That would be very nice.”
Ohad went into the little kitchen to make himself a milk chocolate. I stood with my coffee outside the little office door. “Itai, do you have many more questions to do?”
“Why don’t you tell me what they are?”
By the time Ohad came back with his drink Itai was out and had his bag under his arm.
“See you in school?” he said to Ohad.
“See you,” Ohad said.
I would see Itai sometimes, on Sabbath afternoons, prowling around the kibbutz with his architect father, trying to sidle up to some bird that had innocently alighted on a frond of date tree or clung to a limb of bush alive with flowers. His father, a huge bear of a man, short-sighted as a moth behind thick coke-bottle glasses, would keep up a running monologue about the mating habits of the birds, their habitations, their flight path from Asia minor, and that was the only time I ever saw Itai look happy. It was as if bird-watching with his father was real-life, the rest an unpleasant veil he had to drag his small face through. I never saw his mother with him, though I knew her by sight, would sometimes see her in the dining hall loading the food on trolleys. She was elected kibbutz secretary sometime in the spring, and I suppose Itai must have thrown his fit just before the vote. He didn’t throw another fit after the results were announced, just found different ways to make his slow, small hoots of distress.
I drew a lion for Yonatan. When we got tired of basketball words the only thing I could think of to keep him entertained was letting him draw on the black (actually white) board. He took the pens with relish, obviously something nobody ever countenanced letting him do in school. At first he drew a circle, with a furtive look over his shoulder at me, fully expecting me to stop him. I didn’t stop him. I said he could draw, as long as he wrote things in between. So he wrote Kobe Bryant’s name, and the name of all the other NBA meteors, rising and falling. I drew him a lion, with red felt-tip lines for a mane and a green muzzle, blue staring eyes. When we came in after a day or two, Leah had erased Kobe Bryant’s name and that of all the other NBA players but left the lion, and written up her own lesson: “Dog, Dance, Doll”. Then Yonatan started scribbling around the edges, drawing stars, “NBA” over and over, like a set of initials for his own gang. I came back from getting my coffee with the room open one afternoon and found Itai had slipped in quietly and wiped the board clean. It was clean and white as when I’d first started teaching there.
I looked at him.
“What did you do that for?”
“Nobody ever lets me stay anywhere,” he said. “It’s my blackboard.”
Next lesson Yonatan came in and went immediately to the blackboard. “Where’s the drawing?” he said.
“Leah?” he said.
“I wasn’t here when it happened,” I said.
Yonatan took the felt tip, a red one, and wrote on the blackboard, without looking up to check spelling with me: “Where is lion?” He underlined the phrase three times, then walked out. When he didn’t come to the following lesson I sat there a while, reading, then got on the phone to call Leah.
“Where’s Yonatan?” I said.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” she said, “Ephraim told me he wouldn’t be coming anymore.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
This was typical kibbutz. “Didn’t he think he’d hurt your feelings?”
I could almost hear Leah shrug her shoulders, “I don’t have any feelings about the French, just about some children. It’s a shame about the boy. Well, more time to teach the others.”
“Did he give any reason?” I said.
“I’ll ask him,” she said, “I never thought to ask.”
A couple of days later I found an envelope in the mailbox with my name on it. I opened it. Inside was a print-out of a newspaper story from a U.S. based basketball website. Kobe Bryant had been arrested for rape. On the back of the story was written in small, meticulous Hebrew letters: “If he has to learn another language than Hebrew, I can teach him French.”
Ephraim never said a word about it, naturally.
Ohad kept coming and Itai kept coming. Itai actually started coming twice a week after his mother got elected secretary (I guess she wasn’t home after school). I kept refusing to do his homework and he kept saying I should and talking to himself, sometimes he would ask himself, quite irritably, “Who is Woody?” I ignored him, or at least those questions which weren’t addressed directly to me, and sometimes saw Yonatan walking around on the kibbutz. I would say hello but he would keep on walking, never saying hello, never acknowledging that something may have been lost when he took the removal of the lion personally, and when Ephraim took his son’s interests in idols with clay feet as a sign that it was time to limit the access to Babylon and its language.
I didn’t draw another lion on the blackboard because none of the other students seemed to merit it. They all were happy writing things on paper, or playing across a board, or even looking out the window as the dusk slowly settled into darkness and just saying words aloud in English. None of the others seemed to find the poetry in anything, let alone a man they never met the likes of, a man with skin not the colour of their own, thundering down the court to do something unheard of in mid-air under a shaking string basket.
“I’m ok, aren’t I?” Itai said.
“You’re fine,” I said, “Aren’t you fine?”
“I wonder sometimes,” he said.
I kept seeing Itai around kibbutz, stalking the birds on the trees and looking for somebody to tell him something other than flight paths, but I never saw Yonatan play basketball, and when I started taking adult students on, for Friday mornings, I told myself I didn’t miss him. Just the picture of the lion that no-one else ever asked me to draw, and no one else could have mourned even for half a minute, whether their father cared or not, whether their father prayed or not, whether they liked the drawing itself or didn’t, but just for the sake of a little color in the whiteness, something you could cheer for in a little room where nothing was said, just words, just the names of hopeful men and animals.
Summer came and I stopped teaching the boys, started working in the dining room, washing dishes, or rather taking them off of the conveyor belt that went through the industrial dish washer and washed them off. A couple of weeks after starting that I find a note in our pigeon hole mail slot asking me to stop in and see the kibbutz general secretary to discuss our residency contract.
I go to see the kibbutz secretary. This is now a two person job, split by the kibbutz since privatization went through. There is an internal kibbutz secretary, responsible for social matters and elected by the kibbutz from among its members, and as I had remembered, it’s Itai’s mother. I may even have seen her with him a day or so back, standing at the door to the new improved kibbutz secretary’s office. I smiled at him. He smiled back then turned back to her. She was talking and not looking at anything. I see her in the office now and she’s another huge woman, but kindly, wears glasses with crazy purple frames. She doesn’t look like the mother of a terrified little owl, but I happen to know that she is, even though I've never actually seen her walking around the kibbutz with him on those long walks he takes on the Sabbath looking for birds to talk to.
The other secretary is Ilan, formerly secretary of a secular kibbutz down the road, now hired in to be a no-nonsense manager, somebody without any ties, the hatchet man. He’s lanky and has acne scars on his cheeks, sprouts curly red hair and doesn’t wear a yarmulke, though he carries one about with him in case he’s asked to step in and make a tenth man to pray. My wife and I actually know him better than Ora because he gave us a lift once, from kibbutz to Afula and chatted about our various endeavors, musical and literary. Last time I saw him outside this building he turned to somebody he was talking to, somebody official, and said, "Hey, did you know that guy translates poetry?"
As I walk in this time though Ora greets me and says, “Ilan, why don’t you start.” Ora and Ilan are sitting on one side of the boardroom table. The empty chairs are large around us.
“We don’t think your work is going to pan out here on kibbutz,” Ilan says, “We’d like to know when you plan to leave.”
“My wife works in the dairy,” I said, “I was told there was no pressure to leave.”
“We’re reviewing the whole situation of non-member resident contracts,” Ilan says, “And there’s a shortage of flats. Gadi’s daughter – is it Gadi’s daughter, Ora?”
“Yes, Gadi’s daughter. You know her?”
“I know her,” I said.
“She’s getting married. We need a flat for them. There are other couples coming, couples who are candidates for membership.”
“What do they do for work?”
“Well, I think one of them is a neighbor of yours. A doctor?”
“Oh yes,” I say. “They’re nice.”
“They are nice, aren’t they?” Ora says.
“He might join the kibbutz,” Ilan says. “We need you to clear your flat by June. Is there a problem with that?”
I ask how long we’d have if we didn’t know where to go, Ilan is reluctant to stretch it beyond July. On my way back to our flat, I pass some kids playing in the street, the same kids who always run and shout and kid each other and have no time for adults who aren’t their own, and always moved out of my way. This time, with the un-erring instinct of children for weakness, they actually throw a cheeky word or two at me. Then they all laughed and I said to myself, “We don’t live here anymore.”
My wife took another pregnancy test, went into the bathroom with another white piece of plastic, came out holding it again and we waited and waited and the blue line again appeared, strong as a Conservative party manifesto gleaming up out of the little white box.
I told my wife to stop working at the dairy. I went down to the dairy to tell her boss, Joel. She didn’t have the heart. He was a plump man sitting in front of a wall of photographs of much dourer people, most of them wearing grey beards. All the dead managers of the dairy. They seemed to frown at him every time he took a bite of his strudel. He took some papers out of his desk when he saw me coming.
“Look,” he said, “I have your wife’s new work contract. Now she’s got citizenship we can employ her properly.”
“She’s pregnant,” I said. “She can’t work here anymore.”
“She’s pregnant?” he said. He looked like he was suddenly pinched in the stomach and shifted uncomfortably. He was the one person I met who seemed surprised to hear that we were going. The only one who acted like we might have been staying. He opened his drawer and threw her contract back inside it with a sigh. He shook my hand. As I left he looked at the remains of his strudel as if he no longer wanted anything to do with it.
Then the bleeding started. Slowly, but a drop when you're waiting for a baby to is more than an ocean in a holiday photo. A drop, then another drop. I told her to lie down. She was already not going to work.
I took her in a cab into Afula. We didn't trust anybody's word about anything anymore, anywhere within a radius of twenty miles from the kibbutz and its surrounding settlements.
We sat in the waiting room of a small white building. The doctor opened the door and said "Come in" in Hebrew; he had blue black hair, slicked back like he combed it each morning in front of a mirror. He spoke a gentler Hebrew than any my wife had heard in the valley.
He listened to her talk slowly, ordered tests, scribbled on a pad.
"There's bleeding," my wife said. She looked at him.
"We'll see what we can see," he said. He smiled at her, gently.
The doctor came out of his door again and called us. We sat down in front of his desk.
"There is still a fetus," he said.
"What about the bleeding?" my wife said.
"There is bleeding, there is always bleeding in a pregnancy. There is still a fetus, and the fetus is alive."
"Thank God," my wife rocked, holding her stomach.
"Is there anything we can do?" I said.
"Pray,” he said.
We packed all our things on the kibbutz lorry, that delivered plastic sheets. As we left, the little hut where we had sat for seven months started being torn down. They were expanding it. All I could see were the walls being torn and the windows that I watched teachers stand in front of being removed, one by one. Then they walked out with a huge book case made out of stripped pine. It was the length of the entire wall about to be knocked down. Gadi was standing next to me.
"I made that," he said. "By hand."
"What's going to happen to it?"
“You want it? Take it to Jerusalem."
We loaded Gadi’s handiwork on to the kibbutz lorry. It made a kind of wall, next to the piles of boxes of books.
I went into the office to see Ora and gave her the keys. “Oh, you’re going?” she said. “It’s only March. Where are you going?”
“Away,” I said.
The bus to Jerusalem was late, but we loaded the last things on the truck and made our way onto the bus..
I saw Yonatan on a visit to the kibbutz, years later. He walked past me, looking straight down with his blue eyes hard as stones at the bottom of a pool. He was walking as fast as a man chasing after a basket ball that keeps bouncing just a little way out of his reach. I thought to say something, but after all, what could I say. He had the focused expression on his face his father used to have. And I thought about the lion he had so admired on that little white board and how he had asked where it had gone. That was the first question anyone asked about where we were going, before we even knew that we had started to be gone.