The Play (Selma Wassermann)

Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called  the My Word Reader for children. In addition to all of that, she also writes stories about growing up in Brooklyn. “The Play” draws from her elementary school days and the impact that one of her teachers had upon her.

She smiled a lot when she spoke to us, but it was not a smile that showed any human warmth. She smiled for punctuation and for eliciting our choral response.

“Isn’t that nice boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

“Aren’t you glad about that?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

She saw her work with us as her personal burden: training East New York street urchins to use the King’s English.

“Jack in the booox,” I practiced, watching my unruly tongue flick out, off cue, in the little hand mirror. “Awl shuttt uppp tyyytte.” When it was my turn to come up to her desk, her cold hard smile formed around her thin cold lips and I knew I was the source of great displeasure.

When we were well into the spring of the school year, she told us we were to give a play, so that she might show off to the rest of the school her success in teaching us to speak. We sat very still, sweaty hands folded politely, as she explained behind the joyless smile that every one of us was to have a part.

“And who would like to play the King?” Sweaty hands danced in the air and collapsed, deflated, after she named her choice. “Bobby will make an excellent King, don’t you think, boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeeesssss, Miss Stellwagon.” But none of us had truth in his or her heart.

“And now, who would like to play the part of the fairy godmother?” Smile.

I thought I would explode with longing, as my had shot up, waved and then fell with my hopes, as Shirley Laskin was named. I felt my overweight body, dressed in Irma Kelbanoff’s cast off clothes, like a pennance and knew that I’d never be named. Never.

She continued to name the characters in the play, and selected the most attractive children first, from a flurry of handwaving hopefuls who didn’t have a chance because her mind had been made up long in advance. She knew who she wanted but continued to tease us with the possibility that we might be chosen. We, unsuspecting, continued to play her cruel game.

The characters with speaking parts had now all been chosen and I sat nervously, my ugly brown shoes tripping on Irma’s too long dress, biting my thumb nail, hoping for a miracle. To be unchosen is the great pain of Grade 4. The unchosen were the detritus of classroom life.

“Now, who wants to play the role of the announcer?” Smile.

Melvin Taub and I were the only ones who would brave yet another rejection. We shot our hands up. She took all of me in, from Irma Kelbanoff’s sagging dress, down to the world’s ugliest brown shoes, and without smiling, turned to Melvin. It was my last chance to be chosen and I’d have cheerfully knocked Melvin off to increase my chances to move out of the rejects.

Her eye fixed on me again.

“Do you think you can do this? It’s an important part you know. Smile

I almost cried out loud with my reassurances. I could. I could. Oh, please. I could.

“You need a white blouse and pleated skirt for this part. Do you have one?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Yes. I have one.”

“All right then.”

I never gave another thought to Melvin, who landed up as one of a large chorus of elves, that nondescript group of back-stage castoffs. As it turned out, a far luckier fate than mine.

That afternoon I told my mother the hard news. I had a part in the class play. The Announcer. I had to have a white blouse and a pleated skirt. The teacher said so.

My mother fell into her quiet fury, the worst expression of her anger. There was no money. There could be no blouse and skirt. I would have to give up the part and the teacher would have to choose someone else.

She didn’t understand that that was impossible. To give up after having been chosen was simply, totally impossible. I cried. I wailed. I sulked. Never did I think that the cost of a new white blouse and pleated skirt was a week’s food budget; that we ate lung stew because lung cost five cents a pound and that was what we could afford. So we went to war, my mother and I, using every verbal weapon we owned. I told her that she was a bad mother. She said that I was too fat to wear a pleated skirt and would look like a baby elephant. We knew exactly where to aim — the most vulnerable and tender parts of the psyche. When my father came home, we were both casualties.

My parents spoke quietly for a long time and after supper my mother took me to the shop around the corner and outfitted me in a week’s food budget worth of white blouse and pleated navy skirt.   She was right about one thing. I did look like a baby elephant.

The next day at school the class went in a long, single line to the auditorium for the first rehearsal. Miss Stellwagon, pinching an edge of cloth from the shoulder of the leader’s dress, held her at arm’s length as she led the file down to the front of the hall. We occupied the two first rows on the right, just under the permanently fixed sign: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Miss Stellwagon organized a tableau of look-alike, gunny-sacked elves rear stage and admonished them in advance about any bad behavior. Walking authoritatively to centre stage, she pointed her index finger at me and beckoned me with it to come up and begin the announcement.

With equal amounts of nervousness and eagerness to please, I rushed from my seat toward her, the toe of my brown shoe catching the lip of the platform step. In a thud that echoed in my heart for the next twenty years, I fell face down at the feet of my fourth grade teacher, pleats billowing, rump exposed.

She looked down at me, her eyes cold and unforgiving. The words, carefully chosen and precisely formed in perfect King’s English fell from that cold, hard mouth, like stones. “Get up and return to your seat. You could never be the announcer for our play. Suppose you fell during the actual performance? You would make the entire class a laughing stock.”

I watched from my seat as Melvin Taub replaced me, my humiliation packed in my suitcase, to last for all time.


Filed under how teachers teach

12 responses to “The Play (Selma Wassermann)

  1. The feelings of the student have been wonderfully depicted. It’s a wonderful reminder for the teachers that a simple but unpleasant word uttered to a student can have a terrible impact on little minds. A teacher has to be forgiving and understanding…. Just like a mother.

  2. Gary Ravani

    One of the plagues visited upon education is all the adults who look back on their early school experiences and think that they understand what was going on in the classroom. They don’t. They don’t know the planning, the pedagogy, the availability of resources, the milieu of a school created by management, etc., etc., etc. Those adults just had to sit in class and now, looking through the lens of a youngster, decide that classroom teaching is “easy.” Well, those of us who’ve worked in the classroom understand that is an immature and very limited lens to look at what classroom teaching is all about. That being said, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” In this case, we get that 9 year old lens complicated by what appears to be a child with huge self-image problems. From that perspective it seems both the teacher as well as the parents were severely lacking in compassion for this child. But, what is the nature of that perspective? For adults who had only the childhood, but not the adult, experience of what goes on in schools a distorted view of early experiences can be expected if not commended. Maybe most of the adults in this person’s life were really as unfeeling as described. Or maybe the lens is like a mirror in a fun-house. Some people ought to know better.

    • larrycuban

      I am surprised, Gary, by your intense dislike of this reconstruction of a child’s experience about what happened in an elementary classroom decades ago. The inferences you make about the writer as an adult are way over the top. The conclusions you reach miss the simple fact that the author described an incident that occurred in a public space called the classroom that had a strong influence on her then and for many years after. The story is not about describing what teaching is all about; it is about how interactions between a teacher and students in a particular class at a particular time strongly affected her.

      • Gary Ravani

        That might be true if only the teacher was mentioned, but it does not account for the words of the parent. However, to characterize the teacher with “her cold hard smile formed around her thin cold lips and I knew I was the source of great displeasure” indicates a kind of self-involvement that most, as adults, grow out of. Were there any adults who were less than unkind? I think we all have memories of parents, teachers, peers who “traumatized” us as children, but eventually we learn to look at it through an more mature lens. The “over the top” part is certainly accurate, but I don’t think it was me.

      • larrycuban

        For what it is worth, Gary, you missed the boat on this one. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Gary Ravani

        Perspective counts for a great deal in many circumstances. Mine comes from having defended teachers from, typically, unfounded charges about alleged professional misconduct. And certainly, if events went down as described in the story, the teacher should have been looked at by administration. But, if I was reading this as a “complaint against personnel,” I would note that the described behaviors are totally subjective and hearsay: “a cold hard smile.”
        Would a 9 year old know a “cold hard smile” if he or she saw one and would they be able to describe it as such? So, we look for reasonable alternative interpretations. Maybe the smile was just a smile. (Wadda ya’ want, a sneer?)

        Maybe the teacher saw a very insecure young girl with significant self-image issues who potentially would be very uncomfortable in public presentations and was looking for a way to ease her out of an awkward situation. And what about poor old Melvin? Why was he more deserving of being overlooked? A teacher makes choices based on the best information available. The choices may be wrong, but few teachers are mind-readers. A teacher can hardly be expected to not look “cold” to a student whose adult contacts, particularly parents, are portrayed as being very unfeeling. On the other hand, and looking at the big picture, I would have had a very jaundiced view of childhood if I’d had to eat lungs every night too.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking the time to comment, Gary.

  3. This is such a painful story to read. And the star is a nasty teacher, a cruel one. I remember being very aware that I wasn’t cute, even as a first grader. I knew who the pretty and popular girls would be. What I did have going for me was my smarts, my competitive nature, and being very tall. I hated this characteristic for years, a head taller than most of the boys, but I did get chosen as a leader, Captain of the Safety Patrol in Elementary School and in high school a cheerleader who read Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover every week. I told the head cheerleader which cheer we should be doing, the only girl who understood football and basketball. Finally, by college the boys got taller, tall enough, for me to look up to.

  4. Monica Nauert

    I know this almost by heart. As a freshman in high school, I chose this very story as my serious interpretation speech for speech competition. Over 30 years later, I can still recite the introduction verbatim from memory. I received many trophies for placing using it, maybe because it had a lot of my childhood in it too. I will never forget this piece.

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