About five nights ago I was talking to two neighborhood young people, a guy and his girlfriend. I hadn’t seen them in a while and they spotted me outside, so we stood in the cold and caught up on things. The conversation soon turned to tattoos – her father had spotted tats that he didn’t know she had. The parents didn’t like it one bit. I told her that her parents, being Jewish, had a completely different take on and experience with tats. She went on to explain that they were from a different era and that things had changed. She also added that sometimes people disparage those who are tattooed, not knowing that each tattoo has a story behind it. That got me to thinking about an upsetting incident that I witnessed many years ago in high school. I must have been in the ninth grade.
Mr. Harry Siegal was not only my English teacher but the editor of “The Triangle,” the school newspaper on which we worked. The paper’s name was a reference to the shape of our school, Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Then, as now, I thought he was the finest teacher that ever inhabited a classroom. Mr. Siegal taught English and literature with freshness and sometimes excitement, especially if it was an author that he especially loved, like Charles Dickens or the poet John Donne. He was generous with praise and just as generous with criticism. Around 5 feet tall, if that, he had a large presence in the classroom. He wore his hair parted on the side and combed away from his face. He was always dressed in a dark suit and always with white, starched, long-sleeved shirts, even during the hotter months as the school year drew to a close. The one thing I remember about him was his shoes. He had the longest, shiniest, highly-polished pointiest-toed shoes I’d ever seen on anyone’s, especially on a man of his height. The toes on those shoes could have picked locks, or cleaned ears. We didn’t know much else about him except that he was single and lived with his mother. We thought that was a hoot, for even in the ninth grade many of us dreamed of the day when we could move out of the house and leave our mothers (and fathers and siblings) behind. But Mr. Siegel was my favorite teacher, and even today, whenever I hear of teachers’ awards and recognition, Mr. Siegel’s name, voice, and form come to mind
We were all gathered at our desks waiting for the return of our graded papers. The assignment had been to choose a hero and then write about him or her. Strangely, I no longer remember whom I had chosen; I only remember the red “A” and “Excellent!” written across the top margin of my paper.
Three of us were chosen to read our papers in front of the class. The final student took his place in front of Mr. Siegal’s desk and began to read his paper. I don’t remember his name, only that he was a chunky – stocky – red-cheeked and sporting a brownish-blond crew cut. He was a bold reader, not the least bit shy or hesitant. Mr. Siegal stood behind his desk as the student read, and soon his smile, or smirk, began to redden his face and eyes. It quickly became apparent to us that the man being held up as a hero was Adolph Hitler.
Mr. Siegel’s transformation was startling – no – frightening. He slowly moved toward this student and stood beside him, his arms folded across his chest. At times during the reading, he looked at the ceiling. The student seemed oblivious to Mr. Siegel’s growing agitation.
When he’d finished, he moved toward his seat, but Mr. Siegel stopped him. I don’t recall all the details, but the student was asked to defend his choice, and the more he talked the angrier our teacher became. He rebutted the student’s defense of Hitler, and I remember him punctuating his phrases by poking the student’s shoulder. Now it was his turn to turn red.
Finally, Mr. Siegal dismissed him. You could feel the release of tension in the classroom, but our teacher wasn’t finished with us yet. He remained in front of the class He was wordless. He unbuttoned his cuff. He rolled up his sleeve. That, he said, to all of us, is what his hero is responsible for.
He went on to explain the significance of the tattoo and how he came to have it. I don’t remember the student’s reaction, probably because I was looking so intently at our teacher’s forearm. The greenish-blue number. Clearly legible. After all that time. And I still remember. After all this time.