Saturday, July 26, 2014

Memory: Mr Rabinowitz' Toupee

Back in the day, sometime in the mid seventies, when I was in high school in Brooklyn, our class had a favorite substitute teacher. His name was Mr. Rabinowitz. He specialty was word games, particularly Hangman. He was probably about fifty, maybe older, and although he had a very jovial personality and was always cracking jokes, there was something sad and threadbare about him. I think we all noticed it. It wasn't something we spoke about, but it was something always present in our minds. It wasn't that the sole tweed suit he always wore was tattered; it wasn't. But heck, it was his only suit and it smelled vaguely of mothballs, which gave the impression of a lonely old bachelor with no mother or wife to take care of him, of someone who had dedicated all his life to teaching and who had somehow forgotten to live his own life. Of perhaps he had never learned.  

When I said earlier that there was something threadbare about Mr. Rabinowitz, I mentioned the general impression. But there was something else. Something specific. His toupee.

I suppose I should describe this toupee. There really was nothing quite like it. It sat on his head like a bird's nest; very old, very tattered, and very obvious. Even for the seventies, it looked leftover from the rakish fifties. If you have ever seen the Ten Commandments, the scene where Moses and God made the waters of the Red Sea rise up on both sides while the children of Israel walked through on dry land, then you would have a good picture of this toupee. It was rolled up in the front and on the sides and looked like a dense meshy wire of hair. It was as if he had a mini stadium rising from his head.

We never said anything about it to his face but the class bullies -- Steven, Mark, John, Augustine (the same kids who always bullied me) would always comment on the toupee outside his presence.

This went on all the time.

One day, however, Mr. Rabinowitz surprised even the bullies. Mr. Rabinowitz arrived in class with his notorious toupee flipped end over end. The glue, or whatever it is that holds toupees together, had not worked and the toupee sat upside down, wrong-side up, like a hairy-sided tongue on top of Mr. Rabinowitz' head.

None of us said anything. None of the bullies laughed. Mr Rabinowitz was an elder, after all, and not like the younger teachers whom kids generally argued with or continually mocked to their faces. He had obviously dressed himself without a mother, daughter, or wife or even a mirror to help him. Why hurt his feelings? I suppose we thought other adults would notify him of the flapping tongue on his head. I was his favorite student; I suppose he saw something both pitiful and kind about me. But I wasn't going to tell him either.

On the way back home, on the bus, he stood talking to me. The toupee was still on his head --upside down, flapping. No one on that Brooklyn bus said anything.

This is my biggest and first memory of the open secret, the secret everyone knows but no one speaks of. There have been other open secrets since then of course. The teacher with his fly open, the student whose dress was splattered with menstural blood, the secretary having an affair with the married director. But this is the open secret I remember deeply.

I'm not sure if those were kinder times or not. Perhaps no one told Mr. R. about the toupee because they didn't want to hurt his feelings. Perhaps folks just hate discomfort. Perhaps we felt someone else would do it. Those were some of the reasons I never told him. I also didn't want him to always remember me as the girl who made him aware of his embarrasment. Kill the messenger and all that. I'd like to think that he never realized what happened that day or that he only realized this great humiliation when he arrived home and that he somehow convinced himself that it had only happened a second or two earlier and that for most of the day he had been his wonderful, rakish, suave self. 
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