Perimeters—-From Our Fathers’ Ashes. A historical novel.
DescriptionRevised chapter. Jakob Okker, son of Nathan has school problems. After being expelled for chronic truancy he is transferred to a remedial program at a downtown high school.
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CHAPTER 3 PERIMETERS “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” —Albert Einstein “I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot. ” ― Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye Toronto, Canada March 28, 1967 "You have two options," Principle Gormley smirked, “Transfer to a remedial program or we’ll make arrangements to have you sent to a provincial training school. It’s your choice.” Jakob swallowed. Christ! Provincial training school! That was where they beat and cage boys so those perverted guards can have their way with them. But a remedial program meant I’d be surrounded by a bunch of retards and sadistic teachers. Either way, I’m screwed. The principal pushed himself away from his chair. I’ll leave you and your parents here to discuss your options. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. I expect an answer when I return. Jakob looked at his folks sheepishly. “ But ...” His father stood, his face flushed with anger. “No more buts!” He whacked him hard across the back of his head. His mother began to weep, shocked at her husband’s rare display of corporal punishment. “Nathan, please don’t hit him. It does no good.” Mr. Okker continued. “Truancy, suspensions, there’s no end to the trouble you caused. You made your bed, boy, and now you can sleep in it. So now, choose where that bed will be! Remedial class or training school? Which will it be?” That damn school board had him cornered, like an animal ensnared in the hunter's trap, and his father was the chief gamekeeper. Either choice was going to be a nightmare. A tortuous death by castration or a quick painless extinction by car crash. He sucked in a deep breath. "Fine. Training school." His mother cringed from the thought. “Jake, do you know what it’s like there? What you’ll witness? You’ll have no freedom to do what you like.” “That’s the problem, Gina. He’s out of control—too much freedom to do as he wishes. This has got to stop.” His father clapped his hands. “Remedial school it is.” Jakob's jaw dropped. “I chose training school. You said I could choose.” His father laughed. “I changed my mind. The days of you doing what you want are over.” Do you understand, lad?” Jakob looked at his mother, hoping for a supportive voice. She remained silent, her head bent. Why was I forced to live with an asshole for a father! *** Following Easter break, Jakob was promptly transferred to Sir Ivan Collins Secondary School, one of a handful of schools providing a curriculum designed to accommodate ‘difficult’ students. Jakob believed the program was a convenient dumping ground for wayward students unable or unwilling to learn in a regular classroom setting. Ironically, the school was named after Ivan Collins, the late British psychologist and educator who was knighted for his research into adolescents with behavioural and emotional issues. In his first week at his new school, Jakob was referred to Mrs. James, the school’s psychologist . She administered a battery of tests to measure his intellectual ability and personality traits. A week later the boy found himself in her waiting room, awaiting the test results. Mrs. James opened her office door and gestured to Jakob to enter. He sat down warily, wishing he was sitting somewhere else. She opened up a thick file and withdrew a few white typewritten papers from the pile. “Well, Jakob, I’ve got the results back from your tests. The boy looked away from her. “I know how you feel being here. It’s not the most comfortable situation. But I want to help you Jakob. All of us do. We want to make sure you get a good education.” He remained tongue tied. “How did you feel about the tests?” Jake mumbled, “Tests are just a way to make people feel bad about themselves.” The psychologist frowned. “Why do you think that, Jakob? Jakob shrugged his shoulders. “I just do.” These tests are different than school work. There’s no pass or fail. They’re used to uncover your strengths; how you can build on those strengths and develop strategies to be successful in your academic and personal life.” She lifted a single page from the pile and put on her reading glasses. Jakob observed her closely. He reckoned she was of similar age as his mother, in her late thirties. Her short dark hair was tied back in a tight bun, secured by a frilly pink bow. She had a pretty face, but her nose seemed out of proportion. He wondered if she had been teased as a child. “The exercise measures your verbal and cognitive abilities as well as your abstract reasoning. Also your spatial and numerical skills. I know this might sound like Greek to you, but it does give us an idea of your learning abilities. It also measures some personality traits, the way you interact with others and how you view the world around you.” The psychologist removed her glasses and smiled gently at the boy. She sighed, “Jakob, I’ve been doing this job for over fifteen years and I’ve tested thousands of students. Holding up the sheet of paper, she shook her head. “Jakob, I think that you’ve purposely fudged your answers and manipulated them to make it look like you’re stupid. Am I right?” Jakob bowed his head. “I dunno.” “Well it certainly looks that way to me. I’ve talked with your former teachers and your parents, as well as your uncle. They all tell me that you’re a bright young man, but obstinate. Do you know what that word means?” He nodded. Also, I suspect that you have a fear of success. Sometimes it means that in order for you not to be pressured by the anxiety of accomplishing things, you subconsciously set yourself up for failure. Like when you skip classes or come to school late. Do you understand what I’m saying?” “I guess so,” the boy murmured. “You’re uncle tells me that you’re quite the avid reader. Do you have any favourite books?” Jakob paused. I like ‘Catcher in the Rye’, and anything by Kurt Vonnegut.” “That’s intriguing. Have you read ‘Cat’s Cradle?” “It’s my favourIte,” he replied. “Mine too.” Jakob perked up. “I’ve started reading ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. My uncle gives me all his used books. During the war he and my old man ... uh father, lived with their uncle in London during the war. He owned a bookshop. “Sounds like you have a very interesting family,” she smiled. “I guess you could say that,” he responded with a half-grin. “Now, Jakob. I’ve had a meeting with Principal Stevens, and he agrees with me that a referral for counselling would be best for you. It will give you a chance to talk out your feelings and express the things that bother you. I know a psychiatrist, Dr. Kelly, her office is at the Hospital For Sick Children. She works with young children and adolescents like yourself and has a private practice near the school. She comes well regarded, so I think you’ll like her. However, the waiting list is quite long. You’ll have to be patient.” “Do I have to go?” Jakob inquired weakly.” “I’m afraid so. It’s part of the plan set out by the school board. You have no choice.” “Unless I want to go to reform school.” Mrs. James frowned. “I don’t think that would be something you would want to entertain. I’m sure you’ve heard about these training schools.” “Can I leave now? I’m going to miss geography class.” “Certainly, Jakob.” He stood up and walked towards the door. The psychologist called out to him as he took hold of the door’s handle. “Jakob, if you ever need to talk, I’m always here. Just knock.” The boy shuffled off to class, leaving the door wide open. *** The new school reminded Jakob of his old elementary school. It was unlike the new two storey suburban schools he had recently attended. Collins was multi-storied, built at the turn of the century, constructed in the classic Gothic architectural style: arched doorways and windows with vaulted ceilings. The floors and stairwells were fraught with the musty smell of old wood, The school sat on the edge an east-end working class enclave, a neighbourhood Jakob knew well. His early childhood was spent only a short distance away. The program’s curriculum was orchestrated in Room 103, the sole classroom located on the ground floor, adjacent to the head janitor’s office. The students were forced to tolerate the daily stench of cleaning supplies seeping through the room’s paper-thin walls. Administrative offices, as well as the library and nurse’s room occupied the remainder of the floor. Not surprisingly, Jakob and his classmates were sitting ducks for the school’s bullies. The after school taunts of “retards” and “losers” tormented them each afternoon as they scampered to the safety of their homes. To prevent further harassment, all their classes were confined to the one room in order to avoid the need for negotiating the bustling halls between periods. Mr. Ian McCloud was the program’s conductor-in-charge. His students’ nicknamed him ‘Smokey’ in deference to his name and the persistent odour of tobacco splaying from his clothes. As well as his homeroom duties, he taught math and science. Approaching middle age, he was squat in stature, his prodigious head framed by slick inky hair, combed back along the sides, terminating in a classic ducktail. His mottled, ruddy complexion was eclipsed by a bulbous WC Fields-like nose, suggesting a strong affinity for drink. The deep furrows puckering his face revealed a man who was under the tight scrutiny of his superiors. A year ago, McCloud was suspended without pay after an ugly physical confrontation with the gym teacher. He had a history of reprimands, mostly due to his inability to curb his snowballing rage. The last incident resulted in him being placed on probation, another mishap leading to a possible dismissal. *** May, 24. Jakob was now in his second month at Collins. Although he continued to skip classes, he did so with a heightened vigilance, aware that there was no margin of error for further screw ups. He sat slumped over his Grade10 geometry book, idly doodling caricatures of his favourite hockey goalies. The classroom’s windows were wide open, allowing a slight breeze to drift in from the sultry mid-morning air. It was the day following the Victoria Day long weekend holiday. His desk was located in the back row, far from his teacher’s probing eyes. Jakob and his fellow Toronto sports crazies were still in a celebratory mood, their beloved Maple Leafs having won the coveted Stanley Cup three weeks ago, defeating the hated Montreal Canadiens. He had skipped classes on the Friday of the victory parade, fearless, knowing that half his class would be there. He thought he spotted the school’s PE teacher there as well. Mr. McCloud, stood stiffly behind his desk, a wooden pointer in hand, demonstrating the nature of circles and triangles on the cluttered blackboard. Jakob looked up, befuddled. He hated math. “Hey Okker, you harvesting strawberries on your mug these days?” The whispered voice came from Les Markham, sitting next to Danny Binn, Jakob’s desk mate. “Maybe you should try eating some and putting on a few pounds. You're face is so disgusting, any girls who look at you will go blind! Have you reached double digits on the scale yet? Jakob’s eyes flared. “Screw off, Markham, you fuckin’ ‘mo. The jerk is right though, he mused. What girl would look at me? “The teacher turned abruptly. “Am I missing something here? Binn, have you anything to say?” “It wasn’t me sir.” “McCloud pointed his finger at Danny. Another interruption, and I’ll— A sudden loud rap on the classroom’s door interrupted the teacher’s ire. The door opened slightly. McCloud whispered something to the visitor and closed the door. Moments later he re-entered followed by the elderly Mrs. Dalgleish, the school secretary. The room turned quiet. “Class, I’ve been called to Mr. Stephen’s office. Mrs. Dalgleish will supervise you while I’m away. I want you to turn to page 186 in your geometry book and begin taking the practice test. When I return I don’t want any stories from Mrs. Dalgleish about any misbehaviour.” He guided the secretary to his desk and left the room. Danny elbowed Jakob. “Christ, Dutch, she looks washed out. I wonder when she’s going to retire.” “I hope not soon,” Jakob replied. “She’s one of the few decent staff here. Always smiling and she makes the best Nanaimo bars—better than my mom’s. I’d like a grandma like her.” “Jakob looked out the open back window. He glanced at the clock and turned to Danny. Both had an unobstructed view outside the open back window of the school’s sole portable. The wooden structure's white paint, through the ravages of time and weather, gave the appearance of badly stained teeth. Above it’s frayed roof, the loose hydro wires hung perilously from the main building. The off-season football field lay unkempt, blanketed by a yellow-orange intensity of late season dandelions freckling the patches of unsightly crabgrass. “She’ll be out soon, Danny Boy.” The boys knew that Sharlene Becker, the popular senior football team’s cheerleader would soon be leaving Mr. Pelleck’s grade 12 English class. Jakob was wise to the usual routine: the jocks and shit-disturbers, first to exit, followed breathlessly by the brown nosers shamelessly sucking up to the teacher, mindful of next month's final exams. Sharlene was always the last to depart. Jakob calculated that her lecherous teacher had reasons for keeping her behind. A dirty old man’s ploy to snatch a glimpse of her ass. The portable door opened, expelling a phalanx of students running towards the main building. “There she is!” Danny whispered. “What a total fox!” Jakob leaned over his desk and ogled the cheerleader. “She’s choice, Danny. I bet she could be a go-go dancer at the Zanzibar. I’d pay a shit load to see her perform. I can picture her in white boots dancing up a storm.” As she strutted closer to the boys, they took stock of her exquisite assets: the curvaceous caboose; the two oscillating shadows pouting teasingly beneath her skin-tight beige skirt, and the cherry red sweater chaperoning her diaphanous white blouse. Danny turned to Jakob. “I heard that Hersh Applestone was going out with Sharlene.” “That candyass! Jakob replied, shocked. He’s not even on the regular team. His ass print is permanently stuck on the bench. Someone told me that he got into only one game and fumbled the ball in his own end.” Danny shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, it’s blows my mind that this guy could hook up with a chick like Sharlene. Have you seen his car? A goddamn souped up ‘stang. His old man is loaded—he’s a plastic surgeon. He makes his bread carving up the old broads in Forest Hills.” Jakob smiled. “Maybe Smokey could make an appointment to see him. That schnozz of his is disgusting.” Talking about schnozzes, Danny grinned. Do you think Sharlene is Jewish? I mean, she doesn’t look it, but her name ... Becker, doesn’t that sound Jewish?” Jakob was annoyed about Danny’s ‘nose’ comment. “How the fuck do I know? What am I, the goddamn author of the ‘Jewish Book of Names’? I don’t think there’s any way she’s Jewish. To me she’s an outa sight shiksa babe—Joni Mitchell, but with an amazing set of jugs. Anyone with eyes can see that. “My uncle thinks that Jews have a special way of spotting one of their own— some kind of built-in radar. It’s frustrating that I have to constantly remind him that I’m half-Jewish. Actually, if you want to get technical, I’m not a Jew. That’s if you if you go by religious law. I read up about it in the library. The religion runs along the mother’s line, and my mom’s Catholic. If you’re born from a Jewish mother then your officially Jewish. Otherwise you’re whatever you want to be, except Jewish.” “That’s a bummer, Dutch. You’re kind of stuck in the middle.” Well, not according to my uncle. He thinks I’m a member of the Tribe whether I like it or not. He told me that during the war the Nazis didn’t give a shit about percentages of Jewish blood. One percent was enough to have you gassed. “You’re uncle sounds like an interesting guy.” “Yeah, I wish he were my father.” “You and the old man still not talking?” “This time I think it’s for good. I’m spending more time shacking up with my uncle. I’d make it permanent if it wasn’t for my mom. I know it would break her heart.” *** The first lunch period bell rang. The teacher had still not returned to class. Mrs. Dalgleish, trying to stay awake, half-heartedly dismissed the class. Most of his classmates stayed in the room to eat their lunch. Jakob rarely ate in class and needed a break from the suffocating boredom of school. He swiftly made his escape, a painful erection hidden by his math book, eager to check out the newly opened fish and chip shop. Taking mental note of the time, he gauged how he would make it back to math class in the allotted forty-five minutes. The thought of returning to class made him cringe. For Jakob, math, with its rules and formulae was a foreign language propped up by an alien alphabet. Whenever he glanced at the blackboard, he felt like a Martian landing on earth, trying to figure out the earthlings’ bizarre ways. Being a tactile learner, his understanding of the world around him guided by his physical interactions rather than by rote. Jakob scurried back from lunch, relying on his intuition rather than a wristwatch which he rarely wore. As he neared the classroom, he breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the wide-open door, expecting to be met by the usual din and disarray between classes. Sauntering casually into the room, he was greeted by a strange hush, his classmates eyes riveted on him. The teacher stood beside his desk, arms akimbo. “Well, look who’s given us the honour of his presence!” Jakob stiffened. His heart fluttered. McCloud unfolded his arms and stared at his watch. Jakob scanned the wall clock perched above the blackboard behind his teacher. Oh shit, ten minutes late. He felt lightheaded, his legs trembling as he shuffled unsteadily towards his desk. “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING?” Jakob froze. “To my seat.” The teacher glared at him, an eddy of crimson assailing his face. “I’m going to my desk, SIR!” McCloud glowered icily at the boy. Jakob continued to make his way towards his desk. His neighbour, Danny Binn stood up and greeted him, head bowed in a traditional Japanese Ojigi , drawing out a chorus of chuckles from his classmates. Danny was a gangly kid with short cropped russet hair and a bad case of acne. He called Jakob “Dutch” in reference to his father’s heritage. Both students had quickly developed a tight friendship, fashioned from their mutual hatred for school and its adult overseers. Sadly, he had lost the thumb on his dominant hand during the first week of classes. Horsing around, unsupervised in the basement's industrial arts class, he attempted to cut a two-by-four on a deserted band saw hidden in the storage room. Somehow, he managed to start the machine. Turning his head to make sure Mr. Glendenning, the shop teacher was not watching, he mistook his thumb for the strip of wood. Danny's parents later hired a big shot downtown lawyer who promptly began litigation against Collins and the local school board. After a thorough internal investigation, the shop teacher was relieved of his duties pending an appeal by the teacher's union. Danny elbowed Jakob. He whispered, “Be careful Dutch, I smelled booze on Smokey's breath. McCloud turned towards the two boys. “So Mr. Binn, have you something intelligent to add to the conversation?” Danny leaned back in his seat, flaunting a hyperbolic yawn, his arms stretched out as if he awakened from a deep sleep. “No I don't”, he smirked. The teacher's eyes bulged with rage. “I’m sorry. What did you just say?” “No I don’t ... SIR!” A smattering of muzzled guffaws splintered from the front of the class. McCloud turned around. “Does anyone else have something to say?” No one responded. The students’ sat with heads bowed, hands folded in shared compliance. The teacher stepped towards Danny. “Stand up lad,” he shouted, his face reddening. The boy stood up languidly, amplifying an exaggerated slouch. “Stand up straight!” he bellowed. Danny adjusted his posture, but turned his head away from the teacher's scowl, rolling his eyes at his classmates sitting nearest the window. His right hand hand hid self consciously beneath his desk. “All of us here know your game Binn! But this foolishness will not work with me!” Understand, boy?” Danny silently canvassed his classmates, trying to gauge a rough consensus of their favour. No one raised their head. They had witnessed Smokey's temper, aware of how quickly things might escalate. They knew his history; the temper tantrums, slamming boys into lockers, and throwing chalk at disrespectful students. No one volunteered to display even the slimmest gesture of bravado, leaving Danny hanging, without the courage to retaliate. “Yes sir,” he mumbled. Danny looked up at his teacher’s twisted face. “YES SIR!” “Now sit down and keep your mouth shut!” McCloud growled. Jakob, appreciative of Danny detouring the spotlight from himself, suddenly jolted out of his complacency. The teacher turned towards him. “Now Mr. ... what's your surname name again, son?” “Okker”, he responded, barely audible, his voice cracking. McCloud probed his student as if contemplating the purchase of a sale item in a busy shop. “How long have you been in my class, lad?” Jakob glanced at the clock. “About ten minutes, sir.” “Don't get smart with me, Okker! When were you transferred here?” “Just after Easter break, sir.” “How is it that I don't recall having seen much of you in my math class?” “I've always been in class,” Jakob lied, grateful that he was told that the teacher stopped taking attendance after Christmas break. “It's just that you never noticed me back here.” A crescendo of giggles broke out from his classmates. The teacher stroked his chin. “Okker ... Okker ... Haven't come across a name like that before.” Jakob grit his teeth. He knew where this was going. It was painfully familiar. How do spell your name?” Jakob replied warily, “O ... two k’s ... er.” “Hmm, sounds German to me.” “No, it's actually Dutch.” “That’s why we call him ‘Dutch’!” Danny shouted. Jakob bit his lip. “ My father’s Dutch and my mom's Italian.” Okay, here we go again—the usual bullshit—the cross examination, the inspection, the scrutiny. Ya, go ahead greaseball and put me under your pathetic microscope. Try and squeeze the ‘Jew’ out of me like you're some kind of lab worker trying to unlock a contagious disease.” The moment unleashed a frenzy of painful echos. One in particular would be etched in his memory’s archives forever. A sun-soaked end of June. Little Jakob and his friend and classmate Hughey, first graders, frolicking excitedly from the steps of Dawson Road Elementary School, both clutching the last month’s art projects and report cards, buoyant at the prospect of an endless summer of fun. Only a handful of ‘different’ children attended Dawson Road Elementary school: three coloured kids and an oriental girl who happened to be Jakob's neighbour. Her parents owned the Chinese restaurant next to his father's radio repair shop. Hughey was a second generation Canadian of Scottish parents. Oddly, Jakob recalled little of his friend's physical makeup, only that his breath smelled strange, like the vomit aftertaste of chocolate Maltesers. After school, the two curious boys secretly played in the basement of the repair shop, fascinated by the damaged radios awaiting servicing. They grabbed a handful of tools scattered about, pretending to fix the disabled sets. Hughey bragged that his papa bought a big television set from Eaton's department store, one that also functioned as a phonograph. In the tight-knit neighbourhood, word got out that the Jakob was the product of a ‘mixed marriage’. A week after classes ended, Hughey invited Jakob to view his family's new television set. Jakob’s mother gladly gave her approval, pleased that her reserved son had been invited by a playmate. After precautionary coaching on proper manners, and a perfunctory brush of his hair, she patted his bum and watched him walk the short distance to Hughey's house. Jakob recalled knocking shyly at his friend's door. An annoyed looking Hughey opened the door part way. He haughtily announced that his papa told him that Jakob could not allowed in their house because “you killed Jesus!” Jakob ran back home in tears. He thought of the times accompanying his mother to Christmas services—enthralled by the nativity scene aside the church: sweet baby Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and angels. The boy was devastated. How could he do such a heinous thing? His mother tried to soothe her son, explaining about the lie—her church's past history of expounding the Jews' complicity in the Saviour's crucification. His father took a different measure. Years later when Jakob learned from his slightly inebriated Uncle Mickey that his old man, after returning from work, paid an rage-filled visit to Hughey’s, instigating an ugly brawl between the two parents. His uncle, despite repeated pleas, never acknowledged who came out on top.