01 February 2010

The Only Other Yarmulke In The Room

Two things about meetings: They always seem longer than they actually are, and the most verbose and monotonous people will do most of the talking. Is that some hitherto obscure corollary to Murphy's Law? If I am the first to report it, will it be called Justine's Corollary?

The meeting followed a day on which I met two of my classes--both of them Intro to Literature--for the first time. In the first one, two young Orthodox Jewish men sat next to each other at the front of the room, all the way to my left. I could see that one of them is rather self-conscious and shy: Perhaps having to wear a yarmulke and dress, well, like an Orthodox boy in a world that could be hostile made him so.

Anyway, as I was calling the names on the roster, I came to "Menashe." The shy young man's friend responded. A few names later, I saw "Lior" and looked at the shy young man. Process of elimination: His was the second Jewish name on the list, and he and Menashe were the only two Orthodox Jews in the class. At that moment, I felt a little embarrassed--both for me and him. I realized, too late, that I probably made him feel a bit more self-conscious, at least for a moment, than he already felt.

After the class, I saw them in the hallway. Menashe asked me about the assignment for the next class (on Wednesday) and we got to talking about other things. Finally, Lior mentioned that when I called his name, I just automatically turned to him.

"I'm sorry about that."

"That's all right. What made you do it?"

"Well, after I called Menashe, you were the only other Jew in the class. And when I came to your name, I recognized it as a Jewish name, so I figured it was yours. I'm sorry if I embarrassed you."

"No, you didn't." He was being unnecessarily deferential. "I mean, you did what you thought was best."

"And I goofed." Then, tongue in cheek, I added, "We as professors are supposed to know everything. But sometimes we do stupid things."

"No, it was no problem..."

Then he told me he was impressed that I knew about the names Menashe and Lior. I mentioned that I have never been very far from Jewish people and, in fact, taught in a yeshiva. They were both impressed, something I wasn't expecting. "All I ever do is the best I know how to do."

"Yes, I can tell," Menashe said.

This exchange made me think of the times people have gotten my pronouns wrong. All you can do is to realize that most of the time, such mistakes are exactly that. On the other hand, I've had a couple of people call me "he," "him" or by my old name out of anger or malice. I've learned to be patient with the former. As for the latter, there really isn't much I can do, except perhaps to distance myself from that person.

But today, I got something right for what may have been a bad reason: the yarmulke fit the name, or something like that. Sometimes I think that there's even more to be learned from that than there is from simply getting something wrong or right.


Velouria said...

I think in this instance, it was more common sense than prejudice that dictated your actions. It would have been plain funny if, upon reading the 2nd name, you pretended not to notice the Orthodox Jew to whom such names are typically given, and instead stared questioningly at a sea of blatantly Hispanic, or Irish Catholic, or Asian students. That's just my take on it.

Justine Valinotti said...

You're right, Velouria. I do have a tendency to second-guess myself sometimes, as you've probably noticed.