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Of Julius Scissor and Gary Baldy

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New York in the 1930s, and a new term is starting at the Night Preparatory School for Adults (‘English – Americanization – Civics – Preparation for Naturalization’). The long-suffering Mr Parkhill is confronting the first piece of written work given in by his class, the beginners’ grade – an exercise entitled ‘Fifteen Common Nouns and Their Plural Forms’:

Mr Parkhill came to one paper which included the following:

house ......... makes ..... houses
dog .............. “ ........... dogies
libary ........... “ ........... Public libary
cat................ “ ........... Katz

Mr Parkhill read this over several times, very thoughtfully. He decided that here was a student who might, unchecked, develop into a ‘problem case’. It was clearly a case that called for special attention. He turned the page over and read the name. It was printed in large, firm letters with red crayon. Each letter was outlined in blue. Between every letter was a star, carefully drawn, in green. The multi-coloured whole spelled, unmistakably, H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

A ‘problem case’ certainly. For during the following months Mr Kaplan’s heroic struggles with the English language drive poor ‘Mr Pockheel’ almost to the brink of breakdown. How is he to deal with a student who conjugates the verb to ‘fail’ as ‘fail, failed, bankrupt’, for whom the opposite of ‘dismay’ is ‘next June’, who confides that his wife suffers from ‘high blood pleasure’ and who spells the name of the Italian Resistance fighter – hero of Mr Kaplan’s fellow-classmate Miss Carmen Caravello – ‘Gary Baldy’? Always smiling, ever-confident, Mr Kaplan is not easily corrected, and never actually seems to learn anything. Yet there is a demented logic about his mistakes and malapropisms that is so original it has a kind of brillianc

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New York in the 1930s, and a new term is starting at the Night Preparatory School for Adults (‘English – Americanization – Civics – Preparation for Naturalization’). The long-suffering Mr Parkhill is confronting the first piece of written work given in by his class, the beginners’ grade – an exercise entitled ‘Fifteen Common Nouns and Their Plural Forms’:

Mr Parkhill came to one paper which included the following:

house ......... makes ..... houses dog .............. “ ........... dogies libary ........... “ ........... Public libary cat................ “ ........... Katz

Mr Parkhill read this over several times, very thoughtfully. He decided that here was a student who might, unchecked, develop into a ‘problem case’. It was clearly a case that called for special attention. He turned the page over and read the name. It was printed in large, firm letters with red crayon. Each letter was outlined in blue. Between every letter was a star, carefully drawn, in green. The multi-coloured whole spelled, unmistakably, H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

A ‘problem case’ certainly. For during the following months Mr Kaplan’s heroic struggles with the English language drive poor ‘Mr Pockheel’ almost to the brink of breakdown. How is he to deal with a student who conjugates the verb to ‘fail’ as ‘fail, failed, bankrupt’, for whom the opposite of ‘dismay’ is ‘next June’, who confides that his wife suffers from ‘high blood pleasure’ and who spells the name of the Italian Resistance fighter – hero of Mr Kaplan’s fellow-classmate Miss Carmen Caravello – ‘Gary Baldy’? Always smiling, ever-confident, Mr Kaplan is not easily corrected, and never actually seems to learn anything. Yet there is a demented logic about his mistakes and malapropisms that is so original it has a kind of brilliance. Hyman Kaplan made his first appearance in a series of stories in the New Yorker by the humorist and academic Leo Rosten (author also of The Joys of Yiddish and of numerous other books on subjects from politics to painting), and in 1937 these were collected in a book and published under the title The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n. Thirty odd years later I too fetched up in New York, straight out of university. I was living on the Lower West Side in what was known as a ‘cold-water walk-up’ – i.e. a tenement building with no running hot water and no lift – and during those early months I had an ill-paid temping job in the dingy and poorly lit offices of a supermarket chain. So I could sympathize with Mr Kaplan’s sentiments, expressed in his second assignment, entitled ‘My Job’.

Shakspere is saying what fulls man is and I am feeling just the same way when I am thinking about mine job a cotter in Dress Faktory on 38 st. by 7 av. For why should we slafing in dark place by laktric lights and all kinds hot for $30 or maybe $36 with overtime, for Boss who is fat and driving in fency automobil?. . . And when I am telling Foreman should be better conditions he hollers, Kaplan you redical!!

As will be obvious, Mr Kaplan is a man of spirit, but the pleasures of The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n lie not only in its hero’s sturdy determination to say and do things in his own way, but in his growing relationship with the bemused Mr Parkhill (‘Mr Parkhill sometimes wondered whether Mr Kaplan might not be some sort of genius. Isaac Newton, after all, had been considered dull-witted by his teachers . . .’) and with the rest of the beginners’ class – poor struggling Mrs Moskowitz, kindly Mr Norman Bloom, impulsive Miss Schneiderman, and the rest. Most notable of these perhaps is the class’s star pupil, Miss Rose Mitnick (referred to always by Mr K with fine contempt simply as ‘Mitnick’), with whom he wages a running battle for the linguistic upper hand. As, for instance, in the matter of the ‘business’ letter (a further assignment) which Mr Kaplan has chosen to address to his uncle Hymie, who is in the furniture business, about the purchase of a ‘refrigimator’ for himself and his wife Sarah. ‘How much will cost refrigimator?’ writes Mr Kaplan. ‘Is axspensif, maybe by you is more cheap a little. But must not have short circus. If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up.’ Asked for their comments, the class goes to town on demolishing this document, but the final blow is struck by Miss Mitnick.

‘Another mistake . . .’ Miss Mitnick read the sentence slowly.

‘“If your eye falls on a bargain pick it up?”’

The class burst into laughter. It was a masterly stroke . . . Mr Kaplan didn’t laugh, he merely smiled . . . ‘An’ vat’s wronk dere, plizz?’ he asked, his tone the epitome of confidence.

So complete had been the rout that Mr Bloom threw caution to the winds. ‘Miss Mitnick’s right! “If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up?” Som English, Mr Kaplan!’

Then Mr Kaplan struck.

‘Mine oncle’, he said, ‘has a gless eye.’

Set and match (as usual) to Mr Kaplan. The trouble with writing about The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n is that almost every chapter contains an episode I want to quote – Mr Kaplan’s touching acknowledgement that his lengthy speech on the presentation to Mr Parkhill of the class’s Christmas gift (a rather inappropriate smoking jacket), might just have been a little over the top (‘Maybe de spitch I rad vas too formmal. But avery void I said – it came from below mine heart!’); Mr Kaplan’s unusual take on certain episodes in American history featuring those great Presidents ‘Abram Lincohen’ and ‘Judge Vashington’, not to mention ‘dat tarrible autocrap Kink Jawdge Number Tree’; Mr Kaplan’s entirely original interpretation of Macbeth’s famous soliloquy ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . ’ under the impression that the words are spoken by ‘Julius Scissor’ as he lies, too excited to sleep, in his tent on the night before he is crowned ‘Kink fromm Rome’. Leo Rosten – who taught at two universities – understood the dynamics of the classroom, and his authorial voice, which never over-eggs the humour, keeps the story delicately afloat just as Mr Parkhill manages, with some difficulty, to keep the class on track, despite Mr Kaplan’s unconscious attempts at sabotage. Repeatedly poor Mr Parkhill allows himself a flicker of hope when Mr Kaplan seems to have made some modest progress, only to have it dashed by a further contribution of Mr K’s. Hyman Kaplan may sound like a caricature, but somehow he isn’t. True, he comes from another age. As Howard Jacobson says in his introduction to the latest edition, he typifies a kind of innocence, coming, as he and his predominantly Mittel-European classmates at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults do, from a time when the poverty and persecution that had brought them to America was a given that never needed to be spelt out. After the horrors of the Second World War the idea of such innocence became, as Jacobson puts it, ‘a tougher proposition’. Still, one marvels at the originality, the self-confidence, the sheer bravura of this plump, wavy-haired man who springs energetically off the page with a perpetual smile on his face and ‘two fountain pens in his outer pocket’ – a man who, though he may drive his teacher to distraction, is full of finer feelings and goodwill towards the rest of the world. And in Mr Parkhill – a slightly grey figure, precise, anxious and conscientious – he has his perfect foil. How Mr Parkhill longs to be able to move Mr Kaplan up at the end of the first year to the next rung on the academic ladder – ‘Composition, Grammar and Civics’ taught by the interfering Miss Higby (another cross Mr Parkhill has to bear). But on the showing of Mr K’s final examination paper – in which, to demonstrate the use of the word ‘knees’ he produces the sentence ‘My brother Maxs’ little girl (I am Uncle) is my neece’, and an ambitious but bewildering composition entitled ‘“Thinking About” (Humans & Enimals)’ – it’s clear that this is sadly out of the question. Yet, once again, Mr Kaplan somehow has the last word.

Only after he had read the composition twice did Mr Parkhill notice that there was a postscript to this expedition into the realm of pure logic. It was like the signature to a masterpiece.

ps. I dont care if I dont pass, I love the class.

And how can one not love such a man?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © Hazel Wood 2009


About the contributor

When Hazel Wood returned from America she became a journalist. She has written several books, none of them her own.

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