Saving Mr. Mackenzie
By Nessa Rapoport
Sometime in July, Anne and I meet downtown at one café or another to celebrate our birthdays. When we began the custom in our twenties we talked about love, and now, in our thirties, we talk about work. We are artists, and we like to scrutinize our setbacks and promote each other’s aspirations. At times, in a dramatic swoop from the august to the mundane, we talk about hair.
Anne was trying to persuade me to start wearing my hair off my face, but I was disparaging.
“You know,” I said slyly, looking past her sleek head to the café window that framed it, “Mr. Mackenzie told me while we were driving to his house that I should keep wearing bangs; they suited me.”
“But that was in Grade Nine,” Anne protested. Then she looked at me. “How did you get to Mr. Mackenzie’s house?”
“We bought him a cake at the end of the year and we met his wife, Lynne—”
“I know her name,” Anne said with scorn, which I deserved. We were nearly thirty-five, and until we died we would know the name of Mr. Mackenzie’s wife.
“Do you realize that when I look out the window I still see Mr. Mackenzie, waiting for us to save him.”
Anne and I have been friends for so long that certain observations are rhetorical.
“He’d be old,” she replied. “How old would he be?”
“When he walked into class on the first day, his fingers came before him. They curled around the edge of the door and pulled his body in.”
“He stood in the middle of the room—” Anne confirmed.
“—and said, ‘My name is John Taylor Mackenzie, I’m thirty-seven years old, I weigh a hundred and forty-three pounds—’”
“‘What else do you want to know?’” we concluded together in triumph.
“He’d have grey hair, Anne.”
She looked at me. “We’re almost as old as he was then.”
“He’d be as old as our parents. Imagine.”
“Do you remember what we were like before?” said Anne.
A moment of silence as we conjured the class, thirty jaded children who thought we were grown, whatever curiosity we’d once had erased by tedium as we sat at our desks behind barricades of books, thinking of nothing at all. We had been in the same class in the same Jewish school since kindergarten.
“Mr. Mackenzie did not like those barricades,” I reminded her.
“Ira Katz!” I was laughing.
“‘Son,’ said Mr. Mackenzie, ‘take those books off your desk.’”
“So Ira started taking them down, one at a time, until Mr. Mackenzie said to him, ‘Son, when I say take those books off your desk, I mean—’”
“‘Take those books off your desk!’”
Now we were both laughing, as Mr. Mackenzie’s arm came down in a graceful arc twenty years ago to sweep away all the books in a clatter.
That was the year Anne stopped straightening her hair. She wore her brother’s sweaters over skirts that were one foot long. I pinned paste brooches to the back of my knee socks. We read everything. There was no longer any need to wait. Finally, something was going to happen.
“Wake up,” Mr. Mackenzie would say when he walked in. “You are the future citizens of Canada. How will you know what to do if you don’t wake up?”
In Grade Seven our geography assignment had been to color ten maps of Canada, one each month. If you colored neatly—and I did—you could earn a grade of one hundred for the year. In Grade Eight we had to memorize the products of fifty American cities.
“Tampa.” I announced portentously at the dinner table. “Cigars—” I began.
My father winced.
“—paint, cans, cement, beer, wire and cable.”
My parents were committed to a Jewish day school education, but now they looked pained.
“Sacramento,” I threatened.
“We believe you,” said my mother.
Here was Mr. Mackenzie, asking us to write propaganda, to translate Shakespeare into our own English (which we couldn’t copy from an encyclopedia, our usual resort). Here was Mr. Mackenzie, inviting us to see “Antigone,” a play he directed in an avant-garde theater.
“Morale: Lynne Mackenzie,” was the final credit on the program, all we knew of his life outside the class.
Mr. Mackenzie did not confide, but his opinions came freely. He thought it ludicrous for us to memorize a passage of “The Merchant of Venice,” including punctuation, for the province-wide exam.
That morning he strode in, angry, and informed us that we were about to learn Shakespeare off by heart faster than any human being ever had. At the end of one half hour we would be able to write the quotation on standard foolscap and never again engage in such a travesty.
“‘To bait fish withal,’ semi-colon,” said Anne.
“‘If it will feed nothing else,’ comma, ‘it will feed my revenge,’ period.”
“‘He hath disgraced me,’ comma,” Anne said. “When I think about what happened, I remember Mr. Mackenzie telling us at the end of the year: ‘Society values teachers and policemen most—and pays them least.’”
“That’s why he left to teach at a public school. He wanted to stay, but he couldn’t support himself and his wife on a day school salary.”
At the end of the year, we drove with Mr. Mackenzie to his tiny apartment in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb we knew only from local TV news. We were provincials, hewing to the Jewish environs of Bathurst Street.
On the living-room wall was a tacked-up sheet of paper with one pencil line that ingeniously curved into a woman’s body. We stared shyly. He had invited us. We would not laugh.
“Maybe that’s why we’re artists now,” I speculated.
Anne shook her head. “We’d lied our way through school, but Mr. Mackenzie made us want to know the truth.”
“By then I could hardly recognize it.” When the guidance teacher gave us an interests test, I’d invented my answers out of habit. Gardening was my first choice, to my parents’ astonishment.
“The year after he left was so bad,” Anne said. “As if we had finally been healed of a crippling illness and then been reinfected.”
“‘At the Bay,’” I said ruefully. In those years, most of our English teachers were retired from public schools. Our Grade Ten teacher believed in reading aloud. Poor Katherine Mansfield. We might have been fond of her if she had not been sacrificed to Mr. Dwight’s pedagogy. He wanted to inspire, but Mr. Dwight was getting on years and did not remember, in the confusion of new classes, that he had already read us ‘At the Bay’ the previous week.
Our cynicism returned, immaculate. When he began the familiar opening sentence of the story, no one said a word. Behind our barricades we polished our nails or exchanged notes. Mr. Dwight’s voice droned on. He never looked up.
We survived. We’d had many such teachers before Mr. Mackenzie. The shock of comparison subsided, and we went back to our old ways. We did not stop quoting him, or speculating, but we had no facts. Soon he assumed the stature of a god, who had once visited us but, because of the folly of adults, was unlikely to return.
“You should have had Mr. Mackenzie,” we would say to our younger brothers and sisters, without much hope.
“Double his pay and bring him back,” we demanded of Rabbi Weiss, the principal, who smiled benignly and ignored us. He was pleased that we had liked Mr. Mackenzie.
“I liked Mr. Mackenzie,” Anne said to me, her voice at its most scathing.
“Mr. Mackenzie was very likable,” I told her. “Conjugate: ‘I like Mr. Mackenzie, you like Mr. Mackenzie—’”
“I loved Mr. Mackenzie,” Anne said suddenly.
Mr. Mackenzie had an angular face and a body whose leanness, according to him, was owed to the Depression. The effect of that body on Grade Nine girls can be imagined, but Mr. Mackenzie had no favorite; he would not choose, nor allow a coterie to form, although we would have served him willingly.
The boys, for whom we had contempt, were united with us in one respect: We were his for the rest of the year, for the rest of our lives if he’d asked.
Because Mr. Mackenzie had challenged us to write to the editor of the Globe and Mail, and because my letter was published, to his pride, I did not in Grade Ten abandon my newly acquired practice of reading the paper. One day in early spring I took the Globe to the backyard to begin my summer tan before anyone else in the class. Naturally I was shivering, and the paper shook as I skimmed the international news and turned to the local pages.
Toronto was then a city in which very little happened. As the lurid stories that interested me were usually disdained by the Globe, I read the metro news in a desultory way, without much expectation.
It was a small item. “John T. Mackenzie, 38, was arrested for possession of stolen goods worth one thousand dollars from a Dominion Store on—”
I read the sentences five times and went in to call Anne. No homework would be done that day. Anne and I spent hours discussing how many John T. Mackenzies were thirty-eight years old in Mississauga; how Mr. Mackenzie would have despised the triviality of that list—razor blades, nylon stockings, cigarettes; what Lynne would do if it was indeed Mr. Mackenzie; and how we would persuade Rabbi Weiss that no matter what Mr. Mackenzie had done, we had to invite him back to the school with honor.
“I don’t think your parents would be very happy about that,” said Rabbi Weiss. He would not tell us what he knew, if he knew anything, and our pleas that he hire Mr. Mackenzie immediately, not for his sake but for ours, were unmet.
“How would they feel knowing we’d brought in a convicted criminal to teach their children? Not that he’s necessarily guilty,” Rabbi Weiss added generously.
In the weeks that followed I would not leave the house without scrutinizing the paper, but there was no postscript. Although we believed in the rule of law and properly valued Canadian democracy, as Mr. Mackenzie had taught, we knew it was impossible that he had shown us rectitude and not himself been righteous.
“If only they had paid him what he was worth, he wouldn’t have been so desperate,” Anne said.
“Or if he’s innocent but has no money to defend himself?”
Anne and I had pictures in our head, and what we saw was Mr. Mackenzie, getting up in the dark of a chilly Toronto morning, driving “with accomplices” the rented van into which they had apparently stuffed all the nylons, razor blades and cigarettes they could manage to carry before their fumbling venture was found out.
When Anne and I meet now, we confess to experience of various kinds we think fundamental to an artist’s education. We had been young in Grade Nine, untouched by the vices we eagerly read took place in public schools. It might be said that we’ve passed the intervening years trying to transform ourselves into the teenagers we were not allowed to be. We buy tight clothes our mothers still don’t like, and I won’t cut my hair or tie it back. Last year I realized that the history teacher who had spoken of the awful battle of the Somme—he’d thought each letter home would be his last—was probably dead. Anne has two sons, and if I’m going to have a child it must be soon.
We do not always speak of Mr. Mackenzie, but often we do. Anne says she used to dream of an ad in the Globe and Mail: “Wanted. Any information about John Taylor Mackenzie. Thirty-seven-years old in 19—”
A letter should be short to be effective. I have revised my letter many times. “Dear Mr. Mackenzie,” this year’s version says. “Please come. We are at the corner of College and Manning. Anne and I remember everything.”
© 2010 by Nessa Rapoport
Nessa Rapoport is the author of Preparing for Sabbath, which was nominated for the Books in Canada Award for First Novels; A Woman’s Book of Grieving, a collection of prose poems, with linocuts by Canadian artist Rochelle Rubinstein; and House on the River: A Summer Journey, a memoir, which was awarded a grant by The Canada Council for the Arts. Her short stories have been published in anthologies in the United States and Great Britain. Her meditations are included in Objects of the Spirit: Ritual and the Art of Tobi Kahn and Tobi Kahn: Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century. With Ted Solotaroff, she edited The Schocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction.