had a teacher in the tenth grade
named Mr. Shekel.
He was our history, Prophets, and Psalms teacher
and also our mechanech:
the educator who oversaw our class of about thirty boys.
As he was our mechanech,
and also due to his exceedingly advanced age,
we very much respected him.
Mr. Shekel shared his surname with Israeli money.
A few years before,
to counter inflation,
the country’s currency
was changed to the new shekel.
Earlier coins and bills became the old shekel.
He was Old Shekel.
Old Shekel would go out into the schoolyard
for a quick cigarette between classes
and stand outside chain-smoking leisurely
during lunch and recess.
This was in the early nineties
and smoking in Israel was acceptable everywhere
except maybe maternity wards and operating rooms.
People understood that cigarettes were harmful
and only one boy in our class smoked —
a muscular boy whose father
had a falafel stand at the shuk.
But Old Shekel’s longevity was irrefutable
and a counterargument of sorts to the ill-effects of cigarettes.
Decades older than all our other teachers,
he puffed away undisturbed.
Students sat two at a table in the classroom.
My table was front row center
abutting Old Shekel’s desk.
I shared the table with a boy
suffering from terrible acne.
We all had acne in the tenth grade
but his was of a different magnitude.
Old Shekel assigned me that seat
since I was the class’s only non-native Hebrew speaker.
They say sitting toward the front of a room
leads to greater academic success.
while Old Shekel
was making an emphatic point
in a lesson on the Book of Psalms,
his false teeth fell out.
Because I sat front row center
the false teeth fell near me,
but my acned table-mate and I
failed to catch them
and they dropped to the floor.
The room was silent.
Old Shekel bent down,
picked up the teeth,
and placed them in his mouth
without dusting them off.
A boy at the back of the class called out,
“Teacher, at least clean them first!”
Old Shekel waved away the suggestion.
You don’t last that many years in the teaching profession
worrying about your false teeth falling out
or how clean they are when you put them back in.
“Nah. It doesn’t matter,” Old Shekel said
and continued with the lesson on Psalms.
I, though, started laughing.
It was a lengthy laugh,
a laugh I didn’t want and couldn’t stop,
a painful laugh,
a laugh that hurt my stomach and caused my eyes to tear,
a laugh that made me ashamed.
I turned around
so at least I wouldn’t be laughing in Old Shekel’s face,
and saw that all my classmates were calm and composed.
Old Shekel went on teaching
and I went on laughing
and the room was otherwise silent.
I lacked the words to apologize to Old Shekel.
Later, my classmates —
especially the muscular boy who smoked,
and who would soon drop out of school
to work at the falafel stand with his father,
and who perhaps now foresaw that his current nicotine use
could one day lead to devastating tooth loss —
asked me how I could have laughed.
“How could you not laugh?” I answered.
And so it is with so much of life.
How can you laugh? How can you refrain from laughing?
How can you laugh?
How can you refrain from laughing?