In 1964, when I was twelve, Rabbi Mayefsky kicked me out of class for having my hair combed down over my forehead. The Beatles had been on Ed Sullivan the night before.
I was proud of that. It was exhilarating to be sent to the principal’s office for exercising my right to self-expression, a right that existed solely in my own head.
My comeuppance came later that school year.
The desks at my school were very old, the wooden kind with an opening on top for an inkwell. Lifting the hinged writing surface — a good, solid hunk of wood — revealed a compartment, in which we could store our books, papers, and bag lunches. The bottom of this compartment was a second good, solid hunk of wood.
Or almost solid, I should say. One day during class, when I opened the lid of my desk to retrieve something, I noticed that there was a hole in the piece of wood that formed the bottom. It wasn’t just a knothole; it looked like it had been drilled there for a reason. I probed it with the tip of my finger.
Rabbi Mayefsky, eagle-eyed as he was, noticed that my desktop was open for longer than he felt served any justifiable purpose. He told me to get whatever I was getting and close it.
The hole in the bottom intrigued me, though, so when I lowered the lid, I kept it open enough for my right hand to stay inside. And then I stuck my forefinger into the hole, as far as it would go.
In this way, I discovered that the hole was just a tiny bit smaller in diameter than my finger — not so much smaller that I couldn’t get my finger into it, but small enough that I couldn’t get it out again.
Over the next several minutes, I tried whatever I could to extract my finger, without success. I twisted my finger around and only succeeded in scraping off a layer of skin. I pulled my finger from below, thinking that would make it skinnier. Maybe it did, but not enough. I worked my left hand into the compartment and tried pulling on my right. No go. I tried spit. No.
I spent the last ten minutes of class with my right hand in the desk, doing my best to look normal. When the bell rang, my classmates jumped up and ran out of the room, as kids are wont to do. A few seconds later, Rabbi Mayefsky looked up. His face assumed an expression both quizzical and annoyed.
“Why are you still here?”
“I, uh . . . .”
“What is it? Class is over.”
“Well, I’m . . . I seem to be, um . . . .”
Rabbi Mayefsky stood up and came walking over. “You’re what?”
There was nothing for it. “I can’t get my finger out of this hole in the desk.” I opened the lid and showed him.
“Why did you stick your finger in there?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
“Well, pull it out!”
“I can’t pull it out. It’s too tight.”
He was getting exasperated. Through the open door to the hallway, he called out to a passing student: “Go down to the office and tell them we need the janitor up here.”
A few minutes later, my desk and I were surrounded by Rabbi Mayefsky, one of the secretaries from the office, the janitor, and another teacher who, it seems, was just curious about what was going on.
They tried everything. First, they tried everything I had already tried, refusing to believe me when I told them those measures wouldn’t work. They tried water, soap, soapy water. Mineral oil. Then the janitor pulled out a wrench.
“No, wait! That won’t help!” I yelped in terror.
But the wrench wasn’t for yanking on my finger. The janitor used it to disassemble the desk, separating the whole compartment bottom from the rest of it.
“Go down to the office,” Rabbi Mayefsky said. “They’ll have to deal with it there.”
And so I embarked on my walk of shame, my trail of tears, holding the desk bottom out in front of me, with my finger firmly stuck in it. I kept my eyes straight ahead as I passed students, teachers, and visiting parents. Nobody said a word to me, but their incredulous stares were expression enough.
I survived the death march. In the office, they sat me down, tried some more soap, some more oil. Finally, they told the janitor to saw it off, which he started to do, amost jovially. I think he would have been delighted to saw my finger off. Somebody passing through the office stopped, took a look, and joked, “I’ll bet that’s the finger he picks his nose with.” At least, I think he was joking.
It got a bit scary when the saw was nearly at the hole. By that time, my finger was sore and swollen, and I was relieved when the janitor finally broke through and used a screwdriver to open the crack a little more, enough for me to get my finger out.
When I got home that day, I didn’t tell my parents about it. They found out eventually, of course, when they received a bill from the school for one wooden desk.