BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //

Chana Shapiro

Chana Shapiro

In the community where I taught early in my career, nine brothers – the youngest of which was one Arsenio Brito – had each established himself as a master of insane acts of derring-do. This clan was admired in the general neighborhood and feared in the school.

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At our institution, the last day of class was devoted to The Festival of Nations and Cultures, or “The FONC.” In celebration of the ethnic diversity in our school, every group was encouraged to participate.

The walls were covered with student art, the Gimme Five Band had rehearsed for weeks, the Black is Beautiful Dancers had finished their costumes, the Asian Dragons had worked out all the kinks in their acrobatic routine, and the Las Chicas Bonitas had perfected their harmonies and makeup.

My friend Hope and I, faculty advisors for this multi-ethnic extravaganza, were worn to a frazzle from constantly effecting mini-détentes among the different nationalities. In addition, I was distracted by the irrepressible Arsenio, who was never more than a few feet away from me. For some reason, starting from his first day in my class, he had decided to be my personal groupie of one.

This particular Brito, not much for chit-chat, was actually quite gifted in the grand gesture. For example: He’d hung Marvin Rudolph out the second-story window when Marvin put his feet up on the desk in my class.

When it came time to get me a holiday gift, instead of the more mundane perfume or tickets to a hot show that the other teachers got, he masterminded the purchase of a pet hamster.

And on the most recent Parents’ Day, he switched the “Boys” and “Girls” signs on the bathrooms and posted a “Nut House” placard above the entrance to the principal’s office. But much to my dismay, he stuck to me like glue, claiming that every teacher needs a sidekick – a protector – and that he was mine.

I like to think that my fabulous teaching and management skills prevented discipline problems with my students, but it might have been him. It wasn’t that Arsenio was all that tough: He was just crazy, so people gave him (and me) a wide berth..

Anyway, there we were in the auditorium, at the final run-through of The FONC, with parents and siblings due to arrive in a couple of hours. Hope was steadying the scenery, I was sweeping the stage and dealing with loads of teenage hysteria, and everything was being complicated by the fact that the custodian hadn’t moved the huge grand piano, currently standing stage-right.

We suddenly heard thunder, and it started to pour outside. I had planned to get treats for a post-party for all the performers, but I was still calming nerves, keeping a tenuous peace among the groups and trying to find someone to move the piano.

Then, like a shining knight, Arsenio announced that he’d get the snacks, and he ran off without receiving orders or a penny from me.

An hour later, there he was, wearing a yellow slicker (who knows where it came from) and carrying soda, candy and cookies (who knows how he got them).

The audience was starting to arrive, so I gave up trying to get the piano moved. Hope and I quickly showed the performing groups how to maneuver around it.

Now, for the finale, all the groups – our own little un-United Nations – were to come out in full costume. The plan was to take a bow together in an attempt to convince the audience that, deep down in their heart of hearts, they all loved and respected one another.

We’d repeatedly rehearsed this joint effort, and Hope and I prayed that every group would control its urge for dominance when they were crowded onto the stage at the same time.

As we neared show time, every seat in the school auditorium was filled. Hope stood in the wings to monitor the students and manage the curtain while I ran upstairs into the balcony to work the lights.

I soon became aware that Arsenio, who was always nearby, had disappeared. Just one more thing to worry about.

“Bon chance! Hope hollered to the world in general.

Que será, será!” I answered, fully aware that, unlike Hope, I wasn’t tenured.

Miraculously, the students were wonderful and the acts flowed seamlessly into one another. The penultimate group, the Jugheads (a combo jug band-rap group-baton-twirling extravaganza), were taking their bows, and it was time for the finale. Hope bounced onto the stage, gesturing for me to come down for the final song.

I was sobbing with relief: The FONC was a success. I began my triumphant march down the stairs and aisle to join Hope and the kids onstage when we heard a scratchy noise stage-right as the lid to the grand piano opened.

There was my man, Arsenio, still wearing the yellow slicker, majestically rising from its innards. He raised his arms and whooped, and the audience responded by leaping to their feet and cheering wildly.

The students were thrilled with all of this and started dancing on and off the stage. It could have been the perfect ending to the school year, but, when we saw the glowering look on the face of the principal in the front row, Hope and I were scared stiff.

How much would it cost to restring the piano, and how would our husbands react to the fact that we’d have to relocate?

Arsenio caught that angry look. He climbed out and pulled the principal onstage, where she had no choice but to join in our UNICEF postcard moment as the flash bulbs went off.

I was especially thrilled that Mrs. Brito’s youngest son, still a novice prankster at the age of 13, had proved himself worthy of the family name.

Chana Shapiro is a former middle school English and art teacher. She believes that teaching is the holiest profession in the world and that every young person is a natural poet, artist and stand-up comic. She has a special place in her heart for funky girls and bad boys.

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