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Mr. Wordish

Shmitchik, semitic noun: Most people who know me--scrawny, overthinky, poorly coordinated, beer-bellied me--are surprised to find out that my father was a phys. ed. teacher. In fact, my parents met in the phys. ed. program of Long Island University. My mother was a swimming teacher before she became a stay-at-home mom (and, later, a real estate broker, as was the woman's way of the time); my dad played minor league baseball, pitching one major-league exhibition game for the Washington Senators against the Detroit Tigers before being sent back down to the minors. He started teaching elementary school gym shortly thereafter, and continued to do so for thirty years or so. He taught one school district over from mine; the town had its own suburban version of the large San Gennaro Feast in neighboring NYC, and, once he and my mom split up, the annual festival was consistently one of my favorite daddy-daughter dates, except for one thing: Invariably, multiple generations of students (fathers, children of varying ages and genders) would enthusiastically flag him down between the cannoli-eating contest stage and the port-o-lets, shouting "Mr. Wordish! Mr. Wordish!" and pulling at his sleeve. I resented the town's possessiveness of my father when I only got to see him every other weekend, but I had to admire his popularity, especially since, from a very young age, I was awkward and bookish and, to the outside eye, even a little bit retarded.

But he was popular, and I got to see first-hand why on the odd occasions that I would go to school with him. I went to private school for 3rd-5th grade and, even when I started public, our holidays off were sometimes different from my dad's. More often than not, my mother would send me to school with my dad on these days. Just before each class came in, my father would sit me down on one of the spots the students used to line up, alphabetically, at the front of the gym; as they filled in around me, they would eye me with curiosity. My father would take attendance, but stop when he got to me.

"And you are?" he would growl, pen tapping his clipboard.

I would shrug and smile.

"Who is this?" he would ask the kids around me. "What do you mean you don't know? She's in your class, isn't she? What's wrong with you kids today? Do you even pay attention at all?!"

After five or so minutes of this, my father would introduce me as his daughter, and business would proceed as usual: The kids would grab their basketballs and jumpropes and whatnot, and I would retire to the gym office to read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. This was actually not that much different from my usual gym class. Perhaps as a kind of weak-ass rebellion, I habitually lied and scammed my way out of 12 years' worth of gym class, plus the bulk of sports activities during my six years of sleepaway camp. in school it was easy, since other teachers knew and respected my father and therefore turned a blind eye. In camp it required a bit more creativity, although not that much; teenage counselors are ultimately more interested in each other than in whether or not you're writing poetry in the outfield.*

But during those early bait-and-switch sessions, I got to see my father's work persona: mean as a snake and funny as hell. One of the things that would always break the kids up was his elastic sense of the language. My father was indeed Mr. Wordish; he was American-born, but his vocabulary was somewhat limited by his rough-and-tumble upbringing. So if he didn't know the word he needed, he would gladly make it up. There were many, many of these over the years, occasionally heard at home but most often heard in the gymnasium. Sadly, I can't remember any except for one: Shmitchik. He uses it to this day, much in the same way anyone else would use "thingamabob" or "whatchamacallit," except with a special emphasis on technology. A shmitchik can be a button or a device; it is often a remote control. I, personally, use it as a name for the tablespoons from my paternal grandmother's silverware that my dad has flattened with hammers and distributed to his three children as spreaders.** Sadly, my Korean-American fiance cannot pronounce "shmitchik," although he uses the spreaders often. He also pronounces "agita" as "ah-gee-TA," somewhat ironically giving me more agita.



* I even kept myself out of learning to swim, despite the hours spent at the lake at camp and my mother's aforementioned aquatics career. Petty rebellion successful! Could you hand me that life jacket, please?
** My grandmother spent her last 10 or 12 years living with my father, proving that she actually was mean as a snake, no "funny as hell" about it. As he was too good a son to call her out on it, he took out his frustration on her fine cutlery.


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