Vignettes from a Dorm Student
My home town was Miami Beach, Florida. I had graduated from the 8th grade of the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami in June of 1953. My school was a convenient ten-minute walk from my home. At the time, there was no local Jewish high school that I could attend to further my Jewish education, so my parents chose to send me away from home to MTA in New York. Though I did have several relatives (grandfather, aunts and uncles) living in the general environs of New York, commuting from their homes daily would have been unjustified, so staying with any of them was ruled out. The option chosen for me was to become a dorm student. During the summer of 1953, prior to my starting classes in MTA, my father, זצ”ל and I visited the dormitory on Amsterdam Ave and selected the room where I was to live as a student. It was located on the second story, southern corner, at the front of the building, directly facing the Gottesman library. My room-mate was a “veteran” tenth grade student from upstate NY who would go home to his family for every Shabbat. I generally went to spend Shabbatot with my grandfather, who was a congregational rabbi, in the East Bronx.
Adjusting to dorm life was no easy matter. My parents weren’t with me to provide guidance and couldn’t advise me in my daily encounters with all the new experiences I was facing. Here I was, in a metropolitan city that was infinitely different from the small town I was born and raised in. It was no easy task adjusting to a totally unfamiliar school schedule that extended into the dark hours of the evening. There was a demanding schedule of subjects and homework to keep up with. My dormitory associates were of differing ages and many were with behavioral patterns and interests unfamiliar to me.
One of the ways I managed to cope with all the new situations I had to adjust to was by re-activating a hobby I had in my home in Florida, raising parakeets. Caring for a pair of caged birds in my dorm room provided what, for me, was needed distraction and relaxation from the daily pressures I had to adjust to. I trained them to fly around the room, land on my extended finger, enter their cage at my bidding and even to eat from my hand. Eventually, I attached a breeding box to their cage and was rewarded by having them produce a pair of eggs that hatched and developed into an addition to the original family. All this, was without having officially received permission from the dormitory authorities and the presence of “pets” in my dorm room was kept as low key as I could. My room-mate accepted them with equanimity and most of my friends in the dorm looked upon them favorably. Nevertheless, I did my best to keep their existence as secret as possible.
All went well for several months. That is, until someone, I know not who, nor for what reason, decided that the parakeets had to go. Word was somehow leaked to me that I was in trouble. I know it wasn’t my dorm counselor, Yehuda Bernstein (who was busy studying Yoreh De’ah at the time, in preparation for his bechinot for s’mikha), or the head of the dormitory, Rabbi Feldblum. I assume they knew about the birds but chose to turn a blind eye.
For me, there were two terrifying individuals I greatly feared, whom I did my best to avoid. The first was Mr. Norman B. Abrams, the school registrar. I would often see him in the hallways of the school building sternly eyeing us students as we would go from one class to the next. I always thought of him as the school disciplinarian. I did my best to avoid him and for the most part, succeeded. An even more fearful figure was Dr. Shelley R. Saphire. My fear of him stemmed from his position as principle of the high school and the fact that I never saw him. Not knowing him produced an even greater aura of fear for me.
And then, one day, I received a notification that I was “invited” to the office of the principal. I knew it was about the birds and I feared the worst.
At the appointed time I came to the ante room of his office and waited till I was called in. Every minute of waiting only served to increase my anxiety. When I was finally called in, Dr. Saphire cordially invited me in and asked me to sit down. And then, I looked around the room, only to see several cages of parakeets spread across the shelves of books that lined the walls. I was still taking in the sight when he spoke to me. “I understand that you are raising parakeets in your dorm room. I’d like to speak to you about them and get some information from you about how you do it.”
What followed was a very cordial conversation about raising and breeding parakeets and my worst fears were quickly put to rest. We parted after a short while, both of us in smiles. My hobby was not ended and carried on under the “protection” of the school principal.