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When great ideas cast out an ugly slur in Farmingdale

English teacher William Cates in the 1962 Farmingdale

English teacher William Cates in the 1962 Farmingdale High School yearbook. Credit: Farmingdale High School

Who knew that a football game could rock my world? Fifty-five years later and it’s still there — the first time I was exposed to prejudice.

When I was 14, while playing football with some other guys after school outside the Woodward Parkway Elementary School in South Farmingdale, I tackled a boy larger than me. He got up and spat out the words, “Dirty Jew!” They still ring in my ears.

South Farmingdale in 1962 was a mixture of things. Its small ranch houses stretched for miles along Woodward Parkway. Expatriates from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx found their way there to make better lives for themselves and their children.

Farmingdale, once called Hardscrabble, became, briefly, a hardscrabble world for me. But the darker forces faded when Farmingdale High School opened its doors in 1962. Like most high schools, it was sometimes a hostile environment for shy, nerdy young men. But it housed some splendid teachers who managed to move me into the arms of Shakespeare, John Milton and Christopher Marlowe, and introduce me to a host of exciting new and better ways to examine our world.

Tenth grade and fate gave me William Cates, my English teacher. Mr. Cates, a diminutive man with a slight Southern accent, combed his hair austerely flat to the side and greased it with a pomade that made it shine. He always wore a suit and tie, even on the hottest days. A white handkerchief prominently stuck out of his breast pocket. As he spoke, he removed the hankie with a flourish to blow his nose loudly and to run a corner of it well into each nostril. We never seemed to mind it.

He rarely moved about the room during instruction, holding sway from behind his desk or sitting on a corner of the desk. We never felt compelled to be entertained with a projector or listen to the Wollensak reel-to-reel tape player. His personality sufficed. We preferred his literary analyses and retelling of theatrical history. We didn’t even mind spending weekends memorizing Shakespearean passages or long poems by William Wordsworth, and then listening to student recitals on Monday mornings.

Those wonderful days in his classes swept away the awful hurt inflicted by the large boy on the football field.

The words “dirty Jew” receded into the fog of history when Mr. Cates invited me to join a collection of like-minded students in a Socratic group that met at his apartment beside the Farmingdale train station on Friday evenings.

We talked about Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” or engaged in what at the time seemed a dense dialogue about a million different things. Vincent Clemente, another English teacher, puffed away heavily on his pipe, and we inhaled his cherry-scented tobacco along with our intellectual discussions.

We learned about a world without prejudices while Mr. Cates sat cross-legged and straight-backed in a corner, wearing a smile. And I learned that not all people would perceive me in the same way that that football player did on that field at Woodward Parkway Elementary School.

Mr. Cates saved me by allowing me to dream of a better world. Sadly, the haters will always be there, but I learned we could fight them with better ideas.

Reader Sy Roth lives in Mount Sinai.

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