Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior
Have you ever seen a Viking ship made out of popsicle sticks
And balsa wood? With tiny coils of brown thread for ropes,
Sixteen oars made out of chopsticks, and a red and yellow sail
made from a baby’s footie pajamas?
He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.
The Vikings sometimes buried their bravest warriors in ships.
Or set them adrift and on fire, a floating island of flames.
The soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke.
To understand life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages,
You must understand the Viking ship.
So here is the assignment:
The class must build me a miniature Viking ship.
You have a month. And you must all work together.
These projects are what I’m known for as a teacher.
Like the Egyptian Pyramid Project.
Have you ever seen a family of four standing around a card table after dinner,
each one holding one triangular side of a miniature pyramid until the glue dried?
I haven’t either, but Mrs. Steinberg said it took 90 minutes,
and even with the little brother on one side saying,
This is dumb! This is a stupid pyramid, Tony!
You’re going to fail this project.
If I get Mr. Mali next year, my pyramid is going to be much better than this!
And Tony on the other side saying,Shut up! Shut up! You little %#@!
No, no, no, no, no, no, no! Keep holding your side
or I swear I’ll kill you after the glue dries!
It was the best family time they’d spent together since Christmas.
He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven,
which the Vikings called Valhalla.
Mr. Mali, if that’s true, that you would go straight to Valhalla
if you died with your sword in your hand,
then if you were an old Viking
and you were about to die of old age,
could you keep your sword right by your bed
so if you felt like you were going to die
you could reach out and grab it?
I don’t know if their gods would fall for that,
but it sounds like a good idea to me.
Tony was out for a month before we heard what was wrong.
And the 12 boys left whispered the name of the disease
as if you could catch it from saying it too loud.
We’d been warned. The Middle School Head had come to class
And said Tony was coming to school on Friday.
But he’s had a rough time.
The medication he’s taking has made all his hair fall out,
and he’s a little shy about it.
So don’t stare, don’t point, don’t laugh.
I always said I liked teaching in a private school
Because I could talk about God
And not be breaking the law.
And for an Episcopalian kid who only went to church
On Christmas and Easter, I sure talked about God a lot.
In history of course, that’s easy,
Even the Egyptian Pyramid Project is essentially a spiritual exercise.
But how can you study geometry and not believe in a God?
A God of perfect points and planes,
Surrounded by angels and angles of all different degrees.
Such a God wouldn’t give cancer to a seventh grade boy.
Wouldn’t make his hair fall out from the chemo.
Totally bald in a jacket and tie on Friday morning.
And I don’t mean Tony. Not one single boy in my class had hair;
the other 12 had shaved their heads in solidarity.
Have you ever seen 13 bald-headed seventh grade boys,
all pointing at each other, all staring, all laughing?
It’s a beautiful sight.
And almost as striking as 12 boys
six weeks later, now with crew cuts on a Saturday morning,
outside the synagogue with heads bowed,
holding hands and standing in a circle
around the smoldering remains
of a miniature Viking ship,
the soul of the brave warrior
rising slowly with the smoke.