Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Murray's Mission: My Greatest Elementary School Memory

In Miss MacDonald's fourth-grade classroom in P.S. 206, in Brooklyn, New York, I had my tracing paper in front of me, unzipped my pencil case, picked up my sharply pointed #2 pencil, and I placed the transparent paper on top of the picture of the paperback bird guide drawing of the owl.

But this wasn't Miss MacDonald's art class. I don't remember what it was. Perhaps it was a lesson in arithmetic, or spelling, or geography. But I loved birds, and mostly owls.

And I continued in school the tracing I'd begun at home that morning.

Lost in my owlish portrait, I didn't realize that Miss MacDonald was walking toward me from her desk. Down the aisle came Miss MacDonald, who grabbed the tracing page, went back to her desk, and dropped my almost finished drawing into the wastebasket.

I don't recall what I was thinking at that moment.

But Murray Lissauer, my classmate who sat to my right, felt that I had to have that paper back. And he decided to retrieve it for me. Our classroom had six rows across and seven back, with those old-style stationary wooden desks that are attached to their seats in the front of the desk, while the seat, the one you're sitting on, is attached to the desk behind yours.

There were aisles between the rows of desks except the third and fourth desks; these desks were joined, with no aisle between them. I sat at one of them, and Murrray sat to my right, and five from the front.

Murray, like me, was 10 years old; but unlike me, Murray weighed about 150 pounds, and was rotund.    

But where was Murray? The kid who was so big next to me, sitting just to the right of me? He was gone.

Looking down, I realized. For Murray was crawling down the aisle on his belly toward the wastebasket, as though under barbed wire in a war zone, about seven feet from our desk.

Inches from the wastebasket, Murray still looked down on the floor, hugging the floor, not once lifting his head, as Miss MacDonald leaned over, pulled out the paper from the basket, ripped the paper in half, then dropped it back into the basket.

Still on his belly, Murray now realized what had happened. He pivoted in his narrow aisle without first looking at Miss MacDonald, and once again crawling on his belly, Murray climbed on his seat again.

No words were exchanged between Murray and Miss MacDonald. And Miss MacDonald said nothing to me.

I hadn't asked Murray to filch that paper for me. This was not a joke on Miss MacDonald. Murray's mission was serious. Murray was a friend. 

Had Murray not tried to retrieve the tracing paper, I myself would not have taken it back from the basket. Perhaps, though, Miss MacDonald had intended to return the paper to me at the end of the class, with a reprimand. Miss MacDonald did, indeed, rip up a bird drawing never knowing what she had torn up.

Yes, maybe Miss MacDonald after school that day had regretted she had ripped up the owl; that she had known that Robert was not a fourth-grade silly doodler. That Miss MacDonald did not know what she had done. Possibly, Miss MacDonald, after everyone left the school at 3 p.m., sat in her empty classroom, and cried realizing her insensitivity toward her pupil, Robert. Perhaps.

But had this all not have happened, I would have missed Murray's mission; the greatest memory of my elementary school experience.

Murray and I graduated from P.S. 206 and we didn't attend the same junior high school. I never saw him again. That was in 1950. But many years after, in 2014, I learned about Murray Lissauer. 

It took me only a few minutes searching online for the name Murray Lissauer.

And I found him.

Murray Lawrence Lissauer
Husband, Brother, Uncle
Born Dec. 5, 1939
Died Dec. 23, 1981
Age 42

I have had many memorable teachers, from kindergarten and on. But I remember Miss MacDonald only because of that incident as I spoke of it here. And it wasn't a bad memory.

So, thank you, Miss MacDonald. And thank you, Murray.

I found you, Murray, and I remember.

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

Thank You, Mr. Delaney!
High (School) Anxiety
Portrait of a Principal