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The Howie Chronicles, Act One, Scene One | Print |  E-mail


Scene One

Can You Learn America in One Day? (1937)

Music from the 1930's is heard. LIGHTS COME UP. On stage is a music stand or lectern and a high stool. Enter HOWARD (HOWIE/ HERSCHEL) GREEN, an adult male, 40's to 60's. He carries a manuscript. He places it on the music stand. Music stops. He reads/tells his story to the audience.

GREEN: (To audience) My parents came over to America as teenagers. They tried to be as American as possible, but they felt like immigrants their entire lives. I was born in Brooklyn. Thatís part of America, so I wasnít an immigrant. But I had one culture at home and another everywhere else. It was confusing. I first felt the confusion when I started school.
     Remember your first day in school? I do. Long ago. In 1937, Kindergarten. I was five. It was exciting. Confusing. Menacing. My mom wakes me extra early that morning.

(Enter HOWIEís MOM. Sheís 44 and born in Russia. She came to America in 1909 at the age of 16. Yiddish is her first language. Accented English is her second. She has little schooling of her own.)

MOM: Herschel, wake up, you go to school today. Your first day!

(Enter FIVE YEAR OLD HOWIE whoís free spirited, enthusiastic, innocent, overprotected, naÔve, unsophisticated, imaginative, and very sleepy.)

HOWIE: Jeez, mom, why do I have to go to school? Everythingís fine at home!

MOM: Itís important you go. You have to learn America.

HOWIE: Jeez, mom, why canít you teach me America?

MOM: (Embarrassed) I donít know America, Herschel. Iím raised in Russia. Poor girls didnít get schooling under the Czar. Then, when I came here, I had to go to work right away to help support the family. In America, children teach the parents. (Hopeful) So, you teach me America after you learn.

HOWIE: Jeez, mom, thatís not gonna take all day, is it?

MOM: Get out of bed, Herschel!

HOWIE: (Nervous) Mom, remember when Uncle Eddie took me downtown and I got lost and almost never came home again? What if school is like that? What if I get scared and lost, mom?

MOM: You wonít get lost, Herschel.

HOWIE: Mom, are you trying to get rid of me?

MOM: Get dressed, Herschel. (Laughs) You and your imagination!

GREEN: (To audience) Moms. They think imagination is just make believe!

(HOWIE and MOM walk hand in hand.)

GREEN: (Continued) We walk to school. Weíre the first ones to arrive there. The secretary tells us the kindergarten teacher, Miss Stein, has just graduated college. Sheís excited about meeting her very first class. We walk into room 101.

(Enter MISS STEIN, a 22, squeaky clean, pretty, nervous on her first day. HOWIE stops walking, stares in awe)

GREEN: (Continued) I canít believe my eyes. Child-sized furniture all over, small rugs on the floor, books and toys on shelves against the painted walls. The room looks like a little department store!


GREEN: How did I get so lucky? Then, we see Miss Stein.

HOWIE: Double wow!!

GREEN: (He looks up in admiration) Miss Stein doesnít look like my mom. Miss Steinís hair isnít in a bun. Itís down to her shoulders. She doesnít wear a print housedress. She has on a brilliant blue skirt that makes the sky look pale. Her white blouse is straight out of a Clorox ad. She wears long stockings over long legs that seem to never end. To me, Miss Stein is

HOWIE: Miss America!

GREEN: My mom talks to Miss Stein.

MOM: My boyís name is Herschel, but his American name is Howard or Howie.

MISS STEIN: (Nods, eager) Iíll call you Howie. Youíre the only one here right now so why donít you explore a little? Play with anything you like. Thatís a good boy, Howie.

GREEN: Iím thrilled. Sheís calling me a good boy! Wow! Iíll gladly do anything to please Miss Stein. After exploring a while, I look around.

HOWIE: Miss Stein, whereís my mom?

MISS STEIN: Sheís gone home, Howie.

HOWIE: My mom has gone home? Without me?

GREEN: Sheís never done that before. Whatís happening?

HOWIE: (Nervously) Miss Stein, I want to go home.

MISS STEIN: You canít, Howie. You have to stay here.

HOWIE: Miss Stein, why canít I go home?

MISS STEIN: Youíre a big boy, now, Howie. You have to stay in kindergarten all year.

HOWIE: (Upset) I gotta stay here all year?

MISS STEIN: If you do well, Howie. Otherwise, you may have to stay for two years.

HOWIE: (Shocked) Two years?

MISS STEIN: Donít worry. Weíre having milk and cookies, later.

GREEN: (All shaken up, to audience) I panic. Have I told you about my imagination? That I take everything literally? Everything!

HOWIE: I canít go home for two years? What did I do?

GREEN: I try to calm down but I canít. I must have done something bad! What is it? Ė (Thinks hard) Maybe, I havenít done anything wrong. Maybe, this is like the Hansel and Gretel story. The one where the stepmother wants to get rid of the children because there isnít enough food. Are we poor and I donít know it?.

HOWIE: Why donít people ever tell me anything?

GREEN: My brain keeps churning.

HOWIE: Milk and cookies? Milk and cookies, then what? Then bread and water? Oh, my god, this is the big house! School is prison! Hysterically) Miss Stein, let me go home. I swear to god Iím innocent!

MISS STEIN: (Getting nervous) Howie. Just keep playing and be a good boy, now.

GREEN: Trembling, I go into a corner. Iíve got to get out of here. But, even if I get out, will my mom send me back? Can I trust her? Can I trust any woman? Children need trust! (Struggles frantically to think clearly) I try to think of a plan. But, Iím all confused.

HOWIE: Iím five years old and Iím falling apart!

GREEN: I keep thinking, thinking. Finally, I canít stand it anymore. I make a decision.

HOWIE: Iím breaking out of here! (Moves quickly)

GREEN: I bolt for the door. Miss Stein sees me, jumps up from her desk, and blocks the door!

(MISS STEINís back is to an imaginary door with arms outstretched across it. HOWIE mimes out action as GREEN speaks.)

GREEN: (Continued) I try to push her aside. Sheís too strong, but I keep pushing. She loses control of herself and hits my hand with her ruler. My kindergarten teacher is beating me up! How do I defend myself? I drop to the floor on my knees, wrap my arms around her right leg and (Yells) BITE IT!

MISS STEIN: (Screams) Howie, let go!

GREEN: (Trembling, scared, breathing heavily, kneeling on the floor, he catches his breath) I donít let go. I hold on. Every time, she reaches down to pull me off, I bite her again. When she doesnít reach down, I keep my mouth and teeth pressed against her leg, ready to bite, poised. She stops reaching down. Itís not a pretty sight. Believe me, I donít want to bite Miss Steinís leg. Even at five, I know this is no way to start a relationship. But, I canít let go. Sheíll send me to the electric chair!

MISS STEIN: (Hysterical now) Howie, this is my first day of teaching and the class hasnít even started, yet. Iím failing as a teacher. Howie let go!

GREEN: I want to please Miss Stein. I really do. But, Iím too terrified to do it. And, then HE appears. The school principal, Mr. Brown.

(Enter MR. BROWN entering, a man with a bellowing voice. An ex-coach)

MR. BROWN: Miss Stein, why are you screaming?

MISS STEIN: (Whimpers) Mr. Brown, I think Iíve got rabies.

MR. BROWN: Nonsense. A wild animal has to bite you to give you rabies.

MISS STEIN: I know. Look.

MR. BROWN: (Looks down at Howie clinging to Miss Steinís leg) Young man, what do you think youíre doing?

HOWIE: (Stammers) Iím, Iím...

MR. BROWN: Speak up!

HOWIE: Iím trying to learn America!

MR. BROWN: By trying to eat up your teacher on your first day of school? You donít belong in school. Get up. Iím taking you home.

GREEN: (In amazement) Iím getting out of here? Is it possible?

MR. BROWN: Miss Stein, youíd better get a tetanus shot. Who knows where a boyís mouth has been? Miss, Stein, canít you stop crying?

MISS STEIN: (Crying) I wanted a perfect first day.

MR. BROWN: Well, this isnít it. But calm down, weíll pull you through somehow. (Exiting) But, frankly, Miss Stein, there are better ways to begin a teaching career.

GREEN: And Mr. Brown marches me out of room 101 and out of the school. Iím puzzled. What is Mr. Brown doing in school? Arenít men supposed to go to work during the day? Mr. Brown must be out of work. Thatís why heís here as a volunteer principal to save me. Still, heís my hero.

(MR. BROWN pulls along HOWIE)

GREEN: (Continued) Iím proud to be dragged home by him.

(MR. BROWN and HOWIE walk home.)

GREEN: (Continued) At first, on the way home, Mr. Brown is gruff with me. But then he asks me to tell my story. I explain how Iíve got to learn America for my mom. Mr. Brown becomes less gruff. We get to my house. Iím afraid to go in. Will my mom throw me back into the streets? My mom is surprised to see us.

MOM: (Frightened) Herschel, are you all right?

GREEN: I donít know what to say, but Mr. Brown does. He explains my confusion and my fears. My mom listens, then holds me, she just holds me... and cries... I get my courage up to ask the awful question.

HOWIE: (Tearfully, struggles to get it out) Mom, you donít want to get rid of me?

MOM: No, Herschel, no.

HOWIE: (Hiccups nervously) Mom, I was so scared. But, the worst part of it was I thought, I thought you didnít like me anymore.

MOM: Like you? Like you? Herschel, youíre my life!

GREEN: (Nostalgic, remembering tearfully) This happened so many years ago. But, I still see my mom crying and holding me. I still see me crying and being held. So many years ago. I never forget. (Wipes eyes with handkerchief, blows nose) Ė Mr. Brown has a good heart. He even takes the trouble to explain the American educational system to me. I listen carefully and try to understand it.

HOWIE: Let me see if Iíve got it, Mr. Brown. I donít have to stay in the schoolroom, all day? I get to go outside and play sometimes?

MR. BROWN: (Nods) We call it walking the yard.

HOWIE: Then, on Saturdays and Sundays, I get time off for good behavior?

MR. BROWN: Thatís probation.

HOWIE: And in summers, every day is like Saturday and Sunday?

MR. BROWN: Thatís parole.

HOWIE: And when Iím 18 Ė .

MR. BROWN: You get a pardon.

HOWIE: And thatís all?

(MR. BROWN nods)

HOWIE: (Continued) Okay, I can handle it. Iíll do it. But, why? Why do I have to go at all? Whatís my crime?

MOM: Herschel, there is no crime.

HOWIE: But, mom, that doesnít make sense. There has to be a crime. Iíll go crazy if I canít figure it out.

GREEN: I start to become afraid again, until Mr. Brown, obviously a great educator, steps in.

MR. BROWN: Listen carefully, Howie, the government of the United States of America doesnít like certain people.

HOWIE: It doesnít?

MR. BROWN: (Nods) So, the government inflicts mass punishment on everybody for growing up.

HOWIE: It does?

MR. BROWN: Yes. Therefore, when you become five years old in America, youíre automatically considered a criminal.

HOWIE: Iím a criminal for being 5 years old?

MR. BROWN: Thatís why you have to go to school.

GREEN: (Overwhelmed. As if heís found the Holy Grail!) Wow! Itís like the sun coming out and pouring light on everything. I understand it all now. Whatís happening to me isnít personal. Every adult in America whoís over five years old is a criminal! Ė Of course. That makes sense! Iím filled with awe. Imagine? Only one day in school and already Iíve learned America! Can there be anything else left for a second day? To my surprise, Mr. Brown tells me

MR. BROWN: Howie, learning to read and write English is important, but learning America is a lot more than that and my teachers have plenty left for another day.

GREEN: Thatís hard to believe. But, I trust him. I tell him.

HOWIE: Mr. Brown, Iíll try to be the best student your school ever had.

MR. BROWN: (Rolls his eyes) Howie, Iím sure weíll see a lot of each other in the next few years. In fact, you might even want to become a teacher yourself. Then, someday youíll know what Miss Stein is feeling today.

HOWIE: (Considers it) Mr. Brown, Iíd like to be a teacher someday, but Iíll probably have to get a job instead.

MR. BROWN: I understand, Howie. But, as a favor to me, will you promise not to chew up any more of my teachers?

GREEN: (Thoughtfully) I agree and we shake on it. It makes sense.

HOWIE: (Leans forward confidentially) Listen, if you eat up all your teachers, how will you ever learn America?

End of Scene One

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