The Trouble with Sam

STORIES that stretch your mind

The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly

The Trouble with Sam
by Cynthia Kelly


The trouble with Sam, son of Barbara, son of Aaron was not his religion. In fact neither Samuel nor his parents considered Judaism a religion. To be a Jew was to behave in a civilized and cultivated manner, to take the precepts of The Torah to heart. Word and deed were bound in good action.

The trouble with Sam was insatiable curiosity. He was not interested in sports at school; his playground was the library. And he drove his teachers wild.

“Mrs. Carlton,” he would ask his social studies teacher, “what is the difference between a military invasion, a hostile takeover of a country, and a massive migration from one country into another, like say Nicaragua into Costa Rica? Will the Costa Ricans, who are used to democracy, be moved to the far right by an immigrant group used to dictatorship? Or vice-versa?”

Mrs. Carlton, whose only thought was to get through the prescribed curriculum, would sigh deeply and pat the neat bun at the back of her head, “We are not studying Costa Rica today. We are studying early migrations to The United States.” Sam knew she had no answer. She knew Sam knew. He was by far her brightest student. He even excelled in exams, earning straight A’s parroting the meagre information she had passed on to the class. Undeterred, Sam tried another tack. “What about the Ogilvie Colony in Georgia? Wouldn’t criminals be likely to breed and raise a criminal underclass?” asked Sam. He knew what was coming, and hid a smile. “Samuel, you are disrupting this class. Go to the library.” At first Sam asked questions in his various classes out of curiosity alone. Later he had a double motive. When he asked what couldn’t be answered and he sensed the superficial knowledge of most of his teachers, he was sent off to the library, to his playground. He read voraciously. In his fourteenth year he read The Communist Manifesto, which made sense, and Das Capital, which did not. He read Proust, and Plato, Mann and Moore. He read with gusto, willy-nilly. And the more he read, the more he became Public School Enemy Number One to his teachers, offering each a daily brief humiliation. It never occurred to Sam that he was smart or clever, nor did he wish to embarrass his teachers. He wanted to know. He had to know.

Sam had excellent manners — always opened doors for others, helped them carry heavy burdens, stood when a woman entered the room, did not interrupt in conversation, and was generally courteous and helpful, a cooperative lad.

“Your curiosity will kill you, you’re too smart for your own good,” claimed an exasperated Mr. Franklin, the algebra teacher, when Sam asked him whether the inception of geometry was as Plato demonstrated. Mr. Franklin had never read Plato and had no desire to read Plato. All Mr. Franklin wanted was the end of the school year so that he might flee to his crude cabin in the Minnesota woods, swat black flies and fish. Peace. Mr. Franklin wanted peace. “Go to the library, Sam. Plato has no place in an algebra class. Go!” That boy is a constant annoyance, thought Mr. Franklin, writing fractions on the board. He’s too smart for his own good, he thought, erasing a wrong quotient. It was unusual for Mr. Franklin to make a mistake on the blackboard. He was rattled. He was off-balance, not sent there by Sam but by another thought that had slipped in unbidden. What does too smart for one’s own good mean, he wondered, drawn into tangential speculation, foreign territory. He withdrew quickly, saying to the class, “Please attend to the problems on the board. You have ten minutes.” A time limit was a whip driving them onwards and away from the hovering daydreams of adolescence.

The library seemed a place out of time to Sam. He wasn’t given to daydreaming, or fantasies of self aggrandizement. He often stared unseeing into the distance, reflecting on what he was reading, quilting together what he had learned with what he was learning.

He was a candid boy, sharing his triumphs — those straight-A report cards — and his difficulties with his parents. They knew about his daily banishment to the library, and that his questions annoyed his teachers. “Who should he ask?” queried Aaron of the empty air.

“But, Dad, Mr. Franklin said I’m too smart for my own good, and he sounded mad. What does that mean?”

“Don’t worry, Sam,” said his dad, patting his shoulder. “Smart is fine, smart is useful, you just go on being a good boy. You can never be too good for your own good.” Aaron smiled at what he thought was a joke.

Every day Sam set about being and doing good. He was a Boy Scout in a yarmulke. He ran errands for all the elderly people in his neighborhood. He baby-sat for no money, just to help out. “Sammy, you are like one of the family,” grateful young mothers would say. He observed all the holidays with devotion, and excelled at the yeshivah preparing for his bar mitzvah the following year. Rabbi Finkelman confided to Mrs. Levi, Sam’s mom, that her boy had the makings of a rabbi. Barbara Levi blushed at the praise. Sam was her only child, her joy, her very pride.

All of Sam’s teachers, family friends and some business associates of Sam’s father attended the bar mitzvah. Sam, dressed in a new dark grey suit from Brooks Brothers with one of his dad’s real silk ties (“Don’t spill anything on the tie, Sammy,” his mother had warned as she tied a neat Windsor knot) stood before the assembled, a slender, confident figure, tall for his age, and in a steady, loud voice that surprised with its depth, intoned the holy words in Hebrew. Mrs. Carlton, who understood no Hebrew and in fact barely understood the ceremony at all, choked up. Tears streamed down her face. Afterwards she explained that it was his youthful sincerity that touched her heart. But she knew it was deeper than that. Ancient truth and fierce faith met in Sam’s words. She’d become an innocent bystander in a stream of history, caught up in the powerful flow of tradition.

The party following the bar mitzvah, Sam’s coming of age as a man, was held in his parent’s comfortable neo-colonial suburban home. Barbara had had the affair catered, and tactfully catered to the taste of all her guests. Since they were not Orthodox but Reform, the same plate could be used for all the food that crowded the buffet table in the dining room. Sam received congratulations and a pile of gifts — tie-clips, cufflinks, fountain pens, a new Swiss watch, as well as a dictionary, a gazetteer and a subscription to Time Magazine from Uncle Richard, but the oddest gift came from his math teacher, Mr. Franklin. Mr. Franklin, who dreamed of being a backwoodsman, forever free of the classroom, gave Sam a fine compass. The brassbound compass was housed in a leather case, a handsome instrument. As Sam admired it, wondering what use it could be to a city boy, Mr. Franklin came up beside him. “Sir, this is so beautiful. Thank you.”
“But you are wondering,” said Mr. Franklin with a smile, “why I gave it to you.”

Sam didn’t want to be rude, so he lowered his eyes to escape an answer.

Mr. Franklin laid his arm lightly on Sam’s shoulder and leaned toward him as though to conspire in a secret. “When I am in the backwoods, woods that march for miles and miles, I often wander far from my cabin, carried away by curiosity. Curiosity carries us far afield, but with a compass you can never lose your way.” Sam smiled. He understood.

In his long life Samuel always carried Mr. Franklin’s compass — his talisman — and he never lost his way.•

Cynthia Kelly is is a prolific writer who lives on a beautiful island in Gibsons, British Columbia with her faithful pet dog.

©1998 Thresholds Quarterly Vol. 16 No. 5


Copyright© 2002, School of Metaphysics


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