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Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior

Have you ever seen a Viking ship made out of popsicle sticks
and balsa wood? Coils of brown thread for ropes,
sixteen oars made out of chopsticks, and a red and yellow sail
made from a ripped piece of a little baby brother’s footie pajamas?
I have.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

The Vikings often 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.
In order to understand life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages,
you must understand the construction of the Viking ship.

So here’s what I want the class to do:

I want you to build me a miniature Viking ship.
You have a month to complete this assignment.
You can use whatever materials you want,
but you must all work together.
Like warriors.

These are the projects that I’m known for as a history teacher.
Like the Greek Shield Project.
Or the Marshmallow Catapult Project.
Or the Medieval Castle of Chocolate Cake
(actually, that one was a disaster).
But there was 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 cardboard Egyptian pyramid
until the glue finally 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 a stupid pyramid, Tony!
If I get Mr. Mali next year, my pyramid
will be designed in such a way that it will not necessitate
us standing here for 90 minutes while the glue dries!
And the Tony on the other side saying,
Shut up! Shut up, you idiot!
If you let go before the glue dries
I will disembowel you with your Sony PlayStation!

It was the best family time they’d spent together since Hanukkah.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

Mr. Mali, if that’s true,
that if you died with your sword in your hand
you would go straight to Valhalla,
then if you were, like, an old Viking
and you were about to die of old age,
could you keep your sword right by your bed
so if you ever felt, like, “I think I might die of old age!”
you could reach out and grab it?

If I were a Viking God, I don’t think I would fall for that.
But if I were an old Viking about to die of old age,
that’s exactly what I would do. You’re a genius.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

Tony Steinberg had been missing from school for six weeks
before we finally found out 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.
So nobody stare, nobody point, nobody laugh.

I always said I liked teaching in a private school
because I could talk about God
and not be breaking the law.
And I sure talk about God a lot.
Yes, in history, of course, that’s easy:
Even the Egyptian Pyramid Project
is essentially a spiritual exercise.
But how can you teach math and not believe in a God?

A God of perfect points and planes,
surrounded by right angles and arch angels of varying degrees.
Such a God would not give cancer to seventh grade boy;
wouldn’t make his hair fall out from the chemotherapy.
Totally bald in a jacket and tie on Friday morning—
and I don’t just mean Tony Steinberg—
not one single boy in my class had hair that day;
the other 12 had all shaved their heads in solidarity.
Have you ever seen 13 bald-headed seventh grade boys,
all pointing at each other, all staring, all laughing?

I have.

And it’s a beautiful sight.
And almost as striking as 12 boys
six weeks later—now with crew cuts—
on a Saturday morning,
standing outside the synagogue
with heads bowed, holding hands
and standing in a circle
around the smoldering remains
of a miniature Viking ship,
which they have set on fire,
the soul of the brave warrior
rising slowly with the smoke.

Mali. Taylor. “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh-­‐Grade Viking Warrior.” The Last Time As We Are. Nashville, TN: Write Bloody Publishing, 2009. Print. (ISBN: 978-­‐0-­‐9821488-­‐7-­‐7)