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The Red Mark
by [?]

The curious episode in the London Ghetto the other winter, while the epidemic of small-pox was raging, escaped the attention of the reporters, though in the world of the Board-schools it is a vivid memory. But even the teachers and the committees, the inspectors and the Board members, have remained ignorant of the part little Bloomah Beckenstein played in it.

To explain how she came to be outside the school-gates instead of inside them, we must go back a little and explain her situation both outside and inside her school.

Bloomah was probably ‘Blume,’ which is German for a flower, but she had always been spelt ‘Bloomah’ in the school register, for even Board-school teachers are not necessarily familiar with foreign languages.

They might have been forgiven for not connecting Bloomah with blooms, for she was a sad-faced child, and even in her tenth year showed deep, dark circles round her eyes. But they were beautiful eyes, large, brown, and soft, shining with love and obedience.

Mrs. Beckenstein, however, found neither of these qualities in her youngest born, who seemed to her entirely sucked up by the school.

‘In my days,’ she would grumble, ‘it used to be God Almighty first, your parents next, and school last. Now it’s all a red mark first, your parents and God Almighty nowhere.’

The red mark was the symbol of punctuality, set opposite the child’s name in the register. To gain it, she must be in her place at nine o’clock to the stroke. A moment after nine, and only the black mark was attainable. Twenty to ten, and the duck’s egg of the absent was sorrowfully inscribed by the Recording Angel, who in Bloomah’s case was a pale pupil-teacher with eyeglasses.

But it was the Banner which loomed largest on the school horizon, intensifying Bloomah’s anxiety and her mother’s grievance.

‘I don’t see nothing,’ Mrs. Beckenstein iterated; ‘no prize, no medal–nothing but a red mark and a banner.’

The Banner was indeed a novelty. It had not unfurled itself in Mrs. Beckenstein’s young days, nor even in the young days of Bloomah’s married brothers and sisters.

As the worthy matron would say: ‘There’s been Jack Beckenstein, there’s been Joey Beckenstein, there’s been Briny Beckenstein, there’s been Benjy Beckenstein, there’s been Ada Beckenstein, there’s been Becky Beckenstein, God bless their hearts! and they all grew up scholards and prize-winners and a credit to their Queen and their religion without this meshuggas (madness) of a Banner.’

Vaguely Mrs. Beckenstein connected the degenerate innovation with the invasion of the school by ‘furriners’–all these hordes of Russian, Polish, and Roumanian Jews flying from persecution, who were sweeping away the good old English families, of which she considered the Beckensteins a shining example. What did English people want with banners and such-like gewgaws?

The Banner was a class trophy of regularity and punctuality. It might be said metaphorically to be made of red marks; and, indeed, its ground-hue was purple.

The class that had scored the highest weekly average of red marks enjoyed its emblazoned splendours for the next week. It hung by a cord on the classroom wall, amid the dull, drab maps–a glorious sight with its oaken frame and its rich-coloured design in silk. Life moved to a chivalrous music, lessons went more easily, in presence of its proud pomp: ’twas like marching to a band instead of painfully plodding.

And the desire to keep it became a passion to the winners; the little girls strained every nerve never to be late or absent; but, alas! some mischance would occur to one or other, and it passed, in its purple and gold, to some strenuous and luckier class in another section of the building, turning to a funeral-banner as it disappeared dismally through the door of the cold and empty room.

Woe to the late-comer who imperilled the Banner. The black mark on the register was a snowflake compared with the black frown on all those childish foreheads. As for the absentee, the scowls that would meet her return not improbably operated to prolong her absence.