The Five Words That Change Everything

I walked out into the hallway and met the parents in the waiting area toward the front of the building. I invited them to follow me with a smile and a “Come on down!” worthy of Bob Barker. Each parent made idle small talk as we made our way back to my classroom, making reference to the weather, apologies for the late evening and, in one case, commenting about feeling like they were meeting their executioner. I laughed at that last comment and reassured the mother that she had nothing to worry about, but I’m not sure she was convinced.

The classroom where I teach religious school is set up differently than most. Four rectangular white tables stand on light green area rugs in the business half, surrounded by grey auditorium chairs. The other half includes two charcoal grey couches that look softer than they are, plus a row of three cushioned lounge chairs. The chairs and couches sit in a U around a set of small turquoise coffee tables. In fact, the only obvious sign that the room is part of a school is the large green chalkboard that takes up most of one of the walls. The furniture provides a more relaxed atmosphere for my students, which is critical for helping them to maintain their focus; if they’re already taking time away from their increasing loads of homework or their precious moments to relax from school and other activities, at least they can be comfortable doing it. Continue reading “The Five Words That Change Everything”

Starting a Relationship as a Well-Meaning White Man

He sat cross-legged on top of the mattress, his back leaning against the wall behind him. Even seated, I could tell that he was tall and athletic. He hardly had the frame of a bodybuilder but his late-teenage muscles were still noticeable under his loose fitting t-shirt. His eyes followed me, expressionless, as I entered the living room and accepted his mother’s invitation to sit on the small couch opposite him. His mother sat on the other bed for our conversation – it was hardly the first home I had visited that had two beds in the living room – and began telling me about her experiences raising her son over the last few years.

I kept glancing back at the young man as his mother and I spoke. I asked him all of the usual questions – What was therapy like? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t? How do you get along with your peers at school? – and received the usual one- or two-word answers. His mother supplemented his responses, as mothers often do, but I made sure to look back at the young man frequently as I listened.

It was his life, after all. Continue reading “Starting a Relationship as a Well-Meaning White Man”

Becoming a Child on the Count of Five

Her back was straight, a perfect 180 degrees, without the slightest bit of slouch that eventually comes after years of slumping back in chairs or hunching over cell phones. She sat cross-legged on the high, plush white chair, her small body fitting on the seat perfectly. Her eyes were focused upward toward the television – why else would she be sitting so still? – but her face lacked the dazed and empty expression usually found on zoned-out high school students and brain-hungry zombies. I smiled slightly at the thought of her surrounded by “celebrities” at Madame Tussaud’s; she could have been, if not for the almost undetectable rise and fall of her shoulders and the end of her ponytail drifting in the flow of air from the vent.

“I can’t believe how nicely she’s sitting,” Valentina, the owner of the studio, remarked to us. “Most of the kids that come in at this age are running all over the place, even with the television.”

Trudy and I chuckled and shrugged. “The television is a big help,” Trudy answered, “but yeah, she’ll sit. I’m probably more worked up about this than she is.” Continue reading “Becoming a Child on the Count of Five”

Onward and Upward in the New Year

It was a good thing the wall was inflatable; otherwise my anxiety would have been even higher.

It was only her third try but she scrambled up, finding hand and footholds quickly, as though she had made the same journey hundreds of times before. I assisted her sparingly during her first two trips, giving her a boost when she needed, but usually just directing her to find the next small ledges to plant her feet. I didn’t touch her on that third time, although I was ready to catch her as she went over the curved outcropping halfway up. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, aside from being amazed at how rapidly she had mastered the climbing wall, but she apparently noticed that I wasn’t holding her anymore.

“Are you still behind me?” she had asked. Continue reading “Onward and Upward in the New Year”

A Marvelous Lunch With Mrs. Maisel

I grinned as I saw the young man talking to the customers in line ahead of me. He carried a beige, old-style newspaper bag over his shoulder and wore a folded paper hat over his tousled black hair that he grabbed frequently to keep it from blowing away. He bounced slightly as he spoke, making quick comments and keeping the conversations brief. The banter seemed to come easily to him as he pinballed from person to person, his overdone, nasal New York accent remaining consistent throughout.

“Ah, see, this one’s got the right idea,” he said as he arrived next to me and gestured to Shayna, fast asleep in the stroller. “All bundled up in there, sleeping through everything around her. She’s got no idea how cold it is out here, does she?”

“I hope not,” I said, chuckling. “I want her to stay asleep as long as possible.”

“Good luck, buddy,” he answered. “It’s a little noisy in there.”

Continue reading “A Marvelous Lunch With Mrs. Maisel”

Hanukkah Magic

“Daddy, look what I found!” Eitan exclaimed.

I’d just walked into the apartment after teaching Hebrew school that morning. Our plans for a family Hanukkah party in the afternoon had been canceled since Shayna woke up with a fever, but that didn’t stop Eitan from discovering the towers of wrapped gifts that Trudy and I had hidden under the table behind the couch. He ran over to the table as I came in and pointed excitedly at the various shapes that were no longer covered by the towel.

“Mommy told me you didn’t put the presents there but I don’t think I believe her. It was really you two, right?” he asked. Continue reading “Hanukkah Magic”

Reflections of Sacrifice

She walked slowly, which wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. Her legs were strong, despite their size; I was often surprised by just how much energy she was able to channel through them as she ran, jumped and danced her way through her days. But that morning, she didn’t have the same sense of urgency that she often did. To be clear, she was not taking each step deliberately, purposely maintaining her more-than-relaxed pace as a form of protest or expression of independence. She did not appear to have any specific purpose in her gait; there did not seem to be any hidden message that could be interpreted from her soft footfalls.

She just walked slowly. Continue reading “Reflections of Sacrifice”

A Pleasant Surprise

“Can I go to the bathroom?” she asked.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the question. The girl had raised her hand and waited politely to be called on, just as I wished some of her classmates would. She was also a good student; she never backed down from a philosophical debate, especially if the subject was in any way related to feminism, and her positions were thoughtful and logical. It wasn’t her fault that the bathroom question was a momentum-killer from my point of view; the progression of my class discussion wasn’t her responsibility. She just knew that she had to pee.

“Not yet,” I said as her face fell slightly. “I’ll let you go in a minute, I promise. I just want you to hear this next bit because I think it’s really going to make you angry.” Continue reading “A Pleasant Surprise”

I Didn’t Want to Write About This

I didn’t want to write about the shooting in Pittsburgh.

I didn’t want to think any more than I already had about the tragedy that took eleven lives, put six more in the hospital and terrorized a community and a people.

I didn’t want to write about the fact that the Tree of Life Congregation, the synagogue that the gunman chose as the site to act out his toxic anti-Semitic views, was hosting a brit milah, a ritual circumcision, as part of the regular Shabbat morning service that day. I didn’t want to write about the thought of brand new parents having to shield their brand new infant son from shots from a machine gun. I didn’t want to write that a celebration of life was interrupted by a man whose sole purpose in that moment was to perpetuate death. Continue reading “I Didn’t Want to Write About This”

Red Nails Revisited (or, Does This Make Me a Hypocrite?)

To say that the boy looked happy would have been an understatement.

There was an air about him, pride combined with confidence, with just the slightest hint of surprise. The missing tooth in his broad smile added an element of childish cuteness to his aura but I was particularly drawn in by his eyes. They were lit up with the rest of his face as he smiled but they also conveyed a sort of challenge to the camera.

“Check me out,” they seemed to be saying. “I caught this bad boy and I’m ready for anything else you want to throw at me.” Continue reading “Red Nails Revisited (or, Does This Make Me a Hypocrite?)”