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”

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”

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?)”

How Do I “Do Diversity Right?”

“It didn’t even seem like they noticed,” she said to me.

We had just finished putting our apartment back in order after some friends had spent the late afternoon with us. Eitan and Shayna had put up much less of a struggle going to bed than I had anticipated, given that it was much later than usual and that the hyperactivity of entertaining company had not yet worn off. Shayna had no doubt exhausted herself by trying to defend her territory against the other young girl who had come over (never mind the fact that the other girl was six months Shayna’s junior and had very little interest in fighting). Eitan, meanwhile, had pushed through the initial focus on the two girls and used up his energy convincing all four adult males to play board games with him.

“I mean, I’m glad they didn’t notice,” Trudy added. “It’s just interesting; I don’t think we’ve ever had any black friends over to our apartment before.” Continue reading “How Do I “Do Diversity Right?””

Dear Eitan, Love Mommy

Dear Eitan,

I know Daddy usually writes these letters to you but I couldn’t help myself today. I am writing this as I sit down by the ocean and I watch you boogie board for the first time. Eitan, you truly are one amazing kid. Just yesterday, I bought you your first boogie board and today you are already riding the waves. Your sense of determination is awe-inspiring; I couldn’t believe how you pushed yourself to bring the boogie board into the ocean on just your first day with it. You have grown into such a strong, independent young little man. I am so proud to be able to call myself your Mommy. Continue reading “Dear Eitan, Love Mommy”

Be The Match, Part 1: Answering the Call

It was a Tuesday afternoon when I made the phone call, the kind of lazy summer day when everything seems slower. Even when work is busy during the summer, I feel like I’m walking through the shallow end of a swimming pool, dragging my feet and struggling to build momentum, while the world seems to continue rushing by. I’d been at my desk, slogging through a service plan or progress notes or some other task that isn’t the main reason why one chooses to go to social work school, when the small number “1” suddenly appeared in parentheses in one of my email tabs. I clicked on the email and immediately sat up straighter in my desk chair.

“You’ve been identified as a possible marrow match,” the email read. “Please call me immediately.” Continue reading “Be The Match, Part 1: Answering the Call”

A Little Night Music

Trudy had been asleep on the couch for about a half hour when I woke her. It had been a long week for her, from shuttling Shayna to errands and the beach to dealing with various bouts of sibling drama each evening. I had tried suggesting that she go to bed when I first saw her eyes starting to close but she protested that she was awake. I let the episode finish, knowing full well that I would have to fill her in on the details of the end of the show when she was ready to hear them later on. She began stirring when I rubbed her shoulder, lifted her head up and looked at the clock.

“I fell asleep,” she said, squinting up at me. “Sorry. Did you finish the episode?”

“It’s fine,” I answered. “You didn’t miss much.” Continue reading “A Little Night Music”