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Nobody's Business

Charlotte Friedland
Based on a story by Morah Blanca Rosenfeld

Debby had begun her career as a terrorist early in life.

The talk of the teachers' lounge, the bully of the playground, she had achieved a notoriety seldom earned by a ten-year-old. So, it was not surprising when I chanced to enter the principal's office one nippy day in November and overheard Debby's teacher resigning once again. The woman was gesturing frantically, raving about the antics of the devil in pigtails. This time, she insisted resolutely, either she or the child would have to go. The principal could take his choice.

As I stood in the doorway listening to the tirade, punctuated by the principal's soft monosyllables of sympathy, a strange suspicion swept over me. It intrigued me that teachers in the school had targeted Debby for all disruptions. If lunch went sour, it was probably Debby's fault. "What is it about this child that invites blame?" I wondered. Without another thought, I volunteered to try my hand with her. The answer was a flat "no."

"Don't do it," muttered the other teacher. "You'll ruin your reputation." "It's not your business to save every wayward child." counseled the principal. "I'll find some other school to take her off our hands ..."

"...where she will be kicked from class to class," I countered. "Look she's none of my business and none of yours. Next year she'll be nobody's business again. What will happen to such a child? ' I badgered I argued and I nagged until I had won Debby. At the time, I thought it was a victory.

As it was, this year's group had only recently reached a shaky cohesiveness. Instinctively, I knew that bringing Debby into my class would be like throwing a shark into a goldfish pond. The very least I should do is consult first with the goldfish.

It pays to be direct, especially with children: they see through euphemisms and double-talk. The whole school knew about Debby. Why mince words? I asked the class if they could find it in their hearts to do this special mitzvah, the mitzvah of giving someone a new start in life. I made no secret of the fact that it might be rough at times, but that I felt it would be worth the trouble. I promised not to bring her in if they didn't want her. Then I waited.

It is rare for children to be given any true power, and some educators might say I was risking an instant veto. But I knew my girls. I felt they would rise to the challenge, and they did.

My next step was to find Debby. Banished from class once again, she had retreated to her own private corner of the hallway. This was her domain, a place to weave fantasies and plan revenge. I came upon her leaning into her niche, her arms crossed in defiance, her toe kicking an imaginary object.

Putting my arm around her shoulders, I whispered, "I hear you're having some trouble with your teacher. Would you like to join my class?" Debby stiffened at first, then stared at me in surprise.

"Yes," she mumbled, "yes, I would." She quickly ran to gather her things and I triumphantly led her into my room. Suddenly, we heard loud clapping and hooting from Debby's previous class: they were celebrating her departure. As I showed Debby in, my class broke out in spontaneous applause and cheers. With lowered eyes she grinned shyly at them and they smiled back.

That night, it was time to do some detective work. I itched to find out her story, the whole story of what made her the spiteful child of horrid repute. I dialed her phone number.

Debby's mother answered and, upon learning that I was from the school, snapped, "Don't talk to me about Debby. I've heard it all." I explained that Debby had been transferred to my class and that I merely wanted to become acquainted. There was silence at the other end of the wire. "Debby told me," she finally said, her voice suspicious, but softer. "She seemed excited about it. She said, 'Morah Blanca put her arm around me.' She mentioned that the class clapped for her, too. I guess they don t know her yet."

I told her that we were happy to have her daughter in our class. She didn't seem to hear me. "Yeah, well let me know when she gives you any trouble. She'll get a good spanking." She yawned wearily.

Five words from that conversation bounded through my brain over and over: "...put her arm around me...." Why would the child report in such detail? From her guarded manner, I never would have guessed that Debby had been so elated by my gesture. I mused over the "good spanking" too. The violence Debby inflicted on others in the schoolyard was probably only a fraction of what she suffered at home.

There was more to her story, I sensed, but for the moment this information would suffice. Clearly, Debby was deeply troubled, her behavior in school only a symptom of the complex emotions barreling through her. It was then that doubts first began to pierce my armor of idealism. Wouldn't it be better to refer her to a psychologist? Could my efforts with her drain my ability to cope with the others? After all, is it any mitzvah to destroy my class for the sake of one child? I spent a sleepless night.

When I returned to school in the morning, I found that these same fears had been circulating among the class parents. In a chain-call ricochet, a frantic crescendo of antagonism had culminated in a petition to remove the troublemaker from our class. I was stunned, but the block was enough to strengthen my resolve to keep Debby. That evening, with the help of two mothers who shared my determination, I started a telephone campaign of my own. We made it clear to the parents that the child will remain in my class, but anyone who cared to, could switch her child to another teacher.

Ultimately, it was the children themselves who resolved the show down. Though their parents urged them to take refuge in another class, not a single child would leave me. It was settled then. Debby was ours, and we were hers.

In the days and months that followed, I observed Debby in all of her phases: the time she giggled uncontrollably, the time she spread glue all over her face and hands; the time she bit another girl. But through it all I noted with pride that the other children treated her with care and tenderness. The knowledge that they were participating in a mitzvah of enormous magnitude brought out a selfless dedication and maturity far beyond their years.

Day after frustrating day, I asked myself, "Why am I drawn to this impossible child?" As I reflected on my teaching career, I noticed that I have always been touched by the child who is most rejected.

I remembered five-year-old Suri, who burned with self-hatred for the most absurd reason: her bright red hair had triggered a bigoted antipathy in her old-world grandparents. Shamefully nicknamed and teased by her family, she had developed a disgust for her hair and everything else about herself. Naturally, other students shunned this child whose tough exterior shielded a shattered ego.

How I yearned to counteract this terrible influence on her life! I would tell her each day how pretty she looked. I took her on my lap to brush her long, truly lovely tresses. On the last day of school, I brought her a blue satin ribbon and braided it into her hair. She wore it as though it were a medal of honor.

What about the obese child, the gawky child, the shy child? There are many with noticeable impediments, others just carry it in their hearts. All you have to do is look. A caring teacher can make all the difference in such a child's life. By simply showing that you recognize his problem and respect his struggle, you can help a child jump the hurdles barring his way. As far as I'm concerned, that's what being a teacher is all about.

But a simple word of encouragement would never be enough for my Debby. Her pain was too deep for a smile to cure. I was determined to find out more about her now. On the excuse of giving a daily behavior report, I called her home each day, alternately speaking to her mother and father, I strained to catch any clues in their conversation that would explain her agony. Slowly, the puzzle pieces fit together, forming a terrifying picture of an emotionally tortured child.

Born second after their son, Debby had been treated like an intruder by her parents since the day she was brought home from the hospital. In order to prevent jealousy in their favored older child, Debby had been systematically ignored. She was never hugged or kissed, never played with, rarely picked up at all. She was followed by two younger siblings in rapid succession and quickly was made responsible for their care. If there was a complaint from school, she was severely punished.

No wonder she wanted to give the whole world a black eye. It was incredible to me that after her horrible days at school, she could drag herself home to help cook supper and bathe the little ones. The first step, of course, was to stop the beatings. I implored her parents to overlook her failures, to treat their daughter more kindly. Apparently touched by my concern, they even agreed to accompany me to a psychologist. He listened to them carefully and discussed my observations. Surmising that they would not return to see him, the psychologist pointed to me and told them, "Trust everything this woman tells you. She knows your daughter well and she can accomplish things you never dared to dream." We knew it would be a struggle. After ten years, a father must learn to think twice before striking his child. A mother must lower her demands and defuse her anger. I prayed each day that the parents' resolution to salvage their little girl would not melt in the heat of a rash moment.

Debby noticed the change in her parents' actions, and she realized I was behind it. Though I was stern with her at times, Debby's affection and gratitude grew. Yet there was still a look in her eye, a look that I recognized but could not place.

The more I thought about it, distant echoes began to ring through the recesses of my mind. My emotions fight the oncoming memories. My brain labors desperately to snuff them out, but I cannot. In my mind's eye I can now clearly picture myself at just about Debby's age.

I am standing behind my little suitcase at the railway station in Vienna. My mother and brothers are there too. The year is 1938, and I am to board the "kinder transport," a train bound for safety and freedom in England. My mother kisses me and tells me to be a good girl. There are other parents putting children on the train too. Some of them are crying. But my mother smiles one of her grand smiles as she gently lifts me onto the train. She whispers that she will see me soon. Then the train begins to move. Something enormous wells up inside me. I want to scream, "Mama! Please, Mama, let me stay with you!" But it is too late. All I can see in the distance is her white handkerchief, covering her eyes.

Did I sense then that I would never see her again? I can't remember. But I fondly recall the solid, impressive demeanor of Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, the man who risked his life time and again to take children out of that cauldron of terror to safety in Great Britain. Jewish families there had promised to take the children, but scores of religious youngsters wound up placed in non-religious homes or with non-Jews. I too found myself in a cottage in the English countryside, the bewildered guest of the village butcher. Separated from my family, my language even my fellow Jews, my world turned upside-down in a flash.

When war with Germany became inevitable, an event occurred which would change my life forever. The evacuation of thousands of school children from the cities out to the countryside created a bizarre situation in a little town called Shefford. The townsfolk there had turned out in the market square to do their patriotic duty by accepting London children into their homes. To their consternation, 500 Jewish youngsters, many of them refugees from Nazi Germany, tumbled off the buses.

Wearing strange clothes, speaking a foreign language, and clutching paper bags with their special food, these children were not what the Sheffordians had expected. They had hoped to host proper British kin who could fill out their church choir and bring fresh vitality to the village. Instead, many of them found themselves seated at dinner opposite incomprehensible children who smiled pleasantly, but could only stammer the one English line rehearsed with them by Rabbi Schonfeld, "We are fish-eating vegetarians!"

Through diplomacy, and boundless dedication to her children, the principal of the transplanted Jewish school, Dr. Judith Grunfeld succeeded in silencing the angry mutterings of the community. What's more, she and her staff labored with devotion to reconstitute the school in this alien setting. Drawing upon her own deep faith, she encouraged her wards, who had been flung like chaff across five towns to be strong in their Judaism. The Shefford Jewish school became a symbol of the eternity of the Jewish people and a testimony to their unremitting devotion to Torah, at precisely the same moment as the barbaric destruction of Jewish life on the mainland was taking place.

I had not been a part of this rescue enterprise and knew nothing of its existence. But one Spring day, a shiny black car pulled up in front of our house and a tall, majestic woman stepped out of it. She approached in a regal, yet gentle manner and asked me my name. It was Dr. Grunfeld herself, acting upon direction of the Chief Rabbi. He had been asked to find me by my brothers, who had been sent to Canada.

She explained that she had a school for Jewish children just like me and invited me to join her there. I refused. Torn from my family for over three years, alienated from everything I ever loved, I now wanted nothing more than the stability of a quiet English life. Judaism was no longer meaningful to me. It was one of those tender, distant recollections, like my mother at the station. The principal's jaw tightened lightly and her eyes swept downward as she told me to think it over. I thought I was rid of her.

I had not reckoned upon the persistence of this woman whose entire life was committed to saving every living spark of Judaism. Tenaciously, she returned some weeks later, this time bringing with her two girls of my age. They took me by my hands and told me about their wonderful school. They begged me to come, pulling me toward them. Suddenly, resentment and shame overtook me. "Leave me here," I cried. "I can't go with you anymore!" How I remember my tears as they turned and left.

I t was no accident that Dr. Grunfeld was known as "The Queen" by all who knew her. No obstacle was too great for her to conquer. She understood my turmoil and never reprimanded me. She visited again, and this time a yearning to return to my people engulfed me. I went with her to learn, to grow, to begin living again. To this day, she is a part of me, my spiritual mother. To this day, I silently thank her every time I say another blessing, do another mitzvah. They are her blessings, her mitzvos.

How had she reached this frightened, lonely child? At the time, I thought that I hid it all so well! I never went out before I straightened my shoulders and wiped away the tears. How did she see them?

Could it be that she caught the hollow longing in my eyes that I see in Debby's? Slowly, the realization crept over me that I find myself in every child that I teach. I became aware that without my knowing it, the dark loneliness of my own childhood had united with Debby's. Without being told, I knew all of her secrets.

At the same moment, I understood how Dr. Grunfeld could treat every Jewish child as her own child. At Shefford, I learned the healing power of love. It isn't enough to love your children, your pupils. You must tell them you love them. Maybe that is why I prefer teaching the very young. You can love them and be unashamed.

Even in the older grades the instructor who adores her subject and ignores the personalities of her students will fail. Think back to your most memorable teachers. Weren't they the ones who genuinely cared about you?

I suspect that our human capacity to love others, and receive love, is so tremendous that most of us are somewhat deprived. That is why a moment of caring can reach the soul where hours of reason fall short.

But even well-meaning parents and teachers blunder, sometimes habitually. If the impact of every nasty look, every cutting word could be visibly imprinted on our children's faces, our thoughtless behavior would abruptly stop. Like Debby's parents, we all have the choice of continuing our destructive actions or taking steps to correct them.

Little by little, I convinced Debby that she had the ability to choose her mode of behavior. She could be cooperative or churlish; helpful or hostile. It was all up to her. In the warmth of our "mitzvah classroom" her true characteristics gradually began to blossom. It was thrilling for me to see her included in the children's games, or chosen as a partner for a class trip. I was proud to watch her react sharply when another girl was banned from a jump rope game. As though it were the most natural thing in the world for her, Debby brought her own jump rope the next day, insisting that the other child lead the game. We discovered that the flip side of Debby's demonstrative conduct was a true quality of leadership.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that a caring educator will change the life of every student she meets. Nor should you imagine that everyone you help will appreciate your efforts. Many of the children who left my class would pass me on the street today without a second glance. They don't remember, or care to remember, the countless times I picked them up, dried their tears and urged them to try again.

But now and then, a young adult will rush to me, excited and joyful to find "Morah Blanca" once again. Eyes sparkling, she will tell me that she still recalls the songs I taught her. Another will introduce me to her little son or daughter: "This was my Mitzvah Tree Morah . . ."

Debby is one of those. Today she is the congenial mother of three treasured children, and she makes it her business to regularly share her life with me. There are times, I admit, while she is gaily describing the latest of her children's capers, that my mind wanders. I recollect the sullen little girl in the hallway, her deep burning eyes, her tight little fist. She remembers too, and though neither of us ever says it, we both know we were lost children, adrift in a senseless world until someone decided that we were too precious to be abandoned. We belonged to nobody back then, but we each had a teacher who cared enough to tear away the veil of confusion and save a world.

Reprinted with permission from THE JEWISH ACTION READER, Charlotte Friedland, Editor Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, New York, 1996

Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem. Visit www.innernet.org.il.



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