Eyes on the Prize // I was determined to help my student gain self-control

As told to Roizy Baum

The lesson is a big hit. The girls are animated, engaged and following along. A small fly is buzzing around the room, but thankfully no one is paying attention to it.
All of a sudden, Shani, her face beet-red, bolts out of her chair, screeching at the top of her lungs. Apparently, the fly has touched her and she’s lost it completely. “Aaaaah!” She won’t stop screaming, as if possessed by a demon.

I know that if she doesn’t stop right now, I’m going to lose the entire class. Alas, it doesn’t take long for everyone else to be thrown into hysterics. By the time the fly sails out the window, my lesson—and the enthusiasm and cooperation of my students—are out the window, too.

* * *

I was a fresh-out-of-seminary teacher, wet behind the ears and ready to give my students my all. Armed with love and a plethora of teaching methods—thanks to all the classes I’d taken—I was bound to be a success.

A day before school began, the principal and I were going over the class list in an empty classroom. The floor sparkled, the chairs were arranged in military-neat rows and the whole building smelled like bleach. On each of the 24 desks was a name card bearing a heartwarming welcome message. The posters on the walls looked as if they’d been ironed, but I knew that within weeks they’d be faded and torn around the edges.

“Okay, we’re up to Shani Moses,” Mrs. Bernstein interrupted my thoughts. “How can I put this nicely? She’s going to need a little TLC. There’s a lot going on in the family.”

I nodded, relying on my methods notebook to save the day; no doubt I’d find a solution to every challenge that cropped up. “Is there anything else I need to know?” I asked, having been taught how important it is to learn the family history of every student.

Mrs. Bernstein fanned her stack of orientation papers and cleared her throat. “Well, the mother suffered from postpartum depression after she had her eighth child. The father is out all day working to support his large family and a wife who isn’t coping well. One boy is OTD and his behavior is affecting some of the siblings. It’s complicated.”

“Poor kid,” I said. My heart broke for this innocent girl.

“Basically, when Shani comes home there’s nobody waiting for her with a smile or a hot meal. The kids mostly fend for themselves. They do their own laundry as soon as they can reach the washing machine. We know what’s going on because she has a few older sisters in the school. And aside from living on peanut butter sandwiches, she struggles academically, as well.”

“Do you have any tips for me, maybe from her previous teachers?” I inquired.
Pressed for time, Mrs. Bernstein had to wrap things up and go on to the next teacher. “All I can tell you is that she’s a really sweet girl,” she said. “She’s harmless. I just thought it was important for you to know her background so if anything crops up you can keep it in mind.”

“I understand,” I replied, feeling like a treasurer entrusted with the king’s most precious gems.

“Miss Fogel, we’re looking forward to a year of success, b’ezras Hashem. Much hatzlachah.” And with that, she was off to prep another teacher for the upcoming year.

I snapped my folder shut. Tomorrow was the first day of school, and I still had a lot of work ahead of me.


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