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A Collector’s Story

When someone like me wins such a prize, oh, everyone would congratulate me, sure, but there’s definitely that undercurrent of jealousy

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth; baruch Hashem my father makes a very good living and we’re not lacking for anything. We live in a big house in a nice part of town and I always had everything I could ever ask for.

Another thing you should know about me is that I’m very intuitive. I just seem to “get” people and situations quickly, what people really mean and what responses are needed. I would have thought that was a regular thing, that everyone has it, but a while ago I realized that not everyone is blessed with this awareness. In fact, sometimes you see people respond to a situation without sensitivity and you wonder how on earth they could be so callous… while the truth is, they honestly did not see the situation for what it was.

I thought of that recently after I went through a certain situation with a girl in the neighborhood who I’ll call Shana. We’re not classmates, she’s in a different grade, but we just know each other from “around.”

About five years ago, our school decided to raise money for an organization, let’s say it was Chai Lifeline (it wasn’t, but I’m changing details so my story won’t be identifiable). There were also added incentives: the class that raised the most money would get a prize, and the kid that raised the most would get another prize. Well, everyone worked feverishly… except for me. I’m kind of blushing as I say this, but I was in Israel for a week, and by the time I got back, the contest was almost over, so I didn’t raise anything that first year.

But Shana saw me walking home one day after school, waited till my friends were out of earshot, and said, “Hey, can you ask your father for a check?” I saw that Shana wanted to win the prize, and didn’t want to give my own classmates the idea of asking me, and honestly, I didn’t mind. At the end of the day, all the money was going to tzedakah anyway. I ran into my house, asked my father for a check, and he wrote one out for $100 on the spot. Shana was really pleased and grateful.

The following year, I was able to participate in the same program, but I’ll tell you the truth. I didn’t give it my all. Why not, you might be wondering? For a few reasons. No one really wants the wealthy girl who has everything (or could have everything) to win a prize. Everyone wants someone who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to win it. When someone like me wins such a prize, oh, everyone would congratulate me, sure, but there’s definitely that undercurrent of jealousy. Plus, I honestly did not need a prize anyhow.

So, what did I do? I kept careful tabs on how much the rest of the kids in my class had collected. The girl with the highest had collected almost $800, so I figured I’d stick around the $500 mark myself. A nice respectable amount, but not too overblown. I asked five relatives and collected the amount very quickly.

Meanwhile, I watched as everyone tried to raise the most money. Shana again quietly asked me to ask my father for a donation and again, I did, and blithely handed her the $100 check.

The same thing happened the following year. But the year after that, things started shifting. Shortly after Chanukah, I slowly became aware that things were changing in my house. I became aware of a tension coming from my parents. Of hushed phone conversations. That my father was home more often than usual. No one ever spelled anything out to me, but I realized that something had happened, and that money was definitely more of an issue than it had been in the past. I didn’t ask questions, kept my head low and didn’t ask for anything. I figured that way I’d make things easier for my parents.

Time passed.

Occasionally, I wondered if people were talking about us, but then I didn’t think so. Sometimes you can feel it. People look at you differently, or conversations stop abruptly when you walk into a room. That wasn’t happening. I was in the thick of things just like always at school. On the surface, it seemed like life hadn’t changed. It was more that I was aware of an undercurrent problem, that something would happen soon.

And then, suddenly, something really sad happened. My teacher’s husband suddenly passed away. My class was in shock. We wanted to help; we’d heard he hadn’t had life insurance and things would be tough for her and her two babies. An official Charidy page was started to raise money for her, but my class also went knocking door to door, called our relatives, shared the link, and collected cash and checks. One day, I was walking home, a stack of money in my backpack, when I turned the corner and who should I see coming my way, but Shana. I was thrilled. I knew she’d want to donate, especially after all the times I’d made sure she had a nice check from my father for Chai Lifeline.

“Shana!” I called and raced to catch up to her. I breathlessly explained the situation and she nodded. Of course, of course, she said, and I walked with her to her house. She disappeared inside for a few minutes and then came back outside and gave me a check.

I just want to take a moment to say that any tzedakah anyone collects is all about the giver, not the collector. So, it honestly does not matter how much people give (although it’s wonderful when they can and do give a lot! But honestly, any amount is helpful and adds up.). The collector is just giving people an opportunity to do a mitzvah. So, when I saw that her check was for $18, I promise you I didn’t judge. Not everyone is in the position to write big checks; that’s understandable.

Time passed. We got the money to our teacher in a respectful way and she eventually came back to teach.

And then, a little while later, the Chai Lifeline tzedakah fund began again.

And again, Shana sought me out as I walked home from school one day.

She grinned at me. “Can you ask your father for another check?” she asked me casually (which reassured me yet again that no one knew our situation.)

“He’s actually out of town,” I white-lied.

“Well, when he comes back. Or you could ask him on the phone.”

“Sure,” I mumbled, just wanting to get away from her, not wanting to ask my father for anything.

A week later, she followed me all the way home, and as luck would have it, my father pulled into the driveway at the same as we did. I cringed inwardly.

“Hey, your father’s back! Awesome! Can you go inside and get a check? I’ll wait right here.”

I really didn’t feel like I had a choice. Not if I didn’t want people to know.

“Tatty,” I called. I found him in his office. In one breath, hugely uncomfortable, I told him Shana wanted to know if he could give a donation again.

“You know, our situation has—” he started to say, but I cut him off. I really didn’t want to hear about it just yet. I knew it would make me really upset, and I didn’t want Shana to see me cry and wonder what was up.

“Later,” I told him. “Listen, it’s tzedakah, any amount is appreciated. You know.”

He nodded, ripped off a check, scrawled on it and gave it to me.

As I went back to the door, I peeked at it. $18. I felt my shoulders unclench. Actually, that was a nice donation. Back when I was collecting, that’s what a lot of people gave me. Plus, again, it was the thought that counts.

I handed the folded check to Shana and smiled at her.

She thanked me and walked off down the path. Before I’d even walked back inside my house, Shana had called my name.

I swiveled around, my heart thudding.

She walked toward me, eyes flashing. “What’s the big idea? Are you trying to get back at me or something? Just because my father gave $18, that’s how much your father’s going to give from now on?”

I could have said a million things, but didn’t, and she spun on her heel and stalked off, leaving me with an extremely bitter feeling that she had read the situation so wrong.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 786)

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