Within a few weeks of Mrs. Rubin being my teacher, I had been told I needed to sit at the front of the classroom — because it was “better for me” — and had been ignored more times than I could count when I raised my hand
As told to Devorah Grant
Winning isn’t hard. Or at least that’s what I always thought. Until ninth grade, when Mrs. Rubin entered the picture.
I knew Mrs. Rubin already; I had been her chesed helper a few years ago. With a bunch of little kids, Mrs. R.’s eyes had always looked half-closed, as if sleep was something unfamiliar, but despite my efforts to help, her tone had also seemed distant. Sure, she smiled at me and thanked me for all I did, as I bathed Shoshi and Yael and fed Dovid his noodles (the only thing he’d eat), but I always had the sense that she didn’t want me there at all. After a few months of helping out, I decided it wasn’t working, and apologetically told her I couldn’t make it anymore. Her too-fast response seemed to prove my suspicions correct. Maybe I didn’t do a good job, I thought. And that was the end of that.
Which is why I wasn’t particularly shocked when Mrs. Rubin seemed to act coldly to me when I entered her science class two years later. Within about 30 seconds of her entering my classroom, I caught her gaze, and though she showed all her teeth when she smiled at me, her eyes were far from friendly. That was the beginning of our game.
Mrs. Rubin did not like me. In fact, Mrs. Rubin really did not like me. Which seemed slightly weird, considering I had an average of about 90 in science, was a smiley girl with decent manners, and worked really hard to do what was right. (I liked most of my teachers and still remember much of what they taught me, today, which is why this situation was odd for me.)
Within a few weeks of Mrs. Rubin being my teacher, I had been told I needed to sit at the front of the classroom — because it was “better for me” — and had been ignored more times than I could count when I raised my hand, and had experienced the horribly bitter taste of unfairness again and again.
The funny thing was how she did it. She was never outright mean, just sweet, syrupy, like the flat remains of a warm can of coke. But the yuckiest feelings would seep through.
When I thought about why she had such a dislike for me, the only thing I could think of was that she was scared. Threatened. Maybe, just maybe, she worried I would tell my classmates what her home had looked like? Maybe she was still embarrassed of how I had left my chesed job? To be honest, I’ll never know, but her attitude toward me hurt. I was playing, but I could never win.
Still, Mrs. R. was a decent teacher. She was seemingly sweet and dedicated, and most of my classmates sang her praises to the high heavens. So I battled on silently.
It’s probably no surprise to you that I started to hate science class. Despite the fact that I’d always loved learning about the human anatomy, I began to get negative vibes even while just looking at the textbook. I could feel that freezing sweetness oozing out of every cell, the red markings slashed across my papers, sweetly undermining my confidence to feel heard, be good, get it right. The motivation and self-esteem that my other teachers had helped me build was slowly being eroded.
I stopped raising my hand during class, started doodling on the sheets instead. What was the point in even trying? Even Miss Motivated Student herself had a breaking point.
Then came end-of-term assignments. I spent hours studying for Miss Kagan’s Chumash class, whose lessons kept the whole class enraptured. Loved studying the math that Mrs. Weinstein zipped through. But I didn’t want to work hard for Mrs. R. and her writing assignment at all. I had no inclination to spend time drawing neat diagrams with a ruler and blue ballpoint pen, when all I could see in the ink was her blue eyes, sending messages her words never did. Reading the questions, a wave of frustration overtook me, and I procrastinated for longer than ever before.
I wrote, stopped. Wrote, stopped. Wrote, stopped. What usually would have taken me a couple of hours was a grueling, teeth-grinding experience which made my jaw lock and my head pound. But I did it. I placed the essay on Mrs. R.’s desk before her class on the last day of the term and settled myself into my chair. The worst was over. One more lesson until winter break, then I would be free!
Mrs. R. walked in as the bell rang, marching straight over to the pile of papers. A few girls scrambled to the front of the room, their assignments given in with breathless apologies, ink still wet on the page from the recess-homework-doers. I was not one of those.
We waited for Mrs. R. to start class, restless whispering steadily becoming a quiet chatter, as she seemed to check through each paper against her class list. What was she doing? She stopped mid-pile, picked up a paper, leafed through it. From my seat near the front, I held my breath. I recognized the blue ink. And I recognized those eyes. Something caught in my throat.
“See me after class, Rochie,” she threw in my direction, placing my assignment slowly, painfully slowly, back on my desk. I nodded, feeling my friends’ eyes on my back. They all knew I didn’t try too hard for Mrs. R., were probably wondering what on earth I had done to make her angry. But I’d done nothing. Nothing!
Everything distracted me that lesson. The girl next to me was scratching her leg. The clock was ticking too loudly. Even the trees were a disturbance, unassumingly rustling outside the window. My brain was everywhere but there. What on earth does she want? My thoughts whirred round and round. But I had no idea.
When the bell finally rang, I gathered my paper and walked up to Mrs. R.’s desk. Her expression was hostile.
“You skipped the fourth section of the assignment,” she said, without preamble. I gulped. I had skipped it. But that was because I thought it was extra credit work.
“I didn’t know it was mandatory,” I said honestly, hoping she would realize I was being genuine.
“Oh!” she said, with a tinkling laugh. “Aren’t I just the dumbest kid in the universe?”
My head hurt. It was a quote, from a kid’s tape. It was a biting, nasty quote. She thinks I’m just stupid.
And with that, and a cursory remark about me needing to redo my assignment, she swept off.
My heart exploded. I was furious. Fuming. So she was expecting me to do it again, was she? To play her giant game of making me feel bad? Nope. I’m not gonna move. Not gonna budge. Not gonna play.
The anger did not settle, and that Shabbos, my family — grandparents, aunts, and uncles heard about it, too. I ranted and railed, then railed and ranted. They heard about it alright.
“So what are you gonna do about it?” My Aunt Sarah asked.
“Umm, not do it?” I said, rolling my eyes.
She did not like it. Not one bit.
My Aunt Sarah is a bit of a steamroller at the best of times — cascades of strong opinions and a refreshingly honest way of looking at the world. She really gave it to me. “I don’t understand you! You’re such a good student!”
“This teacher is awful,” I retorted. “She told me I’m the dumbest kid in the universe, I’m not capable, so that’s my attitude, it’s the message she sent me!”
My aunt looked at me, a determined glint in her eyes. “Rochie, you have a choice: You can either prove her right or prove yourself.”
“Yup! You can prove that comment right, or prove yourself, and show her that you can do it. It’s your chance.”
Whoa. I really wasn’t expecting that. Why should I bother?
But then, as the hours went by, that comment made me think.
I would do it for all my other teachers.
Teachers aren’t out to get me.
Can I rise above myself, above my hurt and bitterness and do it anyway? Can I let myself act in a way which reflects me, my real self? Can I keep playing to the best of my ability?
Maybe I could…
Oh, how I worked on that assignment. I underlined the headings — black pen this time — and even did question four. I didn’t prove her comment right.
Instead, I proved myself.
It’s been awhile since I left high school, and I still can’t figure why that dynamic existed, or what was going on that made it so bad. In retrospect I imagine that Mrs. R. must have thought I had seen her home and judged it badly, and I can see that there was probably more to this story than I know.
Still, though Mrs. R. didn’t exactly leave a sweet taste in my mouth among my many great teachers, something in that experience stuck with me for years to come, something that has stood me in good stead:
Because you really can’t control who comes into your life.
But you can control what you do next. Almost always.
Now? I’m happy I never chose to let someone else define me. Happy that I chose to ride above the challenge that relationship presented. And most of all, happy I now know that winning isn’t always about staying on the board.
Sometimes, it’s just about making one good move.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 854)
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