The Shavuos project is going to be a disaster!
The fifth-grade classroom smelled like classrooms tend to smell after a long day. Tired girls, orange peels, white-out, and slightly stale air. Chavi sighed and tried to focus on what Mrs. Horowitz was saying.
“With that understanding, you can see why Mrs. Bloch and I were talking about how to enhance our kabbalas haTorah this year,” Mrs. Horowitz’s eyes were shining. “Of course, we thought about you, as well — our fantastic students. How we can make your Shavuos more meaningful. We had a wonderful idea.”
Chavi eyed Mrs. Horowitz warily. School, teachers, and wonderful ideas didn’t always go together. Since she had struggled with academics since first grade, she already knew that most wonderful ideas her teachers had weren’t so great for her.
“This year,” Mrs. Horowitz continued passionately, “we are going to have a three-part project to prepare for Matan Torah. As it says in Pirkei Avos, the world stands on three things — Torah, chesed, and tefillah. Our project is going to include all three facets. Part one,” she sang out, turning to the board behind her, “is Torah. We are going to each memorize the Aseres Hadibros.” As Mrs. Horowitz wrote the words on the board, Chavi’s heart fell. Memorizing! In Lashon Kodesh!
“Part two,” Mrs. Horowitz went on, “is chesed. We’ve arranged for a one-day chesed project on the last day of school before Erev Shavuos. Instead of coming to school, you will partner with a classmate, and you’ll spend two hours helping families get ready for Yom Tov. We’ve matched each pair of girls with a family who needs extra help this year. Some families just had a baby, or have a sick family member, or have a child with special needs. Your two hours of chesed will help them bring in Yom Tov with much more joy!” Mrs. Horowitz was positively glowing as she wrote the words Chesed at homes in the community on the board. Chavi felt sick.
“And... part three!” Mrs. Horowitz beamed. “Is tefillah. In honor of Shavuos, which, as we also discussed, is the day Dovid Hamelech was born and died, we will be saying Tehillim together. Mrs. Bloch and I will divide the Sefer Tehillim between both classes. Together, we will finish the entire Sefer Tehillim as we daven for all the people in Am Yisrael in need of yeshuos, including all of the cholim.”
“What a great project!” Devory Miller burst out from her seat in the front row. “It’s amazing! We’ll be coming into Shavuos so prepared!”
Chavi cringed. Sure, for Devory it was great — star student; teacher’s pet. She’d have the Aseres Hadibros memorized in five minutes flat, while Chavi would sweat over it for five hours and still blank out when it came time to recite them. Devory was also confident and friendly — she’d have no problem walking into a stranger’s home and washing dishes or sweeping the floor. And kriah wasn’t a struggle for Devory at all — she’d be done with her section of Sefer Tehillim before Chavi reached the end of the first perek. It wasn’t fair! Of all her classmates, Chavi had to the work the hardest to get even mediocre grades.
As the classroom erupted into a torrent of questions, comments, and frenzied planning, Chavi slouched lower in her chair and pinned her gaze on the second hand sweeping the face of the round clock above the board. Nineteen more minutes to go.
“Tell me about the Shavuos project,” Mrs. Leitner said to Chavi at dinner that night. The Leitner clan were sitting around the dinner table, slurping up spaghetti and meat sauce. Mrs. Leitner spooned tiny bits of saucy spaghetti into the baby’s mouth.
“You were talking to Devory’s mother,” Chavi mumbled. It was no use; Devory’s family lived right next door, and Mrs. Leitner and Devory’s mother were good friends. It wasn’t bad enough that she had it so hard, but for her mother to be so close with Devory’s made it so much tougher.
“Yeah. Devory is really excited about it. I can’t wait to hear details!”
Chavi studied her mother’s face. Despite the bright smile and interested expression, Chavi sensed her mother’s tension. Mommy understood. Chavi shrugged and didn’t reply. Mrs. Leitner watched her for a moment and then turned to Menachem. “And Menachem? How about you? How was your day?”
Chavi let out a long, slow breath and picked up her fork listlessly. Saved — for now.
Mrs. Leitner brought it up again at bedtime. She came into Chavi’s room with a basket of clean laundry and set it on the dresser for Chavi to put away. “You’re not excited about this project,” she said softly.
Chavi looked up from her sketch pad. “Why should I be?” her eyes flashed. “Every part of it is hard for me. Memorizing is impossible, kriah is so frustrating, and waltzing into a stranger’s house to help out is… well, it’s a chesed, but I’m shy! I’ll be so uncomfortable!”
Mrs. Leitner nodded slowly and leaned on the dresser. “I can hear why that makes this project seem unexciting.”
“To say the least,” Chavi muttered. She looked up. “You know, Mommy, you could just write a note to Mrs. Horowitz. Remind her that I have learning disabilities, and that keeping up with my regular school work, and tutors, is hard enough. I’m sure she’ll understand, Mommy! If you ask her to exempt me, I’m sure she will!”
Chavi watched her mother pleadingly. “Please?”
Mrs. Leitner moved to the bed, sat beside Chavi, and sighed. “I’d love to do that, sweetheart,” she said, “But I can’t.”
“Why? Why not?”
“I can’t, because that’s not how life works,” Mrs. Leitner said softly. “We all need to confront challenges. It’s… it’s just a part of life, it’s how Hashem made the world.”
Mrs. Leitner reached out to touch Chavi’s hand, but Chavi moved away. “I know you really want me to get you off the hook,” Mrs. Leitner whispered, “but I can’t do it, because I care about you, and I want to give you to the tools you need for life. Before you know it, you’ll be an adult. And there will be all sorts of uncomfortable things to do. And you know what, Chavs? You’ll be able to do them, because your ‘difficult-things muscles’ will be in good shape.”
“But when I get older it will be easier,” Chavi argued. “I won’t need to go to school anymore.”
“That’s right,” Mrs. Leitner agreed, “But, Chavi, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be smooth sailing. One thing I can tell you with certainty is that there will always be things that will be difficult for you. Even once you’re married! Sometimes it’s hard for me at work or even when I have to be patient with my precious kids.” Mrs. Leitner gently tousled Chavi’s hair. “Not you, of course,” she winked.
Chavi tried to smile, even as she wondered if her mother was telling the truth. Sometimes, Chavi knew, she was a little difficult. She could see Mommy was exasperated, and she knew Mommy worked hard to arrange her tutors and hold a crying baby and make supper, sometimes at the same time.
Mrs. Leitner gazed at Chavi. “Chavi, it’s going to be hard to do this. And you’re going to do it. And when you’re done, you’ll go into Shavuos knowing that your muscles are stronger.”
“I don’t want strong muscles.” Chavi pouted.
Mrs. Leitner laughed and stood up. She kissed Chavi’s forehead. “Put away your sketch pad soon, sweetheart,” she said, and left the room. Chavi put the sketch pad down. She wasn’t in the mood to draw anymore, anyway.
“Ready?” Bracha asked with a smile. Chavi tried to smile back. “Not really,” she said. “I don’t like meeting new people.”
“I’ll talk, ‘kay?” Bracha said kindly, and raised her hand to knock on the Perlmutters’ door.
Mrs. Perlmutter welcomed the girls into the house, thanking them profusely. Chavi looked around. She wondered why she needed help. There was no newborn and Mrs. Perlmutter looked perfectly healthy. Never mind, she reminded herself. It wasn’t her job to try to figure out why Mrs. Perlmutter was a beneficiary of chesed day.
“I haven’t started cooking yet,” Mrs. Perlmutter admitted. “And I have mountains of laundry. The house is a wreck….” She sighed loudly. Mrs. Perlmutter looked at the girls helplessly. “My mother always let me off the hook when I was younger. I never had to do anything, and now I’m really not managing.”
Mrs. Perlmutter ushered the girls into the kitchen, and Chavi just barely held in a gasp. It was a horrifying scene — not an inch of counter or floor was visible under piles of dishes and old food and stuff. Mrs. Perlmutter looked around in despair as Chavi took a deep breath and steeled herself.
She could do hard things.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 962)
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