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Was my need to protect my sanity greater than my desire to understand my student?

As told to Chaia Frishman

For over three decades, I was the middle school grammar teacher.

I graduated from worrying what all the parents would think of me as a teacher to being the teacher the parents worried would judge their pedagogy skills. Not only was I teaching my students’ children, but I was on the cusp of teaching my “grandstudents.”

You might be familiar with the comic strip of a woman speaking to a lump under a blanket, saying, “I know you think they hate you and they’re mean, but you have to go to school. You’re the principal.”

Over my many years of teaching, that was the furthest thing from my reality.

Except the year it wasn’t.

That year, school began as usual.

And then came Mendy*. Adorable, charming as cherry ices, but with the seeming goal of doing whatever he could to make my life difficult.

Mendy spent the earlier days in my class busy with activities such as eye-rolling, grunting, and giving news commentary as I taught. I utilized my carefully honed skills of noticing the positive, creating boundaries and killing him… with kindness.

But as the situation escalated, Mendy had to be removed from the classroom on a regular basis. He began tormenting his classmates, challenging every lesson (they’re prepositions, for goodness’ sake. I don’t care much for them either, but here we are), and verbally insulting me.

I noticed how my body would stiffen as he walked into my class (late, thank goodness), as well as how much easier I breathed the days he was absent.

Meetings with his parents yielded nothing. “We did all that, and it didn’t work,” was their refrain when the topic of mental health professionals and medication came up. The principal valiantly tried to convince them to try again, but frankly, everything Mendy did was still enough under the radar that it didn’t warrant full suspension or insistence on the parents’ cooperation.

That left me to contend with Mendy and his barrage of insults. I dreaded reading his test papers, with their carefully hidden jibes cloaked as doodles. And conveniently, a lot of his rudeness took place at the end of the day, when the classroom was emptying out and no one could hear him.

How many different iterations of “That’s not acceptable” can fall on deaf ears before you begin to think that maybe you’re the crazy one?

One time, after class, I whipped out my phone to record Mendy’s shenanigans. “You’re the adult! You still need to prove I’m bothering you,” Mendy taunted me.

I cried, I seethed, and then I gave up. I felt defeated. I had some support from colleagues who suffered similar, albeit lighter treatment. Eventually I put my foot down and said I wouldn’t teach if Mendy was in class, so he missed the last three months.

That should have made me feel better. But after getting through to hundreds and hundreds of students in my years of teaching, excommunicating Mendy felt like I failed him. I felt confused when I saw him smile when I met him in the principal’s office, where he stayed during my class. I wanted to try again, but the idea of having him return caused me panic attacks.

At the end of the year another teacher shared an encounter she’d had with Mendy and told me she suspected Mendy was being abused. I passed that information on to my boss but remonstrated myself.

How could I have missed that?

Was my need to protect my sanity greater than my desire to understand my student?

I felt shame for my tunnel vision but also a renewed desire to exhaust all avenues of compassion.

That summer, I considered a sabbatical to reassess my career as a teacher. I didn’t take one. The next year, Hashem in all His compassion, sent me students that to this day rank up there as some of my sweetest, brightest, and most enthusiastic kids. It was healing and affirming.

I once heard a colleague say, “If you aren’t nervous on your first day of the school year, you should quit.” Now I understand more than ever that need for humility no matter how many years of teaching experience you have, how essential it is to pray for strength and success.

And while those Moshes and Yosefs and Ashers and Dovids remind me why I love to teach, memories as humbling as those of Mendy are now woven into my first-day trepidation.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 858)

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