| Story Supplement |

Short Story: Critical Call

According to Mrs. Weinberg, I couldn’t do anything right in the classroom. How would I survive my second year of teaching with her daughter in my class?

Girls, pack up. It’s time to go home,” I said with a smile. “I will choose the winners tomorrow.”

Thirty faces nodded up and down in excitement.

My third-grade students had written poems for our class poetry contest. The pages they had submitted, now tacked up onto the wall, were filled with clever rhymes and metaphors. The words of their poems ran in all directions — in winding circles, on diagonal slants, in short, vertical lines. Each student had decorated her submission with bright markers and paint so that color jumped out from every spot on the wall.

Teaching put me on a high. Especially moments like this. These first few weeks of the school year had been nothing like the previous year, when I had been a fresh-out-of-seminary teacher muddling my way through a new job, trying to fit into my role of “Morah.” This year I could enjoy the hard-won experience I’d gained.

Strolling home that afternoon, I felt tired — yet invigorated. As I opened the front door of my house, I heard the phone ringing. “Miss Feldman, this is Mrs. Weinberg, Simi’s mother calling,” an unfamiliar voice announced. “My Simi hasn’t stopped crying since she walked in from school. She worked so hard on her poem project. Make sure she wins!”

“I-I hear what you’re saying,” I eventually mustered. “We’ll see tomorrow.”

That was my introduction to the world of Mrs. Weinberg and her darling Simi. Other phone calls quickly followed the first.

“Miss Feldman, Simi’s chart broke. I mean, it wasn’t strong enough to begin with. You should have made it with a thicker construction paper. You’ll give her another one, won’t you?”

“Miss Feldman, Simi couldn’t do her homework last night. It was too much anyway — do you think they’re high school girls?”

“Miss Feldman, I want Simi seated in front. Why do you always place her at the back of the class?”

“Miss Feldman, Miss Feldman, Miss Feldman …”

Her requests were like hail, pelting me as they poured down, stinging their way inside of me. Was there no way to shield myself?

After each call, I swallowed, I nodded, and I accepted.

“Yes, you’re right, Mrs. Weinberg. I’ll look into it.”

“I’m sorry if it was too much for her; I’ll give her less next time.”

“I’ll try and switch around her seating; I want her to be happy.”

Her phone calls were a weekly ritual and they intimidated me. The jarring complaints slowly pierced a hole through my protective armour, chiseling away any confidence I had about my teaching abilities. I started to second-guess my every move. Did I do that right? Was that the correct thing to say?

The mothers of my other students praised me effusively. “Your projects are so creative.” “My daughter has never loved learning so much.” My principal also seemed pleased. Yet, still, Mrs. Weinberg’s comments ate away at me.

If only I had the courage to ask the principal how to handle these phone calls, I reproached myself. Yet I was deathly afraid: Perhaps there was a sliver of truth to her complaints? And then I would take control of my thoughts again: Am I going to lose my self-confidence because of one mother? Back and forth, back and forth.

I wavered between reveling in my success as a teacher and then sinking into a pit of low self-esteem after every barrage of criticism. As the days passed, I felt like I was becoming Mrs. Weinberg’s personal robot, programmed to fulfil her many requests. The anger I felt toward her was ballooning and festering, growing into a bitter poison. I was afraid it would choke me.

Several months later, at the school’s PTA event, a poised woman strode into my classroom. “Miss Feldman, I’m Simi’s mother.”

I smiled. The most genuine one I could muster.

“Isn’t my Simi just super? By the way, you are far too strict. She’s just nine, you know. When I was a teacher …”

Inside, I was seething. Outside, I was nodding.

I loved my teaching. I lived for it. Yet the entire year, I dealt with her critical bullets. Be strong! I told myself, What are words compared to the beautiful results you see each day with your blossoming students? Yet I knew that I was ensnared in her clutches.

As the year wound to a close, I forced myself to approach the principal: “I don’t want to come across as disrespectful, but I cannot teach the second Weinberg girl next year.” When she arched her eyebrows in surprise, I couldn’t bring myself to explain the whole story. I was too embarrassed that I had never taken a stand.

The day before the school year finished, amid the rush of end-of-year parties and farewells, Mrs. Weinberg had the gall to call one last time: “You know, you haven’t been too caring the entire year.” That was how she ended her litany of complaints. I bit my lip. I had gotten used to them by now. Not one word of appreciation.

I thought that was the last I would hear or see of Mrs. Weinberg. Yet the very next week, a close friend got engaged to her nephew. With cake and a gift in hand, I entered the hall where the engagement party was being held. The tables were draped in lilac and silver, laden with goodies. From afar, I saw Mrs. Weinberg. She stood rigid, off to the side, flanked by her daughters. I gave a perfunctory wave, pushing my anger deep down. Then I turned away, shifting my attention to the kallah. The excitement in the room was contagious — I flitted from table to table, greeting and chatting with people wherever I went.

As the evening wore on, I couldn’t help but notice that Mrs. Weinberg remained on one side of the hall, almost as if in solitary confinement. Not a single member of her family ventured close to her.

“Why is that Weinberg daughter sitting alone?” I overheard someone asking.

“Oh, isn’t that terrible? She’s the one that they’re not on speaking terms with.”

“Who is not on speaking terms with whom?”

Her eyes widened, “You mean, you don’t know? Years and years ago, there was some small family squabble and since then they won’t so much as lay their eyes on her. But she still attends their simchahs. Don’t ask me why. She’s not the easiest character you know, and boy, is she a protective mother …”

I willed my feet away, trying not to hear any more gossip. But inside, I was itching to hear what else she had to say. As I strode toward the opposite end of the hall, her words kept repeating in my head: “They won’t so much as lay their eyes on her …she’s not the easiest character …protective mother …”

Was I wrong to be so angry with Mrs. Weinberg? Perhaps I had judged her too harshly?

But no! my inner voice yelled. What about her weekly phone calls — always critical, accusing, questioning. What about all the anguish you went through this year? She was the cause of it all!

I stole a glance at Mrs. Weinberg again, sitting way off by the side, her young daughters as her sole company. My searing anger cracked, making way for pity.

I didn’t like the change. Anger was my pillow — it had cushioned my ego. It had felt good to be the saint in the face of her audacity. How would I manage my feelings now?

I stepped out into the cool night, breathing in the fresh air. In the light of the street lamp, I could see a small red bird resting on the surface of a stone wall. As I was gazing in its direction, the bird flew off, swooping between the tall, leafy trees until it settled onto a rooftop. Then it spread its wings and soared higher, merging into the night sky.

Could I be like that bird?

Could I soar and leave the poison of anger behind? Or would I remain forever trapped, unable to spread my wings and fly?


(Originally Featured in Family First, Issue 245)

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