very student will deliver a five-minute oral presentation.” Chaya felt the color drain from her cheeks as she stared unseeingly at her teacher. “Your goal,” Mrs. Bliss continued, shining her typical half-smile on her ninth-grade students, “is to convince us, the consumers, why we should buy your product.”
Groans ascended from all corners of the room.
“Girls.” Mrs. Bliss clapped her hands to get their attention. “The best way to become an effective public speaker is to…?”
“Speak.” The class finished the sentence amid some eye-rolling.
“I’m glad we understand each other,” Mrs. Bliss commented wryly. “I look forward to hearing from you this Thursday.”
At that moment the bell rang, signaling the end of class.
Chaya felt an ice pick pounding her temple, and she dropped her head in her arms and whimpered.
“I can’t do it,” she groaned. “There is just no way.”
“Chaya?” Breindy asked, putting an arm on Chaya’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Not if I have to stand up and speak in public,” Chaya mumbled. “I can’t go through that again. I may have to get sick tomorrow.”
“Oh, come on,” Breindy cajoled. “We’re all in this together. No one likes to speak publicly. But we’ll get through it. It’s just five minutes.”
“You don’t understand!” Chaya insisted. “Just leave me alone, okay?”
Stung, Breindy backed off. “If that’s the way you want it,” she said, letting the sentence dangle as she marched away. “I thought best friends can be honest with each other.”
“Sorry,” Chaya whispered.
“ ’Kay,” Breindy said, mustering a small smile and a conciliatory wink.
The rest of the day dragged, and every class sailed right over Chaya’s head. Immersed in bitter memories, Chaya couldn’t focus on the present. Hurled back through the mists of time, she was experiencing the pain as if it were happening right now.
“And now,” Mrs. Hilstein announced during the Friday night seudah of their middle school shabbaton, “Chaya Schoen will deliver a devar Torah.”
Polite clapping welcomed Chaya. Blushing furiously, she made her way to the center of the dining room.
“This week’s parshah…” she began, her words flowing effortlessly. Forgetting to check her notes and the clock, Chaya raised several thought-provoking questions.
“Listen to this amazing story,” she exclaimed, launching into an inspiring tale. And then it happened. She remembered the exact moment, precisely when she was about to pose the second question. Someone laughed. Shocked, Chaya looked up and caught the giggler’s eye. Like a raging wildfire, the chuckles spread from one girl to the next, until most of the audience was shaking and laughing uproariously.
They’re laughing at me, Chaya realized, horrified. What should I do?
Figuratively turning a dial to speed up her pace, Chaya chugged out the rest of her speech as fast as she could. Cheeks flaming, she returned to her seat, determined never to show her face in public again. The agonizing humiliation was more than she could bear. To her dismay, her mother explained that moving was not an option, nor was staying home from school for the rest of the year. Should she wear a disguise whenever she left the house? One thing was for sure: She would never, ever, speak in public again.
Yet now, three years later, her worst nightmare was staring her in the face. Should she refuse to do the assignment and get a zero?
While those deliberations whirled through her mind, something else happened that managed to eclipse this issue. Together with Breindy, Chaya was the chesed coordinator for her school. In that capacity, they were responsible to help deal with various situations. But this particular situation that came up simply took Chaya’s breath away, leaving her gasping for air.
“Rena Green broke her ankle,” Breindy mentioned that afternoon. “We need to get in touch with her to see how we can help.”
Chaya felt her world careen out of control, as if she were riding a go-cart and the brakes suddenly failed. Of all people, did she have to come face-to-face with Rena Green, the giggler herself?
After that traumatic episode in sixth grade, Chaya felt thrilled when Rena was switched to the parallel class at the start of seventh grade. Not seeing Rena every day, Chaya was able to push that searing incident far away, like a balloon disappearing into the clouds.
“Can you tackle this situation?” Chaya half asked, half begged Breindy, hyperventilating and sending up a quick tefillah. “I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”
“I wish I could,” Breindy said. “But my bubby just moved in with us for a few weeks to recover from surgery, so I’m pretty tied up at home right now.”
Ugh! Chaya wanted to shriek, pull her hair out, resign from her position. She couldn’t do this, she simply couldn’t! It was just too much. How could she face Rena, her nemesis, and offer her assistance like she would to anyone else in need? Let her suffer, Chaya thought, knitting her eyebrows together. It serves her right!
“Chaya,” Mrs. Brown beckoned after Chumash class, “I have make-up work for Rena Green. I assume your committee is helping her, right?”
Without waiting for a response, Mrs. Brown handed Chaya a full packet, beaming. “What would we do without Ahavas Chesed?”
You might not have long to find out, Chaya responded silently, reaching for the packet. One head of committee may hand in her resignation in a matter of hours.
Trudging home through a carpet of gold and red leaves, Chaya felt weighed down by the task of having to deliver Rena’s work. I can lose it, Chaya mused, or forget to drop it off. Who said a chesed coordinator has to deal with every single situation? I mean, really, don’t I deserve to have a life, too?
Suddenly she heard a noise that stopped her in her tracks. If there was one thing Chaya loved, it was nature. And that insistent tapping definitely sounded like a woodpecker.
Shielding her eyes from the sun’s blazing rays, Chaya gazed up at the towering tree. Where are you, Woodie? Tap, tap, tap. Chaya’s eyes roved from branch to branch, and finally she spotted him way up high, his bright red head shining through the leaves. Tap, tap, tap! Pounding the piece of wood, little Woodie seemed determined to complete his mission. Are you looking for food? Chaya wondered. Building a nest? Marveling, Chaya noticed that Woodie kept an eye on his goal and continued the rhythmic drumming.
He’s not complaining that he has to sit there all day and peck. That’s his job, Chaya mused. Jobs are not always easy.
Bracing herself, Chaya picked up her pace and marched toward Rena’s house.
“So nice of you to stop by!” Mrs. Green greeted Chaya with a smile. “Rena will be so happy to have company. Please come in.” She held the door wide open. “Her room is the second door on the right.”
Well, this is it, Chaya thought, her dread increasing with every step. On to Doomsville. Heart throbbing, Chaya lifted her hand and knocked.
“Come in,” Rena called. “Oh, hi!”
“Hi,” Chaya replied. “Sorry about your ankle. How are you feeling?”
Rena shrugged. “I’m okay. Just going a little nuts being cooped up all day, know what I mean? How are you? I haven’t seen you in forever!”
“I’m okay,” Chaya said quietly.
“No extra charge for a seat.” Rena grinned, inclining her head toward a chair.
Nodding stiffly, Chaya sank into the chair, wondering how long she had to stay.
“So, anything new and exciting in school?” Rena prodded.
Chaya had no idea why she replied the way she did. The words seemed to tumble from her mouth with a mind of their own.
“We have this awful oral presentation coming up,” Chaya said. “And I absolutely hate public speaking.”
“Really?” Rena’s blue eyes widened in surprise. “But you’re a great speaker!”
“Why do you say that?” Chaya demanded, green eyes smoldering. “There was only one time I ever spoke in front of a group.”
“I know,” Rena chimed in, “and you were fantastic! A born speaker!”
“You laughed at me,” Chaya shot out, blinking rapidly. “Everyone did.”
“Laugh?” Rena echoed, astonished. “At you? Oh my goodness, Chaya, is that what you thought? Shifra told me the funniest joke that somehow related to what you were saying. You know Shifra — when she thinks of something, out it comes. And I just couldn’t help myself, it was hilarious. I wasn’t laughing at you.”
A three-year-old burden tumbled from Chaya’s shoulders, freeing her from its clutches.
“Wow,” Chaya murmured. “I’m glad I came.”
“Me, too,” Rena agreed. “But why did you come? If you thought I laughed at you, you must have been really angry at me for years now.”
Chaya shrugged and let out a laugh. “A woodpecker talked me into it.”
Rena lifted her hands in a gesture begging for explanation. No longer rushing to leave, Chaya filled her in. The rest of the visit passed in friendly camaraderie.
“Refuah sheleimah,” Chaya said when she had to leave.
“Thanks for coming,” Rena said softly.
“My pleasure,” Chaya replied, and she meant it. “See you soon. Hopefully you’ll be up and about quickly.”
“I’ll be rooting for you on Thursday,” Rena promised.
Chaya grinned and waved.
Thursday arrived, and Chaya was ready.
“Chaya, please step forward to present your oral assignment,” Mrs. Bliss called.
Squaring her shoulders, Chaya marched confidently to the front of the room.
“My product,” she began, sweeping the room with a friendly smile, “is effective communication. Acquire this commodity, free of charge, and I guarantee your life will improve in every way….”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 731)
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