| Family Tempo |


I’ve been teaching for years, but just two days in, I’ve given up


very teacher has that class, the one that pushes her limits. Some teachers ride a seesaw: years of success and years of aching despair and helplessness, in which they drag their feet into a classroom and leave it exhausted instead of energized. Others are challenged only rarely. But those who claim to have never confronted that class, or that student, really, are either lying — or haven’t taught long enough.

I’d taught for nine years before my turn came. It wasn’t the troubled kids who dragged me down. Those kids, the ones who need an anchor, who are elated to discover that success is within their grasp, are the ones I love. They’re the reason I moved across the country to teach in the big city.

No. My class, which I meet in the autumn of 2019, hails from perfectly stable families, with strong backgrounds and grand houses. They are bright and energetic, and they bring me to my knees.

It starts like this: I switch Shoshie Kleinberg’s seat on the second day. It’s not supposed to be an opening salvo; it’s Day Two. I don’t yet know the power Shoshie has, how she can turn two dozen girls against a teacher. And these girls — they’re waiting for it, waiting to watch Shoshie go to war.

Day Two, and it’s over.

Three weeks in, and I’m standing at the front of the class, asking to see homework on every desk. Shoshie looks up at me, tosses her hair, and lays a hand on her empty desk with a challenge in her eyes. “I forgot my homework at home,” she says dismissively. I let it go. Kids do forget their homework, after all.

But then the next desk, empty as well. A third. A fourth. There are a few completed assignments from quiet girls who look furtive when I get to them. Nine years, and I’m not sure what to do with such egregious nerve. There are whispers around me, a few muffled snickers. My lips tighten, and I mark Shoshie down.

It’s clear that this class is on strike.

This is our secret: we have no real authority. What can we do when students blatantly flout our jurisdiction? Mrs. Fine speaks to the class, a first sign of weakness. I call parents and get defensive responses. Well, she has so much work. It’s just one missed assignment.

In past years, mothers adored me. When I was new, they’d compete to find my shidduch. Now, of course, the shidduch offers are more tentative. Morah Sterling is so sweet — divorced, what a shame, and alone out here on the East Coast — do I know anyone for her? But my students’ parents have always been fierce advocates, and even in the other two classes I teach, I have enthusiastic followers. It’s something new to watch mothers grow skeptical and wary.

And it’s Shoshie. Always Shoshie. I have no real recourse. Mrs. Fine only sighs. “I’m not getting the same complaints from other teachers,” she admits. “If multiple classes were a problem, we could build a case with her mother. But it might just be a personality clash.”

Personality clash. Like the day Shoshie coaxes me into a game of machanayim. I’m a decent player, even if I’m past that 30-year mark, and my back is beginning to become my enemy. Maybe this is a way to get through to a class whose eyes are glazed while we learn about Dovid Hamelech. Maybe Shoshie, with her smirk, will see that we’re not that dissimilar.

But it soon becomes clear why she’d wanted me. The ball slams into my side, and Shoshie whoops. “Oh, no, Morah Sterling,” she says through gasping laughter. “Did I hurt you?”

I hurl the ball over her head to my teammates and smile through the pain. “Shoshie,” I say, striding away. “You could never hurt me.”

Personality clash. Like grading Shoshie’s tests and noting with dismay that she aces them. She’s smart, and her writing is remarkably articulate. My colleagues talk about her like she’s someone else. Bright beyond her years. So good to her friends. I don’t see any of it. I see only her smug face watching my every move while her friends doze in their seats.

I send her out one day after particularly flagrant chutzpah. “Shoshie,” I’d said, “Would you like to read the pasuk?”

“No, not really,” she’d drawled, and I am free of her for a few minutes.

The class doesn’t improve with Shoshie outside, but it’s a few minutes of respite. “I’ve seen your tests,” I say when I step out to speak to her. “I know what you’re capable of when you want to learn.”

Shoshie snorts. “Yeah, because I’m better at teaching it to myself than you are.”

I freeze. I’m not an authoritative teacher, but I have limits, and Shoshie crosses them recklessly. “You’re out of line,” I tell her. I give her an assignment for homework: two pages on appropriate classroom behavior. I never ask for it. I know she won’t have it.

Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older. My days in seventh grade are a distant memory, and I only vaguely recall what I thought of my teachers. I was a bold piece of work, and my poor mother had to deal with many calls from my teachers. Laya, she’d say wearily, Can’t you try harder to sit still?

Now I’m past 30, with a failed marriage, and my family far away. I don’t have friends. I have colleagues who like me, yes, but not friends. I rent a basement from an elderly couple, and while my neighbors are all pleasant enough, their lives are their families. My seventh-graders, three classes of 20-plus girls, are what keep me going. And this year, they’ve brought me to a standstill.

Adar is the first signpost toward the end of the year, a reminder that vacation approaches. The chaos is one of my favorite things, girls full of sugar and chatter, the school colorful with decorations. I let one class wear tutus over their uniforms, and I swap lessons with the eighth-grade Navi teacher one morning. Only in third period is there still the dull, almost-silence of indifference, girls whispering to each other and giggling behind their hands when Shoshie makes another unacceptable comment.

They make their move two days before Purim. I enter the room, and there are streamers everywhere, taped from ceiling to walls. HAPPY BIRTHDAY! signs adorn the walls and desks. The girls are wearing party hats, beaming as they never do in class. I smile with them, my heart leaping. Is this the moment? Will we finally connect? Is Purim fever the key?

And then, there is Shoshie, carrying a cake to the front of the room. It’s decorated with a student’s haphazard attempt at frosting, and atop, the writing says HAPPY 40TH!

My heart comes crashing back to earth, slamming into the pavement. I am 34. 34, unmarried, alone, and my students have sped me to forty, have taken away six hopeful years and thrust me into my worst fear.

I don’t know what they know about my personal life. I don’t know if this is Purim-induced insensitivity or something more malicious, but I can’t be here anymore. I can’t smile, can’t keep trying with girls who can set me off like this. I can’t look Shoshie Kleinberg in the eye and act like nothing matters even as her actions claw ragged fingers down my throat and leaves me helplessly distraught.

I tremble, feel tears threatening to erupt. And in a first in nine years as a teacher, I flee the classroom.

“Hey! Morah Sterling!” Of course, there is Shoshie bounding after me, incapable of leaving me to my misery. “It’s just a Purim shtick,” she says, annoyed. “The other teachers liked it.”

I don’t have the energy to fight, to explain. It’s moot with Shoshie, anyway. Instead, I say thickly, “It’s inappropriate. Everything you’ve done this year has been inappropriate, but this was —” I can’t even finish the sentence.

“What’s the big deal?” Shoshie says swiftly, at once defensive. “We just picked a number. It’s not like they wanted to make fun of you—”

They?” I repeat, and I am very tired of pretending this class doesn’t rise and fall at the whims of Shoshie Kleinberg. “There’s no they here. This was your idea.” Shoshie looks defiant, but she doesn’t deny it.

I stand in the hallway breathing in angry spurts, trying to think how to win this before Shoshie strides triumphantly back to the classroom. But my brain doesn’t work, and I struggle to hold on to something other than the despair of it is nearly Purim and I have nothing to show for it. Another year gone, and I am alone.

And then I lose all restraint, and I lash out. “You know, you’re a smart girl, Shoshie,” I say. “You’re popular. I stand in front of that room, and I know you could be every bit the star instead of…instead of whatever you’re doing to me.” Shoshie is silent, chewing on her lip, her eyes dark and dangerous.

“And at the end of the year, what will you have to show for it? What have you done with your year?” Before I can stop, I hear myself pleading. “You’re better than this, Shoshie. I think you know that.”

Shoshie scoffs and storms back to the classroom. I don’t. I tell the office that I’m not feeling well and leave early. I try not to think about the conversation, try not to dwell on how I’ve humiliated myself in front of a girl who isn’t interested. I will have two days off to hope that I haven’t made things worse.

As it turns out, I don’t have two days. It is Purim of 2020 and I have much, much more time.

Purim is on Tuesday, but I don’t come back to school on Thursday or Friday. I don’t feel well. It might be an excuse, or maybe it is something more sinister. But if it extends the amount of time before I have to see Shoshie’s class again, well, that’s just a perk.

It isn’t until Friday afternoon that it seems like something is amiss. A few shuls close, and a weekend event at school is canceled. By Motzaei Shabbos, I’m summoned to a virtual department meeting. “We’re going to have to close,” Mrs. Fine informs us. “We’ll be teaching over the phone.”

“Over the phone?” a teacher repeats, distraught. “For how long?”

“Until Pesach. At least. Let’s see how long it takes to stop the spread.” Mrs. Fine looks weary over Zoom. “I know that it won’t be easy to teach like that—”

“It’s impossible,” another teacher says. “How are the girls going to focus?”

“My kids are all home, too,” a third points out. “And my husband is a doctor, so I won’t have any help—”

More voices join hers, more women with children who have just taken on a second full-time job. I have nothing to say. I look at the faces of teachers straight from seminary and see a little of myself in them.

Mrs. Fine listens to the mothers, holds up a hand, and says, “A compromise. You’ll prerecord lessons and be available for calls. How does that sound?”

The others agree. Two weeks until Pesach vacation, and one recording a day per subject. It’s hardly anything. I keep busy calling students, checking in to see how they’re handling the tumultuous shift of the ground beneath them. The girls are receptive. Even the girls from third period are happy to hear a familiar voice.

I don’t call Shoshie Kleinberg. I don’t have energy for that.

I once liked being alone, living without a roommate’s constant chatter. Now, it seems impossibly claustrophobic. I speak to my parents daily, but they are panicked about the virus ravaging their neighborhood, and they are insistent: I will not return home for Pesach. I will not get on a plane. Shelter in place, my mother reminds me, and I do. I celebrate a lonely Pesach, reading the Haggadah and listening to the equally lonely sounds of the Seders held upstairs.

By Chol Hamoed, the world has gone into isolation. I go outside just to see the sun, and I watch children playing, staying near to their lawns, speaking to friends from a distance. Mothers pull children back when they’re too close to passersby, and some have put on masks.

I get a few waves. It is more than I get inside, where I read and daven and eat listless meals that I’ve put together with my new Pesach cookware. I cry more than I want to, and I dread the onset of the Second Days.

On the day after Pesach, I record my class and then sit on the lawn with a book, keeping a safe distance from the elderly woman on the porch behind me. I have read more in the past week than I have in a lifetime.

At least the weather is nice. A woman from down the block stops to chat from the sidewalk, and I am bereft when she walks on, desperate for more human interaction. The walls of this pandemic-barred prison are closing in on me, and I can feel my heart racing, on the verge of panic.

And then, a voice. “Whoa. Morah Sterling?” A voice from nightmares that seem suddenly silly, because how can any familiar voice be a nightmare anymore? Shoshie Kleinberg skids her bike to a halt and squints at me in the sunlight. “Oh, right. You live on Fraidy Ginsburg’s street. I totally forgot. This is my route.” She scowls at me like I might ruin it for her.

It’s a mark of exactly how desperate I am to see another face that I don’t brush her off, only say, “Hello to you, too, Shoshie. How was your Pesach?”

Shoshie stares at me as though she isn’t sure if she wants to respond. “Weird,” she finally says, leaning her right foot against the sidewalk. “We couldn’t have anyone over, so it was just us. Mostly we played Codenames.” She makes a face. “And we hiked. Like, a lot. All Chol Hamoed. I am not good at hiking.”

“I thought you were good at everything,” I say, only half joking. “But hiking sounds safe.”

“No,” Shoshie says, scowling. “Everyone went hiking! So we had to keep going off the path. It was so stupid. Once, my brother sneezed, and this other family passing actually fell into a creek to avoid us.” She brightens. “Actually, that was the best part.”

I can easily imagine Shoshie and a gang of cheerfully chaotic mini-Shoshies. It makes me feel fond instead of filled with dread. “Has everyone been feeling well?” I ask.

“Mostly. My father has a cough, but we don’t know if it’s bad yet.” She bites her lip, but it’s nothing like the defiance before Purim. “It’s probably nothing,” she says, and her voice sounds smaller now. This is why she’d stopped, I realize suddenly. She’s afraid, and for some unnamable reason, she’s picked me to talk to about it.

“People cough all the time,” I remind her.

“I guess.” Shoshie doesn’t sound convinced. I am sure that I’ve failed this final overture, because she pushes against the pedals of her bike and says, “Anyway, see you! Bye!” and she is off.

It’s the most pleasant conversation I’ve ever had with her, and I watch her go in wonder.

Maybe it is only that distance has made the heart grow fonder. Maybe I’ve underestimated Shoshie’s capacity for good outside of the confines of my classroom. Maybe it’s only that her friends aren’t here, watching her every move, and she feels like she can be personable. Whatever it is, Shoshie is back the next day at the same time, and I am relieved when she stops.

This time, she has news for me. Her father has been able to take a test.

“It’ll be fine if he’s positive, right?” she asks uneasily. “I mean, lots of people are fine. It’s just that he has asthma.”

“I’ve heard that doctors here treat people in their homes,” I offer. I don’t hear much anymore, but I do know this, and the capacity for chesed in this neighborhood. “It’s better than going to a hospital.” The hospitals have been deadly, and Shoshie looks frightened. I struggle to find a topic that’s less alarming. “Have you been listening to your classes?”

Shoshie taps a bud in her ear. “My brother lets me take his phone to listen while I ride.” She flashes an uncertain smile at me. “I like school better when I can move.”

“I did, too,” I say. “I had a teacher in seminary who would teach on walks with us. Too bad you can’t really do that with 24girls.”

“I’ll have to quarantine if Tatty’s positive,” Shoshie says glumly. “No more biking for a while. Will he have to stay away from us?” she asks suddenly, looking at me beseechingly. “What if he’s sick and we can’t even see him?”

The immediacy of it strikes me, this fear that suffuses everyone now. We hear the daily reports of people who have been lost to this pandemic. Maybe someday it will no longer feel so real, so dangerous. But right now, there’s just the grim awareness that not everyone will make it.

Shoshie doesn’t need to feel this way. “He’ll be fine,” I promise her. “If he’s anything like you, he’ll fight that virus until the virus is ready to quit.”

Shoshie laughs a wet little laugh, and I have to fight the urge to reach out to her. Hugs can be fatal now; we can’t offer this most human of comforts. There’s nothing I can do for Shoshie but sit on my lawn and make her laugh, so that is what I do.

Three days later, Shoshie reappears, a backpack on her shoulders. Carefully, she pulls out a little Tupperware container, and she skips forward a few feet onto the lawn, sets it down, and returns to her bike.

“The test was negative,” Shoshie says, and I see her brilliant smile. “Tatty’s feeling fine now. We made cookies to celebrate.”

I make a brachah and taste a cookie. “They’re delicious,” I say, and I feel a pang of regret as Shoshie waves and rides off. Her crisis is over, and she will no longer come by for reassurance. The cookies are an appreciative farewell.

But I’m wrong. Less than a week later, there she is. “I completely disagree with what you said in the class today,” she informs me. “Dovid was the king! He could do what he wanted with Uriah—”

“But should he have?” I ask her, and Shoshie shakes her head, fighting with me, the Navi, the mefarshim. We argue it through until she’s satisfied. It’s the most intense discussion I’ve had since before Purim, and it’s fun in a way that even school hadn’t been.

This is the girl I’ve heard exists, the girl I’d never seen before. And when Shoshie is done, I blurt out, “Where have you been this whole time?”

Shoshie shrugs, distant again. “I like Navi,” she says. “I like learning. I just didn’t always like you.” In school, she might’ve been reprimanded for that. Here, I don’t say anything. Shoshie’s appearances are the highlight of my weeks, the thing that pulls me out of the oppressive silence of my apartment. Shoshie is the only person in this world who gives me a reason to get out, and I don’t want to give that up.

When she’s gone, I try to listen to shiurim, to read, to say Tehillim. I try to focus on anything but my crippling loneliness. This pandemic can’t last forever. I’ve heard of far fewer positive cases recently. Already, I know, there’s a minyan on the street, the men davening together across a few lawns while women sway on their porches. Maybe we’ll be back in school by Shavuos. Maybe this will end.

I contemplate Shoshie as much as I had earlier in the year, but now I reimagine our interactions. Had I inferred more hostility from her than had existed? Did I build her into a villain with no redeeming qualities, instead of an ordinary, flawed adolescent? She’d lashed out, and I hadn’t risen above it, hadn’t tried to reach out to her.

Now, she is my anchor in a storm-black sea.

I wait for her to pass by daily. Sometimes she doesn’t come, and I worry: is her father still okay, is she okay, has this frightening world left her afraid to emerge? But always, she returns.

And one day, she isn’t alone. Seven girls trail after her on bikes and scooters, bags slung over their backs. They spread out across the sidewalk, careful to leave space between each other, and they look up at me expectantly.

It takes me a moment to understand what they want. It takes another moment to see the neviim open on their laps. My eyes suddenly sting with unshed tears.

“We want to have class,” Shoshie says, and the girls look at me with eyes that yearn to learn, gazes I’ve never seen before. “It’s Avshalom’s rebellion. I’m not listening to that on a recording.” She is right there in the front, eyes challenging as before. But now it’s the thing that keeps me going.

We learn. And eight girls multiply until there are a dozen, then more, and we struggle to fit in the backyard. The girls don’t take notes, but they ask questions and disagree and discuss, spending far more time here than the 45 minutes we’d have in school. Some linger afterward, to talk to me or their friends from a gradually shrinking distance.

I bake cookies for them to eat while we learn. School is closed until the end of the year, but I no longer despair. I am busy preparing and delivering classes. I feel like I can breathe again. I walk, I hike, I live out of my basement.

We’re just about finished with the sefer, and we plan a siyum for the last day of phone school. We plan to meet in a local park that has quietly become a boys’ school. We schedule the siyum for just after the boys leave, and I pick a nice, roomy spot for us to celebrate.

First to arrive is Shoshie, emerging from her mother’s car with a grin and licorice. I smile back, fully understanding how it is that a girl like Shoshie can make or break an entire class. I glance at the car, remembering hostile conversations with her mother early in the year, and I tentatively make my way to her.

She rolls down the window. “Shoshie adores your classes,” she says, smiling. “It’s the highlight of her day. She loves to learn.”

“She’s really something,” I admit. “She’s going to do amazing things with her life.”

“She’s a special girl,” her mother agrees. And then: “You know, I didn’t love her crossing Maple Avenue on her bike, but I’m glad I let her do it.”

I blink. “What do you mean?” I recall Shoshie telling me unequivocally that that was her route. True, I hadn’t seen her before, but I hadn’t spent much time outside before, either.

Shoshie’s mother shrugs. “She got it into her head that you might be alone during all this,” she says, and her eyes are knowing. “She was very insistent that she had to bike over to see you. You know how hard it is to talk Shoshie out of something.” She laughs. “Maybe that was just her master plan to get to Fraidy’s house.”

“Maybe,” I say lightly, and I turn to stare at Shoshie, who is bent over on the ground, partitioning the licorice. Her mother drives off, leaving us alone in the park. I don’t know what to think.

“Shoshie?” I prod. I know she heard, must know that I know.

There’s a light flush to her cheeks, and she tosses her hair in a failed attempt to seem careless. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe this is just what I have to show for the year. Right? You said I was better than that.” She ducks, embarrassed.

I swallow my desire to push back, to appear strong, as we both had earlier in the year. “Maybe we both were,” I say, daring to cross the space between us and place a hand on her shoulder.

Shoshie looks up, her eyes shining, and I am sure: she will be a teacher, too. Someday, she’ll join the ranks of the girls who operate best in the classroom once they’re standing at the front of it.

I let her go as the other girls appear one by one, chattering and standing closer now than they would have dared a month ago. Shoshie and I share a smile, and we sit down to learn one last time.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 808)

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