By Temima Feldman
Asher was happy to be going back to school. He was a good student, had good friends, and enjoyed the academic and social opportunities that school afforded him. As the first day of school approached, he was excited to be assigned the same rebbe his brother had the previous year. Rabbi Goodman was the “star” rebbe of the school and Asher couldn’t believe his good luck. The evening before, as knapsacks were being packed for the big day, Rabbi Goodman texted me that he just got his class list and was excited to be having another Feldman child in his class. Both mother and son were looking forward to a great year.
I walked Asher into school the first morning. I waited around with the other moms while the classes lined up. As the rebbe was calling attendance, I thought I noticed that Asher’s name was not called. I assumed I simply hadn’t heard it, as there was a lot of background noise in the gym. Asher went up with Rabbi Goodman and with what he presumed were his classmates — identical to his previous year’s class.
Somewhere in the background noise I thought I heard Asher’s name being called by a different third-grade rebbe to line up with an entirely different class. “This must be a mistake,” I thought. I went to politely tell this other rebbe that Asher had already gone up with Rabbi Goodman’s class. The rebbe had the unfortunate job of telling me that there was a last-minute switch and Asher had been moved from Rabbi Goodman’s class to his. I took a deep breath. I looked at the group of third-grade boys assembling under this new rebbe’s leadership and saw nice boys, many of whom lived in our neighborhood. I quickly assessed the situation and mumbled, “OK.” I did not want to make a scene on the spot, and I also knew there wasn’t much the rebbe could do. I figured I would take it up with the administration if need be.
The new rebbe went to get Asher from Rabbi Goodman’s class. A very perplexed third-grade Asher lined up with his new class. The moms were all being ushered out, as we had long overstayed our welcome in the first-day-of-school chaos.
I turned around one last time as I was walking out of the gym to wave goodbye. As he was lining up, Yoni, a boy we knew from last season’s basketball team, walked over to Asher, slapped him across the face and yelled: “I don’t want you in my class; go back to your other class.”
Asher was frozen. I was frozen.
The rebbe quickly herded the class upstairs before I had a chance to unfreeze.
I was in a quandary. Do I go back to school, speak to the principal, and ask (OK, demand) a class change? Do I ask that my son be separated from the student who slapped him across the face?
I did neither.
I went home. I called Yoni’s parents, whom I really did not know. With as much suppression of emotion as I could muster, I told them the facts. It was not an easy phone call. It was one of the worst phone calls I ever had to make (and I spend a lot of time making difficult phone calls!). I told Yoni’s parents that I was not judging them or their child, but I wanted to help my son best navigate this situation. I knew that if I took him out of the class and put him back in his old class with the rebbe he wanted, he would be missing an opportunity to face challenges.
I did not want Asher to feel defeated. I wanted to empower him to take responsibility of the situation, not lead him to believe that the adults had to handle it and fix it for him. I wanted him to take part in the fixing process, despite the fact that it was not his fault. Sometimes as adults we need to fix things that are not our fault. I do this every day. I wanted to give my son the opportunity to develop those critical muscles. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of cajoling — months, in fact — and some Mets tickets.
While on the phone with Yoni’s father, I found common ground — sports. Both boys shared a love of baseball. I told his dad that I was going to have Asher call Yoni after school and invite him to a ballgame that night. I wanted to help create and foster a positive interaction. I think even the dad thought I was nuts.
I waited anxiously for Asher to come home from school that first day. I knew he was navigating unfamiliar territory and had a rough start. Needless to say, it was not the best homecoming. It sounded something like: front door being slammed, knapsack being flung on the floor, and “I am never going back to school.”
I took a deep breath.
I listened. I validated. I did not promise that I was going to fix it, but I told Asher that he was going to make it better.
I surprised him with four Mets tickets — one for him, one for his brother, one for me, and the fourth ticket for Yoni.
Here was the catch — he had to call Yoni and offer to take him to the game. Reluctantly, he picked up the phone and whispered an invitation to come to a baseball game that night. It was a hard phone call to make. We had to practice and role-play more than a few times, and even on the phone Asher needed a lot of prompting.
But we made it to the game, all of us, Yoni in tow — and the Mets won.
Five years later, Asher and Yoni are still in the same class. They are not the best of friends, and that is OK. They have learned how to accept their differences and breathe in the same airspace without a repeat of what once happened. But most important, we turned a challenge into an opportunity for both boys.
I would like to think that both my son and Yoni gained from what could have been a crippling experience. There are many bumps on the road. Our job as parents and educators is to help our children. As Denis Waitley so eloquently said, “The greatest gift you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” Children need to face challenges and be given the tools to problem-solve on their own. By empowering children to take responsibility for their actions as well as for the actions of others, we are developing critical skills in our children that extend far beyond the walls of the classroom.
As parents, our instincts drive us to protect our children and give them the best possible chance at success. When our children’s pain hurts us more than anything in the world, this is a sign of our deep commitment to their well-being. Therefore, when we hear that our children are facing challenges, we often try to fix the problem for them. There are many situations in which those reactions are warranted and needed. At times, though, our intervention may actually cause our children to miss the opportunity to learn how to handle adversity on their own.
I am grateful every day to partner with hundreds of parents in the raising and nurturing of their children, and I value the team we create to help our children succeed and develop far beyond their elementary school years.
Temima Feldman has over 20 years of experience in school leadership and administration. She currently serves as the general studies principal of Torah Academy for Girls elementary school in Far Rockaway. Mrs. Feldman has held numerous school leadership and consultancy positions in a diverse range of yeshivos and day schools across the United States. Mrs. Feldman is also the associate director of the Digital Citizenship Project, which teaches digital responsibility in the age of technology. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.