Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Elul is The Month Of Teshuva, Right?
By Michelle Nevada
When my son was 12, he made a mistake--a stupid mistake, but a mistake that any 12 year-old might make. He stopped doing his homework. He was bored with the work, he passed all of the tests with ease, and he decided that he wouldn’t do his homework. He decided he wouldn’t care about it.
Then the phone calls came from the headmaster, a prominent rabbi, and a sincerely good man. He was concerned about my son’s grades. “He isn’t doing his homework,” he said.
I confronted my son. “Do your homework!” I said.
So, he did his homework, but he didn’t do it well. He did it without care. He didn’t finish all of it. He didn’t do it with quality.
Now, some parents would ask a psychologist why their child would start doing such a thing. They might want to delve into the depth of their soul and uncover the true reason why their child would not do their homework. I’m not like that. I just told him to do his homework better or he wouldn’t be watching TV, visiting his friends or doing anything else.
He didn’t do his homework AND he didn’t care about it AND he didn’t care that he wasn’t going to see his friends or do things. He had mastered aloofness and cool.
I screamed, I yelled, I jumped up and down. I cajoled and begged. I pleaded. I tried to use logic and guilt and inspiration. I cried.
Nothing touched him. He went to school. He scored very well on tests. He wouldn’t do his homework.
The headmaster (did I tell you he is a really nice guy?) tried very hard. He tried talking to my son. He tried warning him that such behavior might make him have to leave the school. My son told us all he would do his homework.
Then the headmaster and I and my husband and several teachers all met. They told us how he was failing everything. They suggested that my son might just need some time away. They suggested that I take him out of the school for the remaining two months and home school him. “If you keep him here, he will fail 7th grade and, frankly, he is too smart to be held back. Bring him back next year, and we will put him back in.”
I was really upset, but I took him out and home schooled him.
Then the rumors started to surface. “I heard your son was expelled! What happened?”
“He wasn’t expelled,” I explained. “We just took him out for a few months.”
At this point there was nothing I could do. The rumor that my son had been expelled was rampant, there was no bringing it back, and since then, everyone had begun to fantasize what my son must have done that would deserve expulsion from a school with such a nice headmaster. My son is a good-looking boy, very popular, and style conscious. Those attributes were turned on their head in a vicious way as the rumors bloomed.
“I’m sorry, we can’t host your son for Shabbos,” one mother said with a straight face, “We just don’t have any room this week.” This is what I heard from their mouths. That was not what was said behind my back.
A friend came over and told me, “Mrs. So and So says your son over because he was caught kissing a girl in the elevator and expelled, and another family told me that your son was caught behind the school doing drugs and was expelled!” Another gentleman from the community asked after the welfare of my son when he head something that was so out-of-character he couldn’t believe it, “Is it true that your son vandalized the gym and was expelled?”
As my son’s “reputation” grew, he became withdrawn. He avoided his former friends and stayed close to home. By the time he was supposed to return to eighth grade at that school, he was so wounded, he didn’t want to go. We decided to home school him another year, along with his younger brother, who was also so tired of the rumors that he had given up at the school.
My son wasn’t a great home school student, I admit. It was difficult to get him to pay attention to subjects he didn’t care for—like mathematics—so I hired a tutor from the religious school he wanted to attend for high school and I did my best to get both of them to study, work hard, and most importantly, get over the wounds that had been inflicted upon them by the good intention of the headmaster and the evil tongues of those in the community. He taught himself to program computers. He discussed Torah with me. He taught himself guitar and piano. He drew beautiful pictures, went to museums, wrote essays for me. He learned to shoot a gun and snowboard. He started a small business on Ebay. He seemed to be healing, and he was more motivated.
As the time to apply for high school programs came around, he enthusiastically filled out the application materials, careful to mention that, in 7th grade, he had made a mistake and didn’t do his homework and that he had learned his lesson and was ready to return to school with a mature attitude and a resolve to apply himself. He was ready for Teshuva. He apologized to me, to my husband, to everyone he could think of. He studied hard for the entrance exams and lined up his paperwork.
He took the admissions tests at the yeshiva he had set his heart on. He didn’t score well in math (his weakest subject), but he did extremely well on the writing. We waited impatiently for his results. We got the rejection late, just a week before school. They told me that he had “behavioral” problems and that the math tutor I had paid so well had said that my son was unmotivated. I asked, “Where are the behavioral problems noted in his records? There are no behavioral problems!” The admissions director told me she wouldn’t discuss anything further, and that I was too “aggressive.”
I knew what had happened, and it had nothing to do with my son’s admissions tests. I knew a lot of kids who had done a lot worse on those tests, but they didn’t have rumors flying around about them.
We tried another school at the last minute. It is the only other Jewish high school in our town, and they happily agreed to take him on a provisional basis (because of his bad grades in seventh grade). They told him to report to school on Friday so that he could attend classes while we worked out the financial details. He was thrilled. Finally, a Jewish school that actually believed in teshuva!
That Friday he went to school. He is a very quiet kid, so he didn’t say much even though the kids were happy to see him. They knew him. They liked him, and they greeted him with happiness. During the last class of the day, during the last five minutes when everything was relaxed, a few boys who knew him started teasing him about the rumors in a friendly way, “I heard you were expelled they said.”
“No,” he replied, “I was asked to leave so that I could come back for eighth grade without being held back. I wasn’t expelled.”
“I heard the craziest things about you! They said you kissed a girl in the elevator! They said you did drugs! They said you trashed the gym!” They laughed. They all agreed they were ridiculous rumors and that he wasn’t the type of boy to even do those things.
But the teacher was listening.
We got a call this weekend, in the of the month of Elul, the month of Teshuva. The school had decided he just wasn’t academically prepared for their program, and one of the teachers had reported he was a distraction in her classroom, the last class of the day, on Friday.
I tried to argue with her and tell her my son was not the distraction, that the other kids were talking to him, but she firmly and politely stated, “I don’t disagree with what my teachers observe. Your son might think he knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t.”
I knew there was nothing to say, but I couldn’t keep myself from crying. My son knows what is going on all too well. I know what is going on too. I have no school for my son to attend. He is sitting in his room right now just staring into space. This is Elul, but no one will let my son do Teshuva. No one will let my son even try.
When my son was 12, he made a mistake--a stupid mistake, but a mistake that any 12 year-old might make. He stopped doing his homework. That is all.