Building a Mark

Some men and women, all ages and backgrounds, do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. Like a warm, cuddly duvet on a bitterly cold night, their actions and words bring comfort to the distressed, direction to the bewildered, cheer to the isolated. “For the word is not yet on my tongue…” (Tehillim 139:4) — and these earthly angels appear bearing goodness.

What drives these extraordinary people to behave toward others with such compassion and exactitude? An inherited do-good gene? A tradition of family behavior? A middah — personality trait — cultivated through Torah study? Or a traumatic event that inspired them to never destroy but always build a person’s confidence and dignity? Hold that thought!

Years ago, I was an English teacher in a public high school. Armed with a graduate degree, I approached my first job with a passion to change the world.

Contrary to contemporary pedagogues, I argued that the goal of education was to create a mentch, a trustworthy contributor to society, family and oneself. It’s nice to identify a dangling participle, but it’s not necessary for a meaningful life.

My Grade 11 class was delightful — 20 motivated, respectful boys and girls from blue-collar and immigrant families, all with caring parents. Everyone raised their hands to ask or answer a question and when acknowledged, stood up to address me.

Truth to tell, my favorite was Mario Rocca. Why so? Burdened with immigrant struggles and sensitivities, in some ways his gevalds reflected mine. While his classmates enjoyed after-school sports, he worked as a grocery delivery boy. Compelled to succeed, he was outgoing, self-reflective, street smart with an engaging smile.

To stimulate creative thinking and class spirit, twice a month everybody wrote a two-page essay about their brilliant or boring weekend, and everybody could read their stories aloud. Eager hands waving in the air always greeted me.

One day I chose Mario, who confidently ran to the front, excited to share his adventure.

“Very early Sunday morning,” he began, “I was woken up by the sound of my mother’s sweat voice and I…”

Instantly, the class burst out laughing. Mario had confused “sweat” and “sweet.” Paralyzed by their ridicule, he remained silent, then took his seat — wounded by an honest word.

The moment was mine.

When the laughter stopped, my voice engulfed the room. Calmly, I explained that English is a dysfunctional language and displayed words with illogical “ea” and “ee” pronunciations. The class was fascinated with this novel information, and Mario’s commonplace mistake began to lose its unfair mockery.

Gently, I segued into our behavior toward others. Someone’s hurtful words and actions can become embedded in our hearts and minds, stunt our emotional growth and impact our future choices. I asked if someone’s cruel words had ever crushed their feelings, damaged their confidence … Painful silence.

That childhood chant, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me!” — Fake News. Our mission is to build people’s confidence, self-esteem, help them achieve their personal best. The good we give is the good we receive … somewhere, sometime, somehow.

As heads bobbed up and down in agreement, I revealed my story from my Grade 11 English class.

Miss Riley assigned a 2,500-word essay about a personal issue that stimulated our thoughts. Entitled “Soldiers and Raindrops,” I thought about war. “Why do countries fight with each other? Why is world history … war history? Why have billions of soldiers died? Maybe every raindrop that falls from heaven is the soul of a soldier who nourishes the planet and wants us to stop fighting?” Sprinkled throughout were excerpts from poignant war poems.

For generations, Miss Riley’s system for returning essays never changed. Marks appeared on the last page alongside her comments. Three students were chosen to read their work aloud and discussions followed. Next day, another three selected, more discussions, all essays returned.

How thrilling to be one of her chosen people and, moreover, the first reader! No doubt, she loved my work and gave me a high mark.

When I fearlessly reached the last page, she burst out laughing. “This is the most ridiculous essay I have ever read in my life!” she giggled. “With this stuff… I doubt if you’ll pass Grade 13 and get to university.” My classmates, eager to please, chuckled along.

With my reddened face boiling in humiliation, I stumbled to my seat. Her cruel written comments accentuated my mark… 40/100. I trudged home in the frigid wind, tears frozen on my face.

My students were traumatized, glued to their seats.

Suddenly, the macho football star exclaimed, “Mario, I’m sorry I laughed at you!” Then another, another, another. High-voltage remorse. My suggestion to apologize in unison got instant applause. That day, nobody read an essay aloud — but everybody absorbed a lesson within.

Remember… Hold that thought?

Thank you, mean, miserable Miss Riley. From the pit of my pain, I vowed that if I became a teacher, I would never hurt a student with toxic disrespect. To degrade a person is to demolish his world.

At year’s end, Mario had blossomed into a top student — a confident teenager with boundless energy, authentic goodness, many friends.

By the way, “Soldiers and Raindrops” rests peacefully in my “Why-Are-You-Saving-This?” filing cabinet, alongside my Grade 4 scrapbook of the Queen, my first airline ticket with boarding pass, and more treasures.

Many years whizzed by …

Time for the annual 70%-off sale at the city’s most elegant, expensive boutique. To go was a self-evident truth. The only nearby parking spot was under the sign: “Private Property. Cars Will Be Towed.” Hmmm … but never my car.

Hours later, bulging with bags, strolling toward my… Help! A policeman, ticket book in hand, was standing beside a tow truck hoisting my car to the heavens. Making an Olympic-style dash to the crime scene, I began my “I’m just a girl” routine. “Pleeease, stop the tow, cancel the ticket with all those extra expenses, aggravation. Pleeease!”

Instead of ordering me to stop whining, he shouted, “Miss Shapiro!” Two bags fell from my hands.

“Don’t you remember me?” he continued excitedly, “I’m Michael Flanagan. You were my Grade 11 English teacher. You made that incredible speech about being nice to Mario. I became a police officer because of you, because I wanted to do good for others. I’ll never forget you.”

On the spot, he ripped up the ticket, ordered the tow driver to lower my car and leave.

Speechless. But how do my stories relate to Sukkos?

Meticulously, we build and beautify our sukkah. Within its walls, we enjoy meals, learn Torah, share moments, memories, and even sleep. Eight days later, we lovingly dismantle it. Has everything ended? All over? Certainly not.

The structure no longer stands, but Hashem’s surrounding light, ohr makif, that provided protection within the sukkah always remains with us, like our shadow. And when we perform acts of kindness toward others, the eternal influence of our deeds also remains.

We cannot grasp the kedushah permeating every detail in the building of our sukkah. So too, we cannot grasp the supernal scope of our good words and actions.

Comprised of assorted pieces of raw materials, our sukkah needs a builder to transform it into a sanctified dwelling. Also, the Jew. Whatever our level of Yiddishkeit, we all need a builder — Rabbi, mentor, spouse, friend, teacher — to help us know our authentic self, fulfill our mission and make a good mark.

When we daven the evening service of Shabbos and Yom Tov, we ask Hashem to “spread over us His sukkah of peace.”

In Horeb, his brilliant exploration of the threads that unify the fabric of Jewish Life, Harav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch describes the sukkah as a symbol of universal peace and harmony rooted in our immutable belief … and a beautiful mitzvah that preserves the link with our ancestors, creates sanctity within the Jewish nation and enriches our gratitude to The Builder beyond definition, beyond words, beyond forever.

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