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Building Blocks

Leah Gebber

Yudi turns around and makes eye contact with each of them in turn. “Want to be a good teacher? Celebrate each child. Don’t ever think you’re just teaching alef-beis. You’re imprinting each child with the knowledge that he’s as precious as each heilige letter”

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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WITNESS TO CREATION He sings it because these are the letters of the creation and when they’ll finally open up the first page of a Chumash and he chants the words, Bereishis bara Elokim, he’ll pray, pray with everything inside him that, he too, bears witness to a creation

Note to readers: Due to a technical error, some of the Calligraphy supplements were printed with incorrect text at the beginning of 'Building Blocks.' We apologize for this error. Click here for a printable version of the correct text.


R abbi Warman hovers at the entrance of Yudi’s classroom, and for a moment, Yudi’s heart lifts.

“Kinderlach!” Yudi claps his hands together. Moishy stops pulling a Magna-Tile out of Chaim’s hand and looks up. “Kinderlach, let’s all stand up for the menahel. That’s the way we show kavod to our special guest.”

Rabbi Warman takes a tentative step into the classroom. Yudi waits for him to say hello to the children. He doesn’t. For a second, Yudi thinks that Rabbi Warman might walk around the classroom, admire the displays. The Chanukah poster is fading; just yesterday, Yudi purchased a large fish tank, in preparation for Chodesh Adar, but it’s still at home, he has to figure out the filter system. Too bad.

The principal doesn’t visit first grade. Ever. He tests second grade on Chumash, third grade on Mishnayos, fifth grade on Gemara. He goes in there to dance at siyumim and persuade the kids to behave for the math teacher. But he never, ever comes to first grade.

It always bothered Yudi, still does. If only people saw what happens in my classroom, he thinks. It’s babies becoming children, it’s their first awareness of anger and compassion and jealousy and self-restraint: he likes to think that he gives them not just the building blocks of reading, but of relationships.

Like: Be polite. “So, Rabbi Warman, we’re honored to have you here today.”

Rabbi Warman rocks on his heels.

Like: Ask for what you need. Whether it’s the bathroom or a drink or a pencil or the principal to give something to the kids in your class. He wants to say, “Rabbi Warman, allow me to show you around the classroom.”

But Rabbi Warman tilts his head and summons him to the doorway, and the words become little gray pebbles in Yudi’s mouth. Mute, Yudi follows Rabbi Warman to the entrance.

That night, as he lies in bed, replaying Rabbi Warman’s words in his head, Yudi thinks of the way it should have been.

He would have, should have, steered Rabbi Warman to the alef-beis display, and said, “Rabbi Warman, take a look at what the kids have been working so hard on.” In his father’s lingo, his alef-beis wall isn’t just a display, it’s a mission statement.

In the way the scene should have run, Yudi would have pointed to the beis. “When I teach beis, I tell the kids that the letter is also the number two. We draw pictures showing how we have to realize that it’s not just about Number One — me — but we have to think about other kids.”

Nod please, Rabbi W, Yudi commands from the safety of his pillow.

Sure enough, the daydream Rabbi Warman nods.

Yudi pushes on, explaining: “Like, it’s about teaching little Moishy that if Zelig wants to help him build a Beis Hamikdash from Clics, he should let him help. Cuz ‘two are better than one.’ ”

He would point to gimmel and daled, who share a poster. “Here, the kids learn about gomel dalim, what it means to be a giver.”

Yudi rubs his eyes and, in his mind, steers Rabbi Warman over to the letter hei. “Zevi over there, he rips up his pictures when he colors over the line. And little Ari, when he hits another kid he’s so upset at himself that he’ll spend the next hour in the book corner, not playing with anyone. So this is really important — knowing that we’re allowed to make mistakes. The letter hei teaches us that — we can make mistakes and pick ourselves up again and Hashem accepts our teshuvah.”

In his mind, Yudi sees Rabbi Warman comb his fingers through his beard and nod appreciatively. Yudi adjusts his blanket. He should sleep, but he can’t, his mind is busy in his classroom with Rabbi Warman, putting things right. Practicing the hei.

Doesn’t he see?

Doesn’t Rabbi Warman see that he’s not just teaching reading? He’s teaching alef-beis. Yudi throws off the covers and begins to pace his bedroom. What had really happened was a… a…

He takes a deep breath.

A betrayal. (Excerpted from Calligraphy, Pesach 5777-2017)

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