Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 2 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications
Eight-year-old Avi looked at the note. The atrocious handwriting was very familiar, a little too familiar. But how had Ronny gotten a hold of this? And what did it say?
“Do you know who wrote this?” Ronny’s gentle tone did not fool Avi for a minute. His big brother was angry, and he, Avi, was undoubtedly his intended victim.
“Yes,” he said, standing up very straight. He could not allow Ronny to see that he was afraid of him. “He’s my friend.”
“Your friend? Which one?”
Avi giggled. Calling Rafi a friend was preposterous, but that wasn’t Ronny’s business. “Rafi Zimmer. He’s a kid in my class.”
The older boy crumpled the note into a little ball, but then reconsidered. He smoothed out the creased paper and put it into his pocket.
“Get him for me,” he said, his eyes boring into his younger brother’s face. “Did you hear me? I said to go get him.”
Avi laughed nervously. Ronny was asking him the impossible. “Get him? I can’t,” he said uneasily.
“I’m afraid of him. He promised that…”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t worry too much. He doesn’t look very scary,” Ronny said dryly, and then suddenly added, “Actually, his courage could make him a bit scary. It’s been a long time since someone tried to attack me.”
“He…” Avi sucked in his breath and tried again. “What did he do to you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t really call it an attack, but I want to know why he did what he did do, and based on this note, you’re supposed to have some idea about that.”
Avi sighed. “I told Mrs. Davidi that Rafi tore the attendance book.”
“You little snitch. And now yer scared o’ him?”
“Yep. He’s really strong. Everyone’s afraid of him.”
“So he gave up on you and decided to start up with me instead,” Ronny said coldly. “This note says, ‘To your brother’. I assume he meant that I should give it over to you.”
“Give what over to me?”
“I would think he wants me to give those punches he gave me over to you, no?”
Avi walked carefully towards the door.
“But I’ll spare you,” Ronny said casually, “if…”
Avi held his breath.
“If you tell me everything you know about Rafi. Where he lives, what his family is like, that kind of stuff.”
Ayala raised her eyes to the ticking clock, sighed, and began to write:
The teacher’s meeting that I had been officially invited to took place in the new school, located—for now—in an old two-story structure that had previously served as a community center. It had been unoccupied for a few years until it was chosen to house our new school. “I hope this building will serve us well,” Rabbi Reich said in his opening remarks, “and that it won’t take too long until we have to add some caravans to it!”
When Rabbi Reich finished speaking, Ita Blumenstock walked up to the old lectern.
“Good evening, dear teachers. Welcome, and I wish us all a lot of success this school year. It’s late, so I won’t speak for long, but I wanted to discuss a few points with you.”
We all nodded.
“You’ll all be receiving your class lists shortly. The tenth grade teachers can contact their class’s teachers from last year to get any necessary information about the girls.
As for the ninth grade teachers, beside each girl’s name on your lists is the name of that girl’s teacher from last year, but it’s really only for unusual situations and you shouldn’t need it now. Anyone who’s interested can get a general overview of each girl from us, if she’d like.”
“Why would we want that?” I spoke up. “Really, let’s give these girls a chance. Why do I have to know if a certain girl got an acceptance letter from the other school but was selected to be transferred here, or if she tearfully checked the mailbox four times a day for five weeks, but didn’t get any acceptance letters except to here? Who needs that information?”
“Of course we need to know!” Miriam Gamliel—my parallel teacher now—declared. “Because when the problems start—”
“Let’s hope that won’t happen, b’ezras Hashem!” Ita interrupted from her position at the creaky lectern.
“Fine,” Miriam agreed. “If problems do crop up, though, it’ll be important for us to know if those problems are old issues or if they’re recent developments, right?”
“So things can be checked out at that point,” I said. Our third parallel teacher, Hadassah Kurtzberg, smiled quietly.
“But there are things that are important enough for us to know now,” Sara Pollak, one of the tenth grade homeroom teachers, interjected. “Family problems, for example, or other such things.”
“Those things are important,” I conceded. “But we don’t have to know who is here despite being accepted elsewhere and who is here because she wasn’t accepted anywhere else.”
“That will be a personal decision for each of you to make,” Ita said shortly, trying to close the topic. She raised her voice and began speaking again. “In any case, we have a lot of work ahead of us and it’s going to take lots of effort from us all. The girls who were accepted easily to high school need just as much attention and warmth as the other girls.” She stopped for a moment. A large piece of plaster suddenly broke loose and fell from the wall beside her. “Well, we’ll have to invest efforts into this as well,” she said, and we all laughed.
“I really hope that they’re going to paint before school starts,” Hadassah said, speaking up for the first time. “I can’t concentrate on teaching a lesson if I’m surrounded by peeling walls covered with scribbles.”
“And they should do it as early as possible,” another teacher, whose name I did not know, added. “It won’t do much for our reputation if the girls come home the first day of school with paint stains on their clothes.”
I’d heard this phrase often in the past, although with one significant difference: In the old school they would say, “It won’t do much for our good reputation if our girls come home at eleven o’clock at night,” or, “It won’t be good for our sterling reputation if people find out that we accepted those girls.” But here, this teacher said, “It won’t do much for our reputation.” Just “our reputation”. Without the “good” or “sterling” or any other accolade to that reputation.
Of course, we were at the starting point. We were not in a deficit or surplus yet. Our reputation was not good; nor was it not good. We were just a new, foundling school with teachers who landed here a mere week ago, some happy, others less so. The furniture was old, comprised of remnants that other schools no longer needed or wanted, and the peeling walls just completed the overall picture.
“I peeked into an open classroom before,” a women with a short sheitel remarked. “The desks are so dirty.”
“We’re going to bring in a cleaning company,” Ita said reassuringly. “And painters.”
“Is there going to be a copy machine?” Miriam asked snippily.
“Of course. We got a photocopy machine and a computer from Shiras Chana. They are in excellent condition.” Ita sighed, as though growing tired of this subject, too. “Anyway, dear teachers, before we talk about some of our plans for the beginning of the year, I’d like to give something out.”
She bent over to a yellow bag at the foot of the lectern. We could all see that there was another bag behind it as well. Ita lifted them both onto the table and took a green book with a hard cover out of the yellow bag.
“I want to give each one of you this journal,” she said with a confident smile. “The pages inside are empty. I am asking each teacher to try and write in the journal at least twice a week. You can write about things that happen to you, incidents in class, or about your students.”
“Anything? Like, ‘Chana was late because her mother had a baby, and we all wished her mazel tov’?” a teacher queried.
Ita didn’t address the actual example. “I mean that you should write down different events, feelings, points that catch your attention. Keep your journals; they will be of use later on. I am planning another teachers’ meeting, b’ezras Hashem, in the winter. These journals will be part of the program.”
The teachers looked around at one another. Most of them did not know Ita, but I did, and I knew that Miriam had been right. With Ita’s original ideas, it would not be boring around here; that was for sure.
Ayala yawned, knowing that she’d have to make some changes in the entry, as well as erase the last two lines. But tomorrow was another days. She had to get to bed.
She passed by the window in the small dark hallway and shivered from the freezing wind blowing into the house. Quickly, she slid the window shut.
“Ima?” She heard a whisper behind her.
“Sari? What’s the matter? Couldn’t fall asleep, or you just woke up?”
Sari yawned. “I didn’t fall asleep yet. I have a poetry test tomorrow, and rhymes and stanzas are dancing around in my brain. Are you going to sleep now?”
Her daughter’s yawn was contagious and Ayala paused to let it pass. “I’m on my way, yes.”
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Sure, baruch Hashem. I was just finishing up some work, nothing to do with the classes I have to give tomorrow.” She’d show Sari the journal one day, but right now, she didn’t even have the strength to talk about it.
“Goodnight.” She took another few steps down the hall, and then suddenly turned around. How did your day go, Sari? She suddenly felt the urge to ask. But Sari was already back in her room.
The third-grade teacher, Debby Davidi, sat in the office of the new guidance counselor. She’d been here for just a few minutes, but had already developed a deep dislike for her. Debby had always had something against the counselors who came to school and tried to dictate to the teachers what to do with their students. Who was in the classroom—the teacher or the counselor? Who had to deal with the problems? Who saw the whole picture, day after day, hour by hour?
But guidance counselors were always sure that with a few smart questions they’d have it all figured out, and all the problems would get solved with some swift strokes of their pen. What nonsense.
Debby chewed her wad of gum with renewed vigor. At least the old guidance counselor had been really experienced. But she had left, been promoted or something, and had been replaced by this young woman who looked like she was barely out of school herself. Really! Well, if she thought she could solve the issues of the problem kids in Debby’s class—she had another thing coming.
“How old are you?” Debby found herself asking.
The woman behind the desk stifled a sigh. “Almost twenty-seven.”
“My goodness! I wouldn’t have guessed that you’d be more than twenty-two, twenty-three. So, what have you managed to learn over the past few years?”
Rina swallowed another sigh. “I have a B.A. in social work and I’m working towards my Masters in education. Can we continue now, Mrs. Davidi?”
“Yeah, alright, let’s finish already. You can call me Debby, by the way.”
“Okay, Debby.” Rina glanced down at her papers. “Kobi Almog.”
“There’s some improvement,” the teacher replied, placing her pocketbook on her lap.
“In what areas?”
“Like, generally,” Debby said, rummaging around in her bag. “Things are better; attentiveness, concentration, homework, things like that. Who’s next on the list?”
“Also better,” Debby muttered, looking around at the colorful walls. “Rachel left you a really nice room.”
“Rafi Zimmer,” Rina tried again, with a trace of despair this time. She’d already mentioned seven names and the teacher’s cooperation was hovering around the zero point. How was she supposed to get anywhere like this?
“Rafi?” Debby chuckled and turned her attention away from the walls. “You can erase him from your list.”
“Ah, you’ve seen such a tremendous improvement in him?” the young guidance counselor asked, her voice laced with cynical bitterness.
“Improvement? No, absolutely not.” Debby stood up to throw her gum into the garbage can. “I just think that any work on him is a total waste of time. Mark my words; within five or six years, that kid’s going to have a criminal file.”
“Why? He has a difficult temperament?”
“I don’t understand; didn’t you read his file?”
“I haven’t managed to read all these files yet. Can you just give me an answer, please?” Rina’s frustration was mounting.
“Fine. It’s not too hard to reach that conclusion, considering the facts at hand. What do you want from a child who lives only with his mother and one-year-old sister? The house is dirty and neglected, and the mother suffers from emotional problems and I don’t know what else. Notebooks? Forget it. Ditto for homework. He refused to cooperate with the evaluations. He comes to school whenever he wants and gets up and leaves when he pleases. He’s already displayed several signs of violence.”
“Hold it, one minute,” the counselor said, taking a break from her furious writing. “Violence? Against whom? Teachers? Students?”
“Mainly students. It’s been many years—and, as you know, I’ve been a teacher for a long time—since I’ve seen a child attract so much violence from fellow classmates.”
“One minute; I don’t get it. He hurts others, or they hurt him?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Debby said, sighing impatiently. “He attacks others and they attack him. The kids hate him. Every class has its resident scapegoat who’s involved in every fight. And this one—Rafi—is very strong, from what I’ve seen.”
“Is anything being done about the home situation?”
“Well, like I said, things are not good there at all. The social services are involved. They’re planning to take his sister out of there and put her into foster care soon; there’s even talk of putting her up for adoption. They want to do the same for him, too, but it’s not working. He’s not exactly good at obeying orders from others.”
“How well does his mother function?”
“She takes care of the baby, but pays no attention to him at all, as far as I know. He wanders in the streets for a large part of the day.”
“There is food, I think. They have someone from social services who’s supposed to be on top of it. He basically serves himself.”
“But he’s only eight!”
“Eight-and-a-half, almost nine,” Debby corrected her.
Rina looked at her papers. “I want to meet him,” she said.
Debby sat up straight. “Don’t bother. He won’t come,” she said shortly.
“Nevertheless, I’d like to try. Do you think that if I come to the classroom to call him, he’ll agree to come with me?”
Debby rose. She was not going to let this guidance counselor gain control over everything going on here. “I’ll try and call him. Go figure; maybe he’ll agree? He’s very unpredictable.”
Debby left, leaving Rina sitting mournfully at her desk, overcome with frustration. How was she supposed to work here if no one was interested in her success? Was she supposed to continue like this?
She had absently sketched two thorny flowers on the paper in front of her when the door opened suddenly, spilling rays of sun into the dark corridor, splashing the dim floors with a pale light. Rina raised her eyes to see a boy standing in the doorway. The boy let the door slam shut behind him. He had a mop of light brown curls that hadn’t been cut in a long time. They fell around his face messily, but he didn’t bother to push away the hair that covered his eyes.
“Rafi?” Rina rose from her chair, careful not to take a single step towards him.
“Mrs. Davidi said you called me,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
“That’s right,” she said softly. “I wanted to… speak to you a little.”
Rafi did not respond.
“Which lesson do you have now?”
“Who’s the teacher?”
“The tall one with the black glasses.”
Rina smiled. “Is that his name?”
“Were you happy to get out of class to come here?”
“Ah, you like his classes?”
“What did Mrs. Davidi tell you?”
“To come here.”
Rina sat back down. “Did she tell you why?”
“And do you know why?”
“No.” He put his hand on the doorknob, apparently fed up with her annoying questions.
“Do you want me to tell you why I called you?”
He looked at her. His eyes were green, “like an alley cat,” as Debby had said. But Rina could barely see his eyes because of the curls hanging in front of them. “Because I don’t care,” he said dully, turning the knob.
“Fine, I see that you don’t want to talk to me today, Rafi,” Rina said resignedly. “Would you like to come back tomorrow?”
“No.” He shoved the door open.
“Are you going back to class now?”
“Where are you going?”
He didn’t reply. His right foot was already out of the room.
“Do you want to come with me?”
He was caught off-guard. “Where to?”
“To the grocery. I want to buy something to eat for myself.”
His eyes were fixed on her wallet as she spoke. He nodded slowly. “Without questions.”
“Questions. Don’t ask me anything.”
Rina laughed. “I see you’re annoyed with my questions, aren’t you? Fine, we have a deal.”
She tried to proffer her hand as she reached the door, but he ignored it. They quietly walked down the hall and out of the building to the gate. The guard squinted at them suspiciously. “Zimmer? In middle of class? Where are you going exactly?”
“He’s coming with me,” Rina said. “I’ll bring him back soon.”
They walked out onto the street, crossed the road silently, and headed for the little grocery store.
“I think I’m going to buy myself a roll and a small bottle of chocolate milk,” Rina chatted lightly. “Did you eat breakfast today?”
The child pretended not to hear her.
“You’re a nice kid,” she continued, “and I like you. I’m going to buy some for you, too, okay?”
No answer. She fell silent.
They entered the store and walked between the packed shelves until they reached the refrigerator. Rina felt horrible about it, but she kept her left hand firmly in her pocket, covering her wallet, the entire time. She hoped Rafi hadn’t noticed her slightly awkward position, but she wasn’t sure. He stood silently and stared as she moved the bottles around in the fridge.
“Nu, Rafi, what are you taking?”
“You forgot,” he said hoarsely, sounding much older than his eight years. “You keep asking questions.”
“Oh, you’re right,” she said, slapping her forehead. “I totally forgot that I promised not to ask any questions. So now I’m really stopping; I won’t ask anything. But you can take whatever you like.”
“I don’t like,” Rafi said. “We have lots of these things in our refrigerator at home. I can take some whenever I want. I don’t need you to buy me anything.”
She was so stunned to hear such a long sentence come out of his mouth that she remained rooted to the floor in front of the open refrigerator.
“Hey, lady!” the grocer yelled from his spot at the register. “You think the refrigerator is your personal air conditioner? Close the door already. And carefully, please!”
Rina closed the door and turned to Rafi. He was standing there, toeing a small puddle of milk that had pooled around the boxes.
“And you, kid! Stop squirting sour milk on all my shelves!” the grocer continued his tirade. “Y’hear me? Stop it, I said!”
The eight-year-old continued tapping his foot in the middle of the dirty puddle, showing no sign that he had heard anything.
“Come, Rafi,” Rina said hurriedly. “I’m going to the front to pay.” He dragged his feet, following her slowly.