Divided Attention-Chapter 5

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 5 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

“Nava, what are you doing?”

“Homework. Ugh!”

Her father’s eyebrows rose. “Ugh? Am I hearing right? To the best of my recollection, the thing that you were most afraid of during summer vacation was the thought that you wouldn’t have homework this year. Hmm…”

Nava smiled. “You get used to good things very quickly, Abba,” she said, putting her pencil down on the open geometry book. The two triangles she was working on were congruent; that much was obvious, but how was she supposed to come to the conclusion that segment CD was equal to EF? They were nowhere near the triangles! “The truth is,” she continued, without looking up from the book, “groaning about homework and schoolwork is part of the fun of being in high school. I’m just enjoying the privilege.”

Nava’s father picked up the pencil and toyed with it. “Still, I would expect you to be a bit more respectful about school. It’s not a good idea for people to hear you talking like that, you know.”

Nava bit her lip and looked out the window. “I only make such comments at home, Abba,” she finally said quietly. “I think I’m considered a very serious student in school. Serious as far as effort, of course.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Manny Cohen said. “Such an image can never hurt you.”

Nava observed the hope on his tranquil features and then shifted her gaze to the pencil in his hand. “Abba, do you see this problem?” she asked carefully. “I don’t really understand it.”

Her father leaned over the book and glanced at the sketch. “Look, Nava, you know that in principle, I believe that you have to do your own homework. If I tell you the answers, how will you ever learn the material?”

“So just give me a little hint, Abba. Please!”

He couldn’t resist his daughter’s pleas. “Okay. You see these two angles, B1 and C1?”

“Uh-huh.”

“They’re equal, right?”

Nava looked again. “Right. Um… actually, why?”

“Because they are opposite angles between parallel lines.”

“Where are the parallel lines here?”

The pencil pointed to the right spot.

“Okay, I get that,” Nava said. “And if they are equal, then what?”

“That’s it. That’s the hint,” Manny said and put the pencil back down on the book. It rolled to the edge of the table and then onto the floor.

“Thanks a lot, Abba,” Nava said, reluctantly turning back to the textbook. And if the lines and angles were parallel, did that mean they were equal? She bent over and picked up the pencil, and then noticed that her father was still standing there.

“I wanted to speak to you about something, Nava,” he said when he saw that she had noticed him. “Do you remember that I went to Reb Shlomo during vacation when… when we weren’t sure what would be with you this year?”

Her face clouded. “Sure I remember, Abba,” she said quietly.

“Do you remember what he said?”

“That b’ezras Hashem, everything would be fine and that we should continue working on all fronts.”

“And what else?”

She squinted in concentration. Tests always got her nervous. “Don’t remember.”

“He said that we should accept something on ourselves, something that we’d do when we’d get good news.”

“Ah, right. So I said Nishmas on the day they called from the school.”

“And…?”

“And I volunteer at a family whose mother has mono, and I watch Shimon’s Danny every week.”

The smile on her father’s face faded instantly. “Yes, I know. Do you talk to Rina a lot?”

“Not really. We don’t have too much to talk about.”

“Good. And you remember that you’re never to go to their house, no matter what, right?”

Nava nodded. “Ima explained that to Rina when we made this arrangement. Rina understands very well why you don’t want me to go there. But she has a car anyway, so I don’t think it’s a big deal for her to bring Danny here. ”

“Did you tell her what you went through with the high school?”

Nava colored the triangle in the book with her pencil. “I once mentioned something in passing, but nothing more than that.”

“What did she say?”

Nava tried to remember. “She listened quietly, that’s all. Well, I didn’t really expect an apology from her, even though a lot of the whole thing was because of them.”

“It’s a shame that you’re scribbling in your book,” her father said, and Nava began rummaging in her pencil case for an eraser. “How’s Danny?”

He hadn’t seen his grandson in weeks. The hours that his daughter-in-law needed Nava’s babysitting services coincided with his learning time, and he wasn’t willing to give up those few hours for anything. It was enough that the rav had told him not to leave his morning job, and to suffice with learning half a day.

Nava shrugged. “Cute. But I can’t show him off to my friends.”

“What do you mean?”

“He comes with a yarmulke; I guess Rina pins it on him before they come up here, but he’s so not used to it that he usually throws it on the floor within a few minutes. Besides, even though he’s only three, he’s different. His concepts, the expressions he uses, even that look in his eyes are all very different from the children who play downstairs here.”

Manny sighed quietly.

“But he doesn’t play with the neighbors here,” Nava hurried to reassure her father as she blew the tiny pieces from the eraser off her book. “As for me? I don’t think he can have a negative influence on me. After all, I grew up that way until I was seven, and Danny doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen before.”

“Who knows? This crazy generation we live in…” Manny’s voice trailed off. “I have to protect you, Nava’le. It’s enough that my only son grew up to be a nothing. You will turn out, b’ezras Hashem, the way I want to see you today. You know that, don’t you?”

She tried to decipher the look on his face, but his eyes were distant, focused on a remote spot somewhere outside the window.

***

Rina marked off something on the paper in front of her. The door opened again.

“Yes, Kobi?”

“Mrs. Davidi said that Rafi didn’t come to school today. I totally forgot that when you asked me to call him.”

“I see. Thank you, Kobi.” What timing. For three days she had seen him passing her in the halls, and today, when she wanted to meet him, he was absent?

But Mrs. Davidi probably wasn’t lying. Or rather, it was unlikely that she would send a student to lie on her behalf.

What would be with Rafi? Rina closed her binder with a snap and slid her pen into its holder. She had met Rafi Zimmer for the first time on Monday. Today was Thursday, and for the past few days she hadn’t been able to get him out of her mind, even though when they met in the halls he ignored her almost completely, except for a slight flicker of recognition in his eyes. What was it about this child that occupied her thoughts so much? Perhaps it was because his was the most unusual situation that she had encountered since beginning her internship. But that wasn’t the only reason. There was something else about the boy that didn’t let her forget him. He wasn’t a particularly sweet or charming child, nor was he robust or good-looking, and he was definitely not friendly, either. So what was it?

Rina walked out of the school building, deliberating whether to get into the car and go home or to first pop into a nearby children’s clothing store. She had seen advertisements that the store was having a winter bash, and her Danny was growing so fast.

The truth was, she mused, it wouldn’t be long before Danny stopped letting her pick out his clothes. Soon he would develop his own opinions about what he wore—and about other things, as well. Even now, he wasn’t an easy child. He was very stubborn and extremely spoiled. What would be in two years? Three? When he would be a boy of nine and ten? From the perspective her new job had given her on how kids were nowadays, she knew that she wouldn’t be given much of a say about anything at that point.

There was the store; it was really close. She just had to walk one block, cross the street, and she’d be there.

But she didn’t even get to the crossing before she saw Rafi Zimmer. He was sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, right near the crosswalk, his feet resting on the gutter. He didn’t seem to have noticed her at all, as he leaned forward, observing the passing cars.

“Good morning, Rafi,” Rina said with a tentative smile, approaching him from behind. “Or rather, good afternoon. I’m so happy I met you. How are you?” Before she had even finished the “good morning,” he had already jumped to a standing position and was staring at her with a closed mouth. He didn’t reply to her questions.

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Rina added. Now was hardly the time to tell him that it was dangerous for him to sit with his feet in the road. She doubted that such a comment would make much of an impression on him.

“I didn’t get scared,” Rafi said, flipping back a few stray strands of hair.

“Do you live near here?”

“Whaddaya want from me today?” was his reply as he turned partway back towards the street.

Rina smiled. “To talk to you,” she said to his shoulder. “When we met on Monday, you weren’t really in the mood to talk.”

“I’m not in the mood today, either,” Rafi grumbled. He sat down on the sidewalk again. “Just go away.”

She ignored his impudent command. “I actually called you to my office today. But you weren’t in school.”

He spun around suddenly. “Hey, are you the truant officer?”

“The what?” Rina asked, her eyes opening wide.

“Y’know, that lady who visits kids who don’t go to school.”

“Interesting,” she said, maintaining the innocent look in her eyes. “When I was little, I was once sick and didn’t come to school for a week and a half. No one came to visit me.”

Rafi’s eyes bore into hers, emanating blatant distrust. “Don’t tell me ya don’t know about her,” he said. “She doesn’t check up on kids who don’t come to school cuz they’re sick or something. She only comes to kids who don’t come just because.”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as kids who don’t come ‘just because,’” Rina said solemnly, although deep in her heart she was grinning widely. She wondered what her course lecturers would say if they saw the scene in which this conversation was taking place. The roaring traffic in the background, the kid in the faded pants on the sidewalk, and an almost-certified guidance counselor half bending over him. But who said that therapy sessions had to take place in a quiet, heated room behind a big official desk?

“I don’t think that there are children who don’t come to school because they just don’t want to learn,” she repeated. “I’m sure there are other reasons, right?”

He smiled suddenly. “Ah, and you prob’ly wanna know why I hate school, huh? Sarah also always wants to know.” And then, in a flash, the few moments of benevolence were over. “But I’m not gonna tell you anything. I don’t even wanna talk to you, so just go away, now.”

***

Just below the green and black science poster depicting “The Principle of Transmission of Fluid Pressure” sat Nava Cohen. Her eyes were fixed, seriously as always, on her siddur, her brown ponytail in its seemingly permanent position over her right shoulder.

Next to her sat Batya Schindler, whose siddur was also open in front of her, though her eyes roved dreamily towards the window that faced the yard. The  yard had recently been paved with new reddish-brown tiles, and it served—weather permitting—as the school’s assembly hall. Any activities involving two or more classes were held there, because the classrooms were too small to contain more than a standard-sized class.

At this morning hour, the yard was empty, except for a single sparrow that hopped perkily near a puddle that had formed at the fence where the tiling was slightly sunken.

Morah Ayala also liked the yard, but from her seat she couldn’t see much, not even the sparrow.

Batya returned her eyes to her siddur, resolving some of Ayala’s doubts—at least for today. She couldn’t decide whether, as mechaneches, it was her job to say something to a fourteen-year-old girl who dreamed her way through davening, or if a ninth grader was supposed to be responsible for herself. If the latter was the case, then why did the girls come to school at eight to daven, instead of davening at home?

Swallowing a sigh, Ayala shifted her gaze from Batya to the central wall that had been newly decorated just two days prior. She had been unsure what to do about that also, as creative ideas were not her forte, so she had left the job to the girls, or more accurately, to the committee she had appointed. She had advised the girls, of course, and had heard their ideas and expressed her opinion, but the idea, the planning, and the execution was all theirs, and they had truly outdone themselves.

Ayala took her green journal out of her bag. She hadn’t progressed at all over the past two days—or rather, she hadn’t flashed back to those first two days of school. She picked up her pen, glanced at the whitewashed walls beside her, and began to write:

Today was the first day of real school. Yesterday I just took attendance, got to meet the girls, spoke a bit about new beginnings, distributed the temporary schedule, and we went home. Today the real learning began.

The girls were amazingly attentive. I wondered if this was an especially focused, disciplined class, or if they were like that only because it was the first day of school. The walls were pristine white, and I didn’t know when they were painted or if they had even had time to dry. They were a bit too shiny. I preferred not to take the risk and I moved my chair forward a bit, afraid of the white piece of wall under the blackboard behind my desk.

“Morah,” someone called out, “the walls are dry. I checked.”

I thanked her with a broad smile and asked her for her name.

“Nava Cohen,” she replied seriously, and I remembered her right away.

During recess I went to the teachers’ room. It was obvious that they’d given a lot of thought to this room. A jar of coffee, a box of teabags, a bowl of sugar, and even a little container of Splenda all stood beside a large electric urn, cups, and two containers of milk. (“Finish all the milk today, ladies; the refrigerator hasn’t arrived yet,” Ita announced.)Everything was there, except for… plastic spoons. They had forgotten to buy spoons. How would we measure out coffee and sugar? How would we mix anything?

“It’s healthier not to mix it,” one teacher said, trying to “spoon” some coffee into her cup with the knife that had been used to open the milk. It took much more time and energy than it should have, with meager results. Someone else tried to pour coffee directly from the jar to the cup, but she wasn’t satisfied either. She went to the small sink in the corner of the room to clean off the edge of her white blouse that had gotten splattered, and Ita said, “I’ll run to the grocery and buy some plastic spoons. By the next break you’ll be able to have a hot drink.”

I volunteered to go instead of her; a short argument ensued, and she won. She took her wallet and left.

The girls rose to daven Shemoneh Esrei and Ayala stopped writing. She had to move on to another topic already; if she’d devote two pages to every little thing, she’d finish the notebook in no time.

Once at home, Ayala sat down again to write:

Rabbi Reich recently spoke to Ita about launching a chessed program in school, and she mentioned it to us during recess one day. Right away it sounded like a wonderful idea, although Ita wasn’t yet sure if every girl should be obligated to participate in it, or if the program should be optional instead. The chessed program would involve having the girls volunteer at homes where help was needed. We, the teachers, would have to vet the homes, of course, and add—if we had—any additional names to the list.

I immediately thought about my sister-in-law. Just recently, the doctors finally decided that she has mono, and I knew that getting her family more help, beyond what we, the extended family, could offer, would be a blessing for them. So I added her name and address to the ever-growing list in Nechamah, the secretary’s, drawer, and sure enough, about two weeks later, my nephews excitedly called me up to tell me about the “big girls” that come and do things in the house “instead of Mommy”. Sari and Leah, who still go every Motza’ei Shabbos and once or twice during the week, also tell me that everything looks well taken care of in the house. Kudos to our fantastic chessed girls!

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