Divided Attention – Chapter 14

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 14 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

“You girls also want a history contest?” Ayala asked in surprise, hoping that she had fully understood the reason for the outcry in the class. Silence hung in the room for a minute. “I didn’t really understand what all the commotion was about,” she said quietly as she took out her algebra book, “but if you want, I’m ready to offer you exactly the same type of contest. I’ll gladly mark your reports as well!”

Only a few girls picked up on the note of amusement in her voice. They were too excited at their success. “Great! We’re also going to hang a sign by the water fountain: ‘For ninth graders only!’ And we’re going to write that Morah is going to judge our contest also!”

Just one voice of reason emerged from the cacophony. “But what do we have to do for this contest in the first place?”

“Explanations tomorrow, during the history lesson,” Ayala said, opening her book and smoothing her finger down its middle in an attempt to keep it from snapping closed. “Now we have an algebra lesson to attend to. Devoiry Katzenelenbogen, please read the answer to problem number thirty-six on page one-eighty-seven.”

***

Two other children lay in the room where Rafi was wheeled. One was recovering from pneumonia, and the other, from complications of an ear infection. They were both supposed to be discharged the next day.

“Perfect,” Rafi said quietly to his cast. “Then I’ll be left here myself, without these moaning, groaning babies.”

Just then Rafi’s curtain was pulled aside and a roly-poly woman in a white coat smiled at him from behind a large metal cart. “Hello, sweetie,” she said and sat down on the edge of his bed. She lifted the plastic clipboard suspended from the railing and began to peruse it.

“Two injured hands; oh my!” she said. She put a large plastic tray on the bed. “How did you manage to do that, kiddo? And how do some schnitzel, peas, and mashed potatoes sound to you?”

Rafi looked at the plate on the tray.  “Huh?”

“Schnitzel, peas, and mashed potatoes. Do you like that?” The nurse, whose name was Flora, quickly cut the schnitzel into small—almost tiny—pieces.

“What’s the last thing you said?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the orange plastic plate.

“Mashed potatoes. Don’t you see? Here!” Flora pointed with a pea-filled fork to the yellowish mound on the plate. “Now, sweetie, open your mouth.”

He gaped at her. “Why?” he asked and clamped his mouth shut.

“Because you have to eat.” She moved the fork closer to his mouth. “Come on, cutie, open up.”

“I’m not a baby,” he said through gritted teeth. “I don’t need to be fed!”

“Of course you’re not a baby,” Flora agreed. “It’s just for now, until they take off your cast.”

“No!” Rafi cried, and then quickly shut his mouth again.

“Yes,” Flora said, and moved the fork ever closer, until it was almost touching his lips. “You can’t eat yourself, dear.”

“I’m not gonna let you feed me,” he protested from between his clamped lips, albeit with difficulty.

“Why not? You’re a good boy!” She didn’t move the fork back. It wasn’t for naught that Flora was known as the best feeder in pediatrics. She had lots of experience persuading obstinate little food refusers to eat. “Tell me why you don’t want to eat, and it will be our secret.”

Rafi looked at the tray. It was hard to talk with clenched lips. “A secret? You won’t tell?”

“I won’t tell anyone!”

He looked at the fork so close to his mouth. “I don’t want anyone to see,” he said hoarsely. “My friends can’t find out.”

“They won’t know a thing!” the nurse promised with a reassuring smile. “You have Flora’s word. That’s going to be our secret, yours and mine!” The fork tickled the skinny lips. The boy opened his mouth obediently.

“Remember,” he said after a few seconds, his mouth still filled with peas.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he said as he chewed on a morsel of schnitzel.

“Not even Sarah,” he added as he swallowed the food with a grimace.

“Why are you making faces?” Flora asked in alarm. “Isn’t the food good?”

“It is good,” Rafi said, blinking rapidly. “But my throat kills when I swallow.”

“Wait one minute; I’m going to get you some hot tea. That will help you.”

He shrugged in refusal.

“You don’t want a hot drink? Even if your throat hurts you?”

Rafi looked at the tray. “I want to eat more of the food you brought.”

***

Danny snapped the book shut. “Don’t wannit,” he whined petulantly. “I don’ like such boring pictures.”

“So what do you want to do?” Nava asked as she pinned the light-colored kippah onto her nephew’s head for the umpteenth time.

“I wanna play with tractors,” the three-year-old said, leaping towards the toy closet. “Come play with me. I’ll drive one tractor and you drive the other one.”

“The other what?” a voice asked from the door.

“Ima!” Danny screeched. He ran to hug his mother, hanging himself onto her neck. “Come drive the third tractor!”

“I just got here, honey,” Rina said, as she gently pried her son’s arms off her neck and shoulders. “Meanwhile, you play with Nava, okay? I’m going to talk to Savta in the kitchen.” She winked at Nava. “So, what do you say? Not only have I given you something to do on Tuesdays, I’m going to arrange something similar for the rest of the week!”

Nava gave her a small smile. Yes, her parents were going to take in a foster child, and Rina was the one who had arranged it.

She absentmindedly played with the shovel of her tractor, raising and lowering it, as Danny played with his tractor, making grinding noises as he ran it across the room. Abba and Ima wanted another child. Well, of course. She hadn’t realized their dreams. It had been like this for years, and Morah Ayala shouldn’t say she was making a mistake.

“Nava? Did you study your Chumash?” her father had asked when he found her playing downstairs on one of her first days of fourth grade in the new school to which she had transferred.

“Sure,” she replied, and ran back to her jump rope. “And Ima’s going to review with me afterwards.”

She had gotten an eighty-five on that test. Abba and Ima went over her answers—both right and wrong—with a fine-tooth comb, five times in all. Then Abba had written the correct answers on a piece of paper and had given it to her. “Here you are, Nava’le. Your test is very nice, but you got mixed up in a few places. I wrote down the right answers for you. You should read it over so you’ll know them.”

She read everything, afraid that her father would test her afterwards, but he hadn’t. He never mentioned it again. But from then on, every limudei kodesh test that she took was followed by Abba’s correction sheet; several dozen lay accumulated in her drawer. Once, in eighth grade, she’d scored a hundred on a pre-test for a national dinim test. It was the only hundred she’d gotten in the last few years, but even then, she’d received a paper from Abba. “This is not a correction,” he’d written in his large, warm lettering. “It’s just a little clarification that you didn’t emphasize and that your teacher didn’t notice. In section three, question six, you wrote…”

That paper had joined the pile in the drawer.

Secular studies were another story. Abba didn’t even ask to see her tests, and when she once told him about a good mark she’d gotten, he’d smiled, and said, “Math? Eighty-nine? That’s a very good mark, Nava.”

Had Abba asked Rina to find a boy who was brilliant, who was as gifted as her parents? A boy whose marks would only range between ninety and a hundred? Someone with whom Abba could learn dinim and then see the fruits of his labor?

Something jabbed her foot. “My tractor runs over people who are spaced out, Nava!” Danny shrieked in her ear. “Move over! Get away from here!” And he continued roaring around, his voice cum motor at top volume.

Nava moved over to the daybed. Morah Ayala was a great listener and a very smart person, but it was sometimes hard for Nava to explain all the nuances of her problem, and she wasn’t sure that the teacher really understood it. Morah Ayala’s advice, which she had told her repeatedly, was that the best thing to do was to talk openly and naturally to her parents and tell them what was bothering her. Ayala had spent three conversations trying to persuade Nava of the advantages of this approach, and Nava had planned to speak to her parents. But that day, she had gotten back the test in bei’ur tefillah and when Abba had asked, “Can I see the test, Nava?” (he never asked what she had gotten) everything she had prepared to say just got stuck in her throat. She quietly took the test out and gave it to her father, all in silence. After two hours, she got the familiar sheet of paper from Abba; all in silence.

Ali v’hatzlichi! he had written. “Excellent test! Please note the six corrections…”

This page, too, joined its counterparts in her drawer.

In the kitchen, Rina was talking to her mother-in-law. “So, that’s it,” she concluded. “You should decide quickly, because he is scheduled to be discharged at the beginning of next week.”

“And if we decide not to take this child, what will happen to him?” Yael asked, squeezing half of an orange with a hand juicer.

“I really don’t know. I’m personally planning to submit an opinion that this child must not return home under any circumstances. The situation there is catastrophic! If you don’t mind my saying this, I think this file was handled in the worst way possible.”

Nava’s mother stuck an orange slice over the rim of each juice glass and brought the glasses to the table.

“How nice!” Rina said as she sipped the cold, refreshing juice. “I haven’t squeezed oranges for the longest time. It’s much easier to buy the store-bought juice, but you know, there’s nothing like freshly squeezed orange juice prepared at home.”

Her mother-in-law accepted the compliment with a smile and sat down next to Rina at the table. “But whatever happens, they won’t send him back home next week if his two hands aren’t functioning, will they?”

“I imagine they won’t, and I hope they won’t send him home after that, either.”

“So where can they put him?”

“Meanwhile? Either with a temporary family or at an institution.” She put her empty glass down on the table.

“An institution would accept a child just for a month?”

“I don’t know, but if they don’t find a foster family for him, and if you don’t want him, then I hope they will put him in a suitable institution once and for all.”

“That word has a very negative connotation,” Yael said with a thoughtful expression.

“Institution? Could be,” Rina agreed, sucking on her orange segment. “But for me, the words ‘Rafi’s house’ have a much worse connotation.”

***

“Can history be made interesting for everyone? Even the less exciting parts?” Ayala looked at her class. There were a few spontaneous responses of “Yes!” and “No!” or “No way!” and “Of course!” but she didn’t pay attention to those. She waited to see some raised hands.

“Yes, Shira?’

“I think that it’s possible, but you have to find the right method.”

“Nonsense,” Yocheved grumbled after her waving hand got the nod from Ayala. “There’s nothing that everyone likes! What kind of method can you come up with, Shira, that would make it interesting for all of us?”

“Oh, and I forgot to tell you one more thing,” Ayala added with a smile. “The method has to help you remember the information, too, not just keep you interested.”

Uch, can we stop this already?” Batya said quietly and yawned. “Are there no more interesting subjects left to discuss besides this?”

“Morah, is there such a method?” Devoiry Katzenelenbogen asked impatiently. The method interested her only marginally; she wanted to get to the point already: the contest.

“Stories,” Ayala said simply and made a mental note that this class still had to mature a bit more to be able to conduct theoretical discussions. “Historical stories that describe processes and changes in an interesting fashion, from the point of view of someone who lived during that period. How does that sound to you?”

“Morah,” Batya said, forgetting to raise her hand, “when I see a story in the newspaper that says ‘based on historical facts,’ I yawn and turn the page.”

“Your loss!” someone on the other side of her room raised her voice. “There are terrific stories and books that are either historical fiction or nonfiction! What’s the difference if it happened or didn’t happen five hundred years ago! I’m all for historical stories, Morah!”

Ayala smiled at her students. “That was the argument we had in 10B, and now, onwards. Anyone who thinks that it’s a good idea can take a chapter of what we’ve learned in history, with all the details, and turn it into a story. The tenth graders want to print the best reports into a booklet; you girls can just—”

A low buzz began to spread through the room. “Morah!” Suri called out. “We also want a booklet!”

“Oh, come on, you’re such babies!” Avigayil griped, rummaging around in her briefcase for an apple. When would recess come already? “‘We also want to be big! We also want a booklet!’ How immature can you get?!”

“You don’t have to lift a finger if you don’t want to!” Devoiry exclaimed, getting ready to make one of her dramatic performances. She placed one leg on the chair, and was about to climb up onto it when she saw Morah Dinner’s eyes and remembered that she was in the middle of class. “Girls! Write nice things! Make the effort! Don’t just throw something together!” she cried passionately.

“Morah,” Miriam spoke up, remembering the discussion that had opened the topic, “do you think that this is a good method?”

“Well, it’s impossible to turn every history lesson into story hour,” Ayala said slowly, “but I think that with certain topics, it can succeed better than the regular learning format.”

Batya turned to Nava, an exaggeratedly bored expression on her face. “Are you planning to write something for this, Nava?”

***

“Morah, do you think I’ll do a good job?” Nava asked, standing in the corner of the secretary’s office, behind the partially open door of the cabinet. Did Morah Ayala know how much weight every word she uttered carried?

“Why not?” Ayala said. Normally she was a big believer in making eye contact when she spoke to people, but Nava apparently preferred to hide behind the cupboard door. “Do you like history?”

“Well, I don’t know how much time I’m going to have for this now,” Nava said, peeking cautiously at Ricki, the secretary. There was no chance she could hear anything, though, because one phone was glued to her ear while the other phone beeped noisily in the background. “You know, he’s supposed to come to us next week, that boy.” She sighed. “I feel like a three-year-old who’s been told that there’s a new baby in the family…” She stared at her black shoes. “I know that it’s babyish of me, but I’m…I’m beginning to feel jealous.”

“Jealousy, unfortunately, is not a sensation that belongs only to babies at all,” Ayala said quietly. “And in order to treat it, you first have to discover what the root of it is.”

“Not that I think my parents…will stop loving me,” Nava said, groping for the right words. “But I have a feeling that I’m not giving them enough nachas, and they are looking for someone else to fill in what’s missing.”

“Should I tell you again, Nava, that I think you’re mistaken?” Ayala asked in a serious tone. “Will it help? I don’t have any way to prove it to you, but I’m sure that if you talk to your parents about the way you feel, they can prove to you that you’re wrong.”

“They’ll tell me that I’m wrong, Morah,” Nava said somberly. “I’m sure that’s what they’ll say, no matter what. But my feelings won’t change.”

Ayala fell silent. It was clear to her that even if Nava’s parents expected her to invest a bit more effort in her schoolwork, that was not the reason they were taking in this child. She was one hundred percent sure of it.

But that’s what Nava thought, and Ayala could not persuade her that she was making a big mistake.

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