Life Lessons: Never too old to learn


Mr. Rosenstein was our substitute teacher in seventh grade. I went to a Hebrew elementary school in Montreal, and this little old man would substitute on a regular basis. Thick glasses, crossed eyes, scraggly wisps of hair, disheveled gray suit and always sputtering, he was a walking invitation to ridicule. The moment we saw him come in, we would break out into instant pandemonium. I say "we" because the entire class telepathically erupted into anarchy the minute he entered the classroom. He would stand there and try to quiet us, to get our attention, to make himself heard, but we would just ignore him. What a field day for a bunch of 12-year-olds on the rampage. He was also my private tutor. Twice a week after school I would go to the auditorium with him to do extra work in Hebrew studies. He would get all fired up about the material. Gesturing wildly, speaking in a loud voice, banging on the table for emphasis, he would spew forth about the teachings of the Bible and the Mishna. I would sit there and make faces to myself, waiting until the hour was over so I could go home. How could anybody take this man seriously, with those erratic mannerisms and that unkempt appearance? So whenever he came to our class to substitute for our teacher, we all took this as our cue to run riot. And what a kick we got out of playing tricks on him. We would tell him we had to go to the administration office, had to call our mothers, had no homework. We would laugh behind his back, throw things over his head, leave the classroom and not return until the period was almost over. We would do anything but pay the least bit of attention to him as he stood at the front of the class, sputtering and gesticulating. He tried so hard to discipline us, to get us to calm down, but we were much too wild for him. SOMETIMES, during all that havoc, I got the feeling that Mr. Rosenstein was looking to me as a kind of ally, as though he felt I were someone he could turn to because I knew him better than the other kids and could rescue him from that bedlam. I could see it in his eyes. But I was no help at all. For I derived the same pleasure from tormenting this substitute of a teacher as did the class bullies, the class clowns and the class sheep. I felt a twinge of guilt, an inkling that this was not the way to treat anyone, but I couldn't help myself. I was too wrapped up in having a good time. So we continued to revel in taunting this man who was probably more steeped in wisdom than we would ever be, more patient and more tolerant than we would ever recognize or appreciate. Then we heard that Mr. Rosenstein had a nervous breakdown. We laughed the merciless laugh of children. We even took credit for having been responsible for his collapse. Then we heard that he died. We felt no remorse, no sadness, no regret. What did we know about death? What did we know about life? I'M GROWN UP now. I became a teacher. And every time I think about Mr. Rosenstein, I shudder. I shudder with shame for the way I treated him. For the indignity he suffered at the hands of me and my classmates. I'm ashamed of that little 12-year-old girl who didn't know any better than to deride a harmless, well-meaning, ridiculous-looking old man whose sole intention was to try to teach us the laws of the Torah and the words of the Bible. But now that I think about it, after all these years, I know that I learned something from Mr. Rosenstein after all. I now understand what the look in his eyes meant. I realize now how important it would have been for him to have at least one person in the classroom offer him some respect. Not because he was wise or patient or because he was immersed in the Torah, but to respect him simply because he was a human being. That look he gave me was not a plea for help; it was an appeal to be recognized as a person. Not as a substitute anything, but as a genuine individual who was there, giving of himself. But I could not respond to the cry of the human being in him that was calling out to be acknowledged. I couldn't even hear it. And that was the lesson I learned from Mr. Rosenstein. For to this day, that image of him standing helpless amid a classroom full of uncontrollable shrieking children reminds me that I too am vulnerable, that I can also fall victim to ridicule, to indignity, to humiliation. And with that image ever vivid in my mind, I humbly ask Mr. Rosenstein for his forgiveness.