By JONATHAN BLUM
All rights reserved.
IF I LEARNED COMPUTERS, like my wife Andi tells me to, really learned them, I'd have more in common with the boy, I know, and all this might not have happened. But that's just it: I shouldn't have to learn computers to have a relationship with my thirteen-year-old son. On the contrary, I am now going to have to keep the boy away from the computer. I am proud of his intelligence, of course, and of how he has apparently mastered certain techniques which, I am told, if applied legitimately, might one day lead to a high-paying and respected job. But there's a lot computers can't teach you—about discipline and decency and how to relate normally to other people. That's why Andi and I have always offered Eric and his half-sisters, in addition to a Jewish education, a choice of healthy, positive activities. Swimming, I've often said, would be a good activity for Eric. I like swimming. You can do it competitively, which builds character, and yet it's not an activity that involves rough physical contact with others, which I know Eric dislikes. You can swim your whole life. Swimming would also help trim some of the fat rolls off Eric's middle, which—if he didn't spend so much time at the computer—he could also accomplish by jogging or exercise at a gym. Eric's half-sisters Renata and Mina swim and have plenty of time to mess around on the computer. They do well in school. Neither girl is overweight.
That said, now that Eric has been expelled from Traubman V. Goldfarb K-8 Day School Academy, and now that he's been placed on the "100 Online Haters Beware List" by the Southeast Regional office of the nation's second-leading anti-intolerance watchdog group, and seeing as the Shoshanah Kalstein/ Ken Mosher civil liability situation appears only to be getting worse, I have had to do a little soul searching. What do these computer stunts of Eric's mean? Has he been trying to attract my attention in a negative attention kind of way? Is this what he thinks it takes to be "cool" within his peer group? Is he simply copycatting what boys with computers all over the country do nowadays starting right after their Bar Mitzvahs? No matter the ifs, ands, or buts, it's not going to be "funny ha-ha look-what-I-can-get-away-with, you people" when Eric winds up in prison next time, like the computer madmen whose mug shots you see on CNN. Some of the blame—personal not legal—I must accept. Parents err: We misjudge risk, underexercise our influence. We don't always know how to get through to our children. Yet even factoring in my shortcomings, things do not add up. Why choose the path where no good can come of taking it? Why push mischief to the extreme? This is not something Eric learned from Andi, and it is not something he learned from me. Sadly, I have begun to fear that Eric's behavior in the past few months may in fact be a destructive trait in his mother (alive in South Florida) now pronouncing itself in him, and I would like to do something while it's still early, maybe send him to an adolescent psych specialist or sit him down with a values clarification coach—but Eric, I think, would resist those suggestions, and Andi says I shouldn't speak negatively of Eric's mother, and so I keep these sorts of thoughts to myself.
The problems, I guess you'd have to call them, began last fall. Till then, Andi and I had never received any bad reports on Eric. In the six years we'd had him in Traubman V. Goldfarb, his teachers' main negative comments were that his handwriting and spelling were atrocious and that when asked to speak in class, he would either mumble a response or make incomprehensible puffing noises from the side of his mouth (if you'd call that a negative comment). In class, one of his two close friends, Dickie Schmertz or Little Lowell Simkins, would usually step forward to speak/translate for Eric. In the lunchroom, his half-sister Renata would do the same. During these years—the years after I finally got custody of Eric—Andi and I did all we could to keep him on level with his classmates and to protect him from being teased. We were aware, naturally, that Eric didn't enunciate well in public. I was a stutterer until the fourth grade. The point is, you can get over things. We invested in a private speech therapist for Eric and by sixth grade got him caught up. We were aware also of Eric's writing inadequacies and Andi worked long hours with him on his English and Hebrew. By the end of seventh grade we had gotten his grades up to one C and the rest B's and A's. Things looked potentially good for college.
Eric's Bar Mitzvah fell in late September, when many of the other kids in his class had already had theirs. Eric, I know, did not look forward to the Bar Mitzvah. He would say it was only going to be a letdown for everyone. Eric is a little shy, and like me, I suppose, prefers to avoid large gatherings. Then there was the whole public speaking aspect of the Bar Mitzvah that he wanted no part of. Still, some things you have to do, a Bar Mitzvah is one of them, and Eric understood that. His attitude, I would say, was overall very positive.
We fitted Eric for a suit. I shopped with him for a tallis. Andi practiced the box-step with him in the family room, in case he might want to ask a girl to slow dance at his dinner party. Now Eric, it should be said here, is what you might call a physically mature but not-quite-caught-up-with-his-age-group-in-certain-other-ways sort of boy. He reached puberty on time. There's nothing wrong with him developmentally. He's of average to above-average height. He has a nice broad chest, though it slopes inward slightly and the pink breasts sag. He has my father's solid shoulders (minus the years of heavy lifting and carrying, which gave Dad's shoulders their great masculinity). He has hair coming along in all the right places. All told, he's not the worst looking kid in the world. Still, he's awkward, a little clumsy physically. And, as has been mentioned, he is chubby. By the standards of the American Medical Association, obese. Not grotesquely obese. But he could do something about his weight. He ought to do something. People judge each other based, in part, on looks. That's not my opinion, it's the way of the world. Your appearance affects what kind of friends you're likely to attract. Not many girls came to Eric's Bar Mitzvah.
Three girls, in fact, stiffed Eric—and our family. These were Shira Lichler, Alison Abramson, and Devi Kreuzer, girls who had been in class with Eric since we started him at Traubman V. Goldfarb, each a little more advanced than Eric socially, a little more precocious, yet girls he'd led "Ein Kelohainu" with on Shabbos mornings, taken van rides with to youth conferences and Disney World retreats, girls a little more popular and confident than he, yes, with pleasant singing voices, good-looking parents, etc., but who had RSVP'd that they would come to his dinner party (Shira Lichler and Alison Abramson both selected chicken for their entrée, Devi Kreuzer salmon: Andi still has the dropback cards) and then did not show up. The head friends-table, draped with a blue-glittered ERIC'S SIMCHA CELEBRATION sign, turned out to be almost empty of girls. At one point I had to take my son aside and say, "What did you do, scare all the girls away?"
A couple mornings later, it occurred to me that I should feel humiliated the three girls hadn't shown up, and I told Eric to get an explanation from them this week, or I would get one from their parents. That night in the family room, Renata turned up with the explanation, delivering it to Andi and me with her usual seriousness—the seriousness that sometimes makes me call her Scout. Her younger sister Mina, the more physically attractive, you'd have to say, of our two daughters, was standing back at the Israeli-tiled wall mirror, carefully barretting her light, thin hair. As per usual, Eric was shut in his room.
First thing that morning, Renata told us, when Eric walked into class, Shira Lichler, Alison Abramson, and Devi Kreuzer, the ones who'd skipped his party, flipped down the mail-order catalogs they'd been looking in and spun halfway round in their seats, putting on sad faces and singing out across the room, "Sorry, Eric! Sorry," that they had all gotten sick during services Saturday morning and had had to run over to Devi Kreuzer's after oneg and throw up. For three hours. Which was why they couldn't come Saturday night. "We're sorry we were so sick," they sang. "It wasn't our fault. We almost needed antibiotics. Please forgive us? Please? We still got you presents."
Andi tipped her head back to a spot on the wall just below where she hangs the straw peasant hat I picked up for her for peanuts two summers ago, at a mandibular reconstruction conference in Hong Kong.
"How did Eric respond?" she asked.
Renata's ankles locked. "Probably he just sat with Dickie and Lowell. He wouldn't say anything back, I don't think."
"That's the right thing," Andi said. "Let the others be the small ones."
"That's right," Mina echoed, in what I thought meant agreement. But then she exploded into laughter and began clapping her knees as if her mother's comment were the most preposterous thing she'd ever heard. "Let the others be the small ones," she cackled, and, finishing up the laughter, skipped out of the room, rebarretting her hair.
I had been ready to put the whole dinner party incident behind me and move on with eighth grade, but now I saw I had no choice but to phone up Bernard Lichler, Shira Lichler's father, who is cantor at our synagogue. Shira, according to Renata, was ringleader of the girls. I called from my office the next day. When Cantor Lichler picked up the line, politely I asked was he aware that Saturday night his daughter and two of her friends stiffed my son at his Bar Mitzvah party, then followed up that performance with an insincere and degrading apology? He said he wasn't sure, he hadn't heard, he'd look into what had happened. I said, "I'll tell you exactly what happened," and proceeded to do just that. (Personable though he may be—with his red sideburns, his hand-embroidered Bukharan kippot, his highly melismatic interpretations of nusach, and a speaking voice my own wife once described as "richer than caramel"—you must spell out word for word anything you want from Bernard Lichler, or you risk getting no results from the man.)
"If my daughter owes your son an apology," he told me, "I will make sure that she gives him one."
"She's already given him one, remember?" I said. "That's what I'm calling you about."
About three weeks later, Eric's new souped-up computer began arriving in the mail, component by component. I had let him buy a whole new system off the Internet with his Bar Mitzvah money. He had promised it would help him get better grades.
"I still want an hour a day of exercise from you," I said, as we drove one evening to pick up his sisters at the Jewish Community Center pool.
"Does waiting outside class for T.B.S. to show up, then shooting at them with a homemade slingshot count as exercise?" he asked.
"Triple Bitch Supremo. Shira, Alison, Devi."
I cracked a laugh.
"I thought Renata told me last week those girls finally gave you a proper apology, face to face."
"I can still hate their guts."
"Why would you waste your hate on them?"
"Somebody needs to."
"Forget about them. Just concentrate on you doing well in school. Put them out of the picture."
"Except they always have to be in the picture. They think they are the picture."
"So what else do you want from them, Eric? You want Alison Abramson to take you behind the bushes and tongue-kiss you in her tennis skirt and make it all feel better?"
"Idiot," he snarled, and looked out his own dark window.
"T.B.S.," I repeated, liking the ring of it. "I don't think Andi will like that name. Better watch your mouth around her," I said.
Eric got the whole computer set up right before Meet the Parents in the Sukkah Night. I remember because he wanted to stay home and make a list of everything his computer could do that Dickie Schmertz's and Lowell Simkins's couldn't.
"If you've got nothing to do but screw around on the computer," I told him from the office, "you might offer to lift a finger and help your mother with a house-chore."
"She's not my mother," he said.
"Help her anyway."
"Why do we pay a housekeeper twice a week?" he said.
I lowered my voice and said, "If my father, who broke his back so that you and me could have a comfortable life, lived to see me raise a spoiled son, he'd pop me a good one on the lip and then he'd pop you a good one."
Meet the Parents in the Sukkah Night has never been a favorite occasion of mine, and I couldn't really blame Eric for trying to get out of it. Typically you stand around the school sukkah for an hour and a half with three hundred other people, sipping white wine from tiny plastic cups, making polite conversation, avoiding the couples you need to avoid but overhearing them anyhow, bragging about their children's intelligence and test scores. If you already know your children's teachers, which Andi and I generally do, the whole night is a waste of time. You and the teacher exchange words about the coming year's curriculum, she says something nice about your child, you say yes we're very proud of the child, and in a matter of minutes you have wandered off to an out-of-the-way bench, where you can escape the yammer about development community maintenance fees, the rising cost of platinum, and the mess up in Washington, and if you're lucky, catch a look at the Gentile secretary with the knockout hips who works in the office and can usually be seen walking around near the chapel at these kinds of events.
This night was different. Eric's Hebrew/Bible/Siddur/Israel-Interconnectedness teacher Shoshanah Kalstein was new to the school and not everyone had met her—including Andi and me. When we arrived, friends of ours were talking about how warm and energetic she seemed. About how she had just moved home to our city after living in the north of Israel for seven years, and was single and a darned nice catch. One person in the group had heard a rumor that Miss Kalstein had some issue that led her to move home. The others didn't want to hear speculation. "Lashon hara," a friend of Andi's from the Jewish Women's Peace Coalition said. "Herb and I already met her. She's gold." Renata pointed her out to me.
You could see right away that the woman had a real personal charm to her. She circled the back of the sukkah in a long dress with a brightly stitched applique frontpiece, greeting parents, smiling generously, pulling back from her ears her black curly hair, then letting the veil of hair fall back open where it had been. Her whole manner of being seemed to make people feel at home. She moved lightly. The movements were unforced. It was as though she had not outgrown a stage of innocence.
When I mentioned to Eric on the lawn that I had just seen Shoshanah Kalstein for the first time, he didn't twitch a muscle.
"She's a jar of honey, wouldn't you say?"
His face did not move.
"Don't tell me you have a crush on her," I purred in his ear.
"Stop," he said, "now," and punched me in the arm.
As the evening went on—and the blood rushed to Eric's ears each time I whispered into them his teacher's name—families kept following around Miss Kalstein, who always seemed to be decked by paper chains and lanterns, hanging fruits and vegetables. And as she spoke, I would see her dark-golden fingers squeeze a male student's shoulders from behind, or pull lightly at the father's sleeve. After a while, I began to question this affectionateness. It's one thing to endear yourself, but her displays brought to mind the creeping desperation you'll often see in unmarried, childless Jewish women in their early to mid-thirties. How often they will touch and hug. Look receptively into men's eyes for three to five seconds, then glance away. Paint on red lipstick. What, I found myself asking, is a thirteen-year-old boy supposed to make of having this sort of teacher in the classroom? I am not saying Shoshanah Kalstein crossed a line that evening. Nor am I suggesting that she deserved what was later done to her and Ken Mosher. I am saying she was provocative. She made a provocative impression on me. After we were introduced, the first thing she said was, "I like your shirt, Dr. Langer. It's linen?"
Excerpted from LAST WORD by JONATHAN BLUM. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Blum. Excerpted by permission of Rescue Press.
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