“They’re a good group of boys — but pretty rowdy,” Sarah had warned me the night before. “Typical third-graders. You’ll just want to watch out for Eli Wolanowski*. If he gives you any trouble, send him straight to Rabbi Lewis, and he’ll deal with him.”
As I walked down the hall to the classroom, those final words played in my mind again and I wondered about Eli Wolanowski. What kind of monster did a third-grade boy have to be to need such an introduction? Could he really be so bad? Sarah was a substitute fresh out of seminary taking over for the main teacher who was out on maternity leave, and I was taking over for her, my second substitute job ever on my brief visit home to my parents. Maybe she was just having trouble handling the boys?
But right outside the classroom, I bumped into the principal.
“You’re taking over the third-grade boys today?” Rabbi Lewis asked.
“Listen,” he said, leaning in towards me. “If Eli Wolanowski starts up with you, just send him straight to me. We’re used to his antics, so don’t even hesitate — it’s no reflection on your classroom management skills.”
The principal had the same thing to say? Defiance, mixed with a tingle of warmth, rose up in my chest. I had always felt an affinity for the underdog, and this was no exception.
I took attendance with interest, wondering which of these squirming nine-year-olds was the infamous Eli. The chubby boy in the corner who clearly was playing with something inside his desk? Or the husky kid in the middle row who stared up at me with surly eyes?
When a fragile boy with blond hair and barely-there blue eyes raised his hand, I was taken aback. You? I thought, looking at him with wonder. You’re the sweet misunderstood boy everyone warned me about? I chose a chazzan and we got started with the day, the boys’ sweet singsong voices filling the air as they prayed with a mix of distraction and exaggerated intent and shuckling.
The teacher had left us substitutes well-prepared. I pulled the Bible review sheet out of the folder and told the boys to take out their books. There was a shuffle as 23 boys began digging through desks and knapsacks, and I began to go over the lesson.
Eli Wolanowski was standing up, waving his hand in the air. “You forgot to do tzedakah!”
There was no mention of tzedakah in the daily schedule, but a babble of voices assured me that Eli was right. Moishy Katz — or was it Naftali Flumenbaum? — raced to bring me the tzedakah box, and I wove in and out of the rows of desks as the boys all deposited their coins.
I pulled out the review sheet and began to speak but once again, Eli cut me off.
“But YOU didn’t give tzedakah!”
This was true. Knowing I had a ride both to the school and back, I had opted to leave my purse at home. “You’re right,” I told him. “But I don’t have any money on me today, so I can’t.”
“You don’t have any money?” His eyes were wide with shock. “So I’ll give you!” He rummaged through his bag and bounded up to the teacher’s desk, holding out a dime. “Here! Now you can give tzedakah, too,” he said, depositing the coin in my hand. I plunked it in the tzedakah box and we all moved on with the lesson.
The rest of the morning passed as smoothly as could be expected, with the boys acting like typical third-grade boys — lots of laughter, a decent amount of listening, and the not-so-occasional sprinkle of misbehavior. The affection I had felt towards Eli before I had entered the room had only increased, and I smiled at him throughout the morning. He always returned the smile with a shy one of his own, and I wondered each time I saw him just what this little sweetheart had done to warrant such warnings.
On my way home Eli’s sweet enthusiasm and the grim look on Rabbi Lewis’s face kept swimming through my mind. How could I just walk away from today without doing anything? And then it hit me: I should call Eli’s parents. But would that be overstepping my bounds?
After supper I took out the Jewish community phone book. There was only one listing for Wolanowski. I looked at the address and felt the knot in my throat pull tighter. Michael and Judy Wolanowski were clearly well-to-do professionals who lived in an exclusive neighborhood. Would they grill me on my credentials? I was no professional teacher — I was halfway through my degree and just doing the school a favor in the pre-Pesach crunch by substituting today.
But I dialed anyway, my fingers shaking a bit as the phone began to ring.
“Hello?” The man’s voice was young, clear, and full of confidence.
The next words out of his mouth vibrated with aggression: “What now?”
“Hi, Mr. Wolanowski?” Could he hear the hesitancy in my voice? “I was Eli’s substitute teacher today.”
“Oh.” The confidence crumbled and I could almost see his shoulders fall as he sighed. He seemed to recover quickly enough though, because the next words out of his mouth vibrated with an aggression I hadn’t seen coming. “What is it now?”
All I wanted to do was hang up the phone, but that wasn’t really an option anymore. “I just wanted to tell you,” I began haltingly, “what a special little boy you have. I’m just a substitute, and I didn’t realize that they gave tzedakah after davening but Eli reminded me. And when he saw that I didn’t have any, he jumped out of his seat and ran to give me a dime so that I could also give tzedakah, too. It was so sweet. He’s such a generous, kind-hearted boy, and he really stood out from the group today. I just wanted to share that with you.”
There was a long silence on the other end, and I realized that I was still shaking. What on earth was Eli’s father thinking? Since when did substitute teachers call a child’s parents — and to report something like this? Was I even allowed to be making this phone call? But Michael Wolanowski didn’t seem to mind.
“Thank you so much for calling to tell me.” His voice was hushed, almost awe-filled. “Do — do you mind telling my wife also?” he asked eagerly.
“Of course I will,” I told him.
I heard him calling his wife in the background. “Judy, come quick— pick up the phone!”
When Mrs. Wolanowski got on the line I repeated the story. She responded with the same warmth, relief, and surprise as her husband. The two of them said goodbye, thanking me over and over for calling.
I sat and stared at the phone for a long time after we hung up. I felt the Wolanowskis’ happiness hovering in the air. I could picture them in the morning, telling Eli just how proud of him they were. And I knew that when the next time came around, I wouldn’t hesitate to make the call.
*Names have been changed.