At Hebrew Day School of Sullivan County, Mrs. Rose Gibber, the vice-principal, was a legend. While our principal, Rabbi Goodman, was sugar and spice and all that was nice, Mrs. Gibber was the drill sergeant who kept schedules running, kids in line and the fear of Heaven in all of us. Her face lined with soft wrinkles, she was the school singing teacher and taught us Army marching songs, from The Halls of Montezuma to every anthem possible, pumping the pedals of the piano emphatically as she urged us to sing God Bless America "louder!"
Mrs. Gibber also served as the substitute teacher when no one else was around. There was always one recurring theme in her classroom. She loved the principle from Ethics of the Fathers, “Who is strong? He who conquers his inclination.” She would tell us the story of one tough boy who fought the urge to punch even when provoked. With awe in her voice, she'd say, “Now that was a strong boy.” We must have heard this story hundreds of times.
I was a short little thing, but what I lacked in height I made up in attitude. One year, in particular, was a trying one for all involved. My teacher was -- and I can now say this with the wisdom of age and experience -- insane. She had it in for me and knew no boundaries. It was a clash of wills between her and me each time she walked into the classroom. She banished me to the back of the room, apart from the other students. I tuned out, watching cloud formations outside the window or playing a desktop golf game that Alan Picker, a classmate, had creatively drilled into his desk. Not paying attention to the teacher meant failing tests she administered. At one point, the teacher asked me to have one failing test signed by my mother.
My mother, a former principal, expected her children to have the same thirst for scholarship as she had and demanded better grades than failing. The last thing I wanted was a showdown with my mother about my failed test. So with pen and an old test in hand, I traced my mother’s signature. My mother has a flowing, neat, artistic handwriting. My handwriting, however, produces misshapen script looking like tracks of chickens running around without heads. Let's just say my forgery attempt was less than stellar. Being a not-so-bright youngster I assumed this fact would be lost upon my teacher and confidently handed in my “signed” test.
“All the murderers at the maximum security prison started out with things like you did."
Did all fury break loose. “You know, Goldy,” said the teacher, “all the murderers at the maximum security prison started out with things like you did. You just started down the road to become them. You are evil! You forged your mother’s signature.”
Faced with such harshness, I had no choice but to continue the evil with a whopping lie. “My mother did too sign this paper.”
“Yes, she did!” I insisted.
“Out of my classroom!" the teacher ordered. "Go to the office. I’ll be there after class and we’ll call your mother and ask why her signature doesn’t look like it usually does.”
Out the door I went, but not to the office. At this point I decided my life was rapidly coming to an end. I was evil, on the road to being the next serial killer. That didn’t scare me. But I was also on the way to being forced into a confrontation with my mother who is tough as steel. That scared me. I did not want to go home and deal with the after-affect of my forgery. Thinking the world as I knew it was coming to an end, nervous beyond words, I stood frozen in place right outside the classroom door.
Just then Mrs. Rose Gibber decided to patrol the hallways and came upon misbehaving-again-Goldy out in the hallway. “What are you doing out here?” she barked as she came closer.
In total panic, my hands, without my noticing it, shot out and began twisting the heavy gold fringe pendant Mrs. Gibber was wearing.
We were standing there in the hallway, and all words failed me. I couldn’t tell her anything because the phone call to my mother would then be one minute closer. I felt my stomach twist and heave from fear. I started to cry, and in total panic, my hands, without my noticing it, shot out and began twisting the heavy gold fringe pendant that Mrs. Gibber was wearing on her necklace. “Um… um…” I stammered, “my stomach hurts.” Even as I sobbed, my hands kept up its busy work twisting that pendant round and round and round.
Mrs. Gibber was not just a teacher of the principle of strength -- she was a disciple of it. Though my hands were tightly on her pendant, wrapping it round in circles, she never looked downward. Any other person might have pushed away my hands, or looked at them with raised eyebrows. Mrs. Gibber kept her eyes focused on mine, pretending not to notice. She continued the discussion calmly, ferreting out that more than my stomach was hurting, and that I had messed up again.
She handed me a tissue, put an arm on my shoulder and said kindly, "Come to the office and let’s see what’s going on." It was at this point, when I realized that I might still survive the ordeal, that consciousness began seeping in. Whoa! went my brain. My hands are on my vice-principal’s necklace. Drop it, Goldy! The shock of noticing what I was doing made me freeze and it took some time until my brain was able to send coherent messages to my hands to get them to work themselves off the necklace and dropped to my sides.
The rest of the story is rather anti-climactic -- the phone call, facing my mother, but with the warmth of Mrs. Gibber mellowing out the whole ordeal. Not surprising in retrospect, the confrontation with my mother was not as drastic as I had feared. My mother’s only point of contention was to get me to admit that I knew what I had done was wrong, and for me, from my own sense of morality, to assess the situation and explain how what I did was not the right thing. The teacher, for her part, must have been told to stop with the confrontations. We had an uneasy truce for the rest of the year. She ignored me and I returned the favor.
Mrs. Gibber taught me one of the most profound lessons in sensitivity and the importance of controlling our instincts to do everything possible to protect the dignity of people, even a misbehaving, obnoxious, little kid like Goldy. Rose Gibber practiced what she preached, becoming stronger than instinct, never once even glancing at something that might embarrass another person.
Now that was a strong woman.