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Blessings and Amends MAG
It was the November of second grade, and strep throat had been spreading like the plague through my class. Two girls and I were absent toward the end of the outbreak, experiencing scarlet-striped throats and aching bones. We missed an entire week of work on our rainforest project, so my second-grade teacher, Ms. Giannopolous, sent us “streppies” to the computer lab.
At eight years old, we had mastered a variety of technical skills. We used KidPix – a program that I now consider a dumbed-down version of Photoshop –
to paint an infinite number of complex designs on our computerized canvases. That day, one of my fellow streppies, Kelly, showed me how to invert my rainforest landscapes so that the sky turned orange and the trees purple. My specialty was adding sound effects for each brightly colored slide. My skills came in handy for Jillian, the other streppie, when she needed to insert a howler monkey scream for her emergent-layer rainforest slide.
While we were debating the correct spelling of “lemur” and “toucan,” Mr. Reynolds, our school’s technology teacher, was conducting a computer class for the elderly, instructing them on how to copy and paste text into a word document. How sad, I thought. They’re going to die soon and they’re only on copying and pasting?
While logging out of my account (Apple Q, Apple Q), I noticed Ms. Giannopolous’s name flashing on the staff log-in list. I secretly admired her: the Dannon Lite yogurt she ate (which varied in flavor from day to day), her shiny leather boots, her long, layered black hair, perfectly even teeth, and the blue and purple Koosh ball she kept on her desk. I wanted to tap into her account and learn some secret information about her that I couldn’t grasp by just observing her movements, things that simply needed a password to reveal themselves.
I clicked on her name, and thought of all the possible combinations that might unlock her account. Kelly glanced at my screen and saw what I was up to.
“Try Theresa. That’s her first name,” she suggested.
“Don’t you think she’d pick something harder to figure out?”
Jillian noticed what Kelly and I were doing.
“Try drachma. That’s the money they use in Greece, and she’s from Greece.”
We streppies tried a number of combinations until the screen suddenly froze, and the happy Mac log-in page began ticking rapidly. Not knowing what to do, we asked Mr. Reynolds to help us repair the twitching computer. He clunked over in his orthopedic shoes, his bald head shining under the fluorescent lights. He took one look at the flashing Mac and exhaled through his teeth.
“I know what you’ve been up to. You’ve been hacking into the faculty system!”
We shook our heads with the same trembling that shook the computer screen.
“You know that’s against school policy. I will have to tell your teacher about this.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” Kelly said, pointing to me. “It was Aliza’s.”
I winced. It seemed that experiencing high fevers, aching pains, and intense nausea at the same time hadn’t bonded us as tightly as I thought.
Mr. Reynolds glared at me and tisked. I hate it when people tisk at me. I feel like some un-potty-trained dog being scolded for wetting the carpet. It’s very demeaning. I felt my cheeks get puffy and hot. My eyes started tearing like pin-pricked water balloons, and my hair began sticking to my face. Snot dripped onto Mr. Reynold’s shoes. I had been betrayed by my classmates, scorned by a computer teacher (with bad taste in sneakers), and now I would never win the approval of my second-grade teacher.
Mr. Reynolds patted me on the back, which was probably supposed to be comforting but felt far from it.
“Go to class now, Aliza,” he mumbled.
Entering Ms. Giannopolous’s empty classroom, I could hear faint screams and laughter coming from the playground. Ms. Giannopolous was at recess with the rest of the class. My face was still red-hot, so I hid behind the book shelf, and stuffed the purple and blue Koosh into my backpack. Hacking into computers, stealing Koosh balls … at the rate I was going, I would receive a red-light badge next to my name on the bulletin board, and get a call home.
The ball was pretty, I guess. It had a soft pom-pom look. The jelly-like plasma center squirmed in my hand pleasingly when I squeezed it, and the rubber spikes gave my fingers something to grip.
When I got home that Friday, Shabbat evening, my mother had already been cooking for hours, and the house was permeated by the greasy smell of matzo balls and the sweetness of challah. My younger, yet domineeringly taller sister, Sarah, insisted that I dance with her as we did every Shabbat after school, but today I was in no mood. Instead, I lay on the couch with my new Koosh ball and squeezed it until my hands felt numb.
“Where’d ya get that?” Sarah asked. She was wearing a bright tulle tutu that embellished her wild dance moves.
“I won insect bingo at school today,”
“Can I play with it?”
“No, you can’t even touch it.”
On any given day, Sarah would normally torment me until I handed over the ball. She was an expert kicker and hair-ripper, but tonight she knew I wasn’t to be trifled with.
“Girls!” my dad shouted, “It’s time to make Kiddush. Aliza, it’s your turn for a blessing.”
Every Shabbat, my dad blesses us before we make the blessing over the wine. I am always first, being the oldest child. My dad wrapped his arms around me. I felt his palms lightly touching my hair as he blessed me with his deep voice, barely audible.
“Yevarech-icha Adonai v’yish-marecha. May God bless you. You are such a wonderful, beautiful girl. You are so nice, caring, and honest …”
Oh, God, I thought. I’m such a sinner! If Jews believed in hell, then I would be signed right over, next-day shipping, to the fiery pits.
“You do so well in school,” he continued. “You light up my life, and may God allow you to keep growing in the beautiful way that you’re growing right now …”
Yeah, grow up to be a liar and a teacher-moocher?
As my dad kissed me on the forehead, I tried to look into his eyes, but mine were weighed down toward my feet.
Before dinner, my dad put on a new CD he’d brought home from the Judaica shop. It was Shlomo Carlebach, a Jewish folk singer he was fond of. The roughness of Shlomo’s singing accompanied by the sweetness of the violin reminded me of Mr. Reynolds and Ms. Giannopolous’s distinct voices. Later that night, I would put that CD into my Walkman and listen for hours before bed, hoping that hearing their voices would rid me of my guilt and help me survive the rest of second grade.
Now, eight years later, Ms. Giannopolous is married, they use euros in Greece instead of drachmas, and the Shlomo CD is scratched and skips when played. But it wasn’t until last month that I decided to return the Koosh ball to my second-grade teacher.
When I entered her classroom, it was dark and empty like the day I’d stolen the ball so many years before. The dim light from the windows shone on the same world flag posters, multiplication charts, and tattered carpet squares in the meeting circle. The scrawny spider plant that our class had put in a terracotta pot now dangled thick and leafy down the bookshelf onto the floor.
Now, different names were printed on the bulletin board. No Kelly. No Jillian. No Aliza. It was as if I was hugging my mother and noticed the smell of a new perfume. The simple changes made the room feel strange.
My uneasiness led me to reach into my hooded sweatshirt pouch, pull out the Koosh, and place it on Ms. Giannopolous’s desk near the new Mac computer, filled with her updated, personal, intriguing information. Maybe this computer contained
an e-mail exchange between Ms. Giannopolous and her husband, pictures of her and her relatives soaking in sunlight on the Greek island of Santorini, or a short poem about her childhood crushes. My hand had been clammy from squeezing the Koosh ball, but now that it was empty, the sweat evaporated in my empty palm, leaving it cold and dry.
Someone blew a whistle on the playground, signaling the end of recess. I scanned the classroom and rubbed my hands down my legs, making sure I hadn’t in my anxiety taken anything else from my second-grade teacher that I would need to return. My pockets were empty, my hands were bare, yet my cold palm itched for the familiar plasma squirm and gripping spikes of the Koosh ball. But now the ball looked spiny and urchin-like on Ms. Giannopolous’s desk. If I touched it, the poisonous barbs would pierce my seven layers of skin, and the toxins would travel through my bloodstream, circulating through my veins and marrow. Better keep my hands glued to my pockets.
I heard the slapping of a dozen rubber soles on linoleum down the hall: crusty-nosed second-graders were coming in from recess. I hurriedly stepped out of my dark second-grade classroom. My eyes had not quite adjusted to the bright light in the corridor, so I could see only the outlines of everything in front of me. The hallway walls were lined with elementary Chuck Close paintings – little squares pasted together to make larger pictures. I reached the end of the hall and pushed open the double doors the same way a puny, roller-backpack-wheeling elementary student would.
Shabbat was the following night. At sunset, my family would sing the same songs from the Shlomo CD at the dinner table, drink wine that always tasted too sweet, and I would receive a new blessing from my dad.
My sister and I no longer twirl and leap clumsily across the living room floor. Instead, we joke about what happened that week with tears of laughter washing away the uneasiness of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and every gap of time in between.