Getting from the house to cheder — or rather the two separate chedarim that my sons attend — always takes time. Shmuel is like a seven-year old Wordsworth — constantly stopping to marvel at the wonders of nature (and the neighborhood); while Pinchos, five, comports himself like a young Newton, always pausing to ask how things work. Today, a garbage pick-up fired both of their imaginations. Yes, getting to cheder takes a long time.
Between the flights of sublimity and the mechanical inquiries, I pursue another topic — ‘How to Cross the Street.’ First, an under-undergraduate course in semiotics: ‘What do the thick white lines on the pavement mean? What does the blue and white illuminated image of the pedestrian connote? Yes, this is the place to cross the street!’
So we stand and dutifully wait. One car zooms by; and another. Then a young father, with ear phones – he seems deep in thought — his five year old daughter in tow, crosses down the block, away from the pedestrian crossing. I see Pinchos wondering: ‘what exactly is abba trying to pass off on us?’ ‘You don’t have to cross here,’ he finally says, another car whizzing by: ‘look at them,’ he points to the father and daughter still in sight and already at the makholet across the street, presumably poised to buy lachmania and choco for the day ahead.
‘No you can’t have lachmania and choco; mommy packed you a lunch.’ And: ‘just because other people do the wrong thing does not mean that it’s right.’ Finally, a car stops, the driver waiving us across benevolently. I nod in gratitude: ‘thank you for abiding by the law.’
Pinchos is first today. Shmuel, shy, is reluctant to accompany us, so he waits outside the cheder gates. Some boys lean out towards the street through the metal bars – starting to tease him, even as I’m standing by. ‘Yesh l’chem baya?’ — I ask — mimicking what boys typically say when taunting Shmuel who has Down’s Syndrome: ‘you guys have a problem?’ When I come back, Shmuel is still standing there – he looks confused, a departure from his wondrous happy friendly self: one of the boys is standing with his tongue hanging out with a mocking stare.
When I returned my wife asked: ‘what do you expect?’ Pinchos is in one of the schools that would not take Shmuel — why should we expect more from children than their teachers?
Back on our morning trek, now walking in the direction of Shmuel’s cheder, we encounter the bouncy-gait of the nine year old Yehuda: ‘Good morning Shmuel!’; and shortly after, a smiling boy in Shmuel’s class, ‘Shalom Shmuel!’ ‘He’s my friend,’ Shmuel boasts loudly to me. And then the gawky eleven year-old from down the block, who keeps a rooster in our building courtyard, volunteers, ‘Can I walk with Shmuel to cheder? I’ll take him!’ These are boys from a chassidic cheder in our neighborhood: while other principals told us, ‘Shmuel will give the school a bad name‘; their rebbe says: ‘it’s a mitzvah gedola; it’s a big mitzvah!’ So the children look at Shmuel as an opportunity. Or maybe they just like him?
So what kind of exceptions do we make — for ourselves? for our children? One thing is sure: when we start making exceptions, they become natural, even second-nature. Like crossing the street in the wrong place, or, making a new friend, even though he may be a bit different.