July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Len headed to the last spot in the last row of the classroom and slid down low in the seat. He was only 13 years old and he was already a high school freshman. He was younger than everyone else and shorter and skinnier than all the other boys. Whose idea had it been for him to skip two grades? He just wasn’t ready.

Now, from the front of the room, Mr. Goldberg, the General Science teacher, began speaking and soon Len realized with horror that the disgruntled-looking man was staring straight at him and waving some papers in his direction as he spoke with an increasingly loud voice. The teacher was tall and wiry looking and sported a comb-over that made him look like an angry rooster. He was actually spitting a little on his striped bow tie as he bellowed at the class.

“I refuuuuse to tolerate, he screamed dragging out the syllables, I absoluuuteIy will not accept these test scores from some of you. This is high school, fellas, high school. Get your act together. IT IS NOT KINDERGARTEN!” And with that he strode over to a humiliated Len and threw his quiz emblazoned with a large scarlet F on the top of the boy’s desk.

Len had always done well in school, but now he was completely overwhelmed. Every word that Mr. Goldberg said in class seemed like it was spoken in some foreign language, and the teacher was so mean-spirited and sarcastic that Len was afraid to raise his hand to ask a question or even to occasionally answer one. He was sure that if the man would just give him a chance he would catch up. It was difficult being in a new school with new kids. New beginnings were always hard for Len, but he knew he could get used to things.

And true to form, as the semester went on school did start to improve. Len made some new friends when they found out that he could really whack a baseball. His mother baked great cookies that his friends were eager to share. His rebbe complimented him on his learning. Surprisingly, even science class was starting to make sense. Len had studied for the last test with his new pal Henry and he was sure that he had done well, this time. Mr. Goldberg would surely be surprised. So, Len was totally unprepared for what happened later that afternoon.

Mr. Goldberg entered the room scowling, but that in itself wasn’t at all strange–the boys didn’t even notice. “Gentlemen,” he said in an unusually low, serious tone. “I have come to a sad but necessary conclusion.” He lifted the tests his students had taken the day before out of a battered brown briefcase. “Do you see these papers? I am going to destroy all of them.” And then he proceeded to rip each paper into shreds. “You will be retested on all of this material tomorrow. Something is very, very wrong here.” He thumped his flat palm on his desk for emphasis. “If a student, who has failed several of my previous tests can score a 92 on this one, either the exam was ridiculously easy, or that student is a cheat!” As Mr. Goldberg spoke, he walked around his desk and headed towards Len’s. Here is your 92 Mister. He then handed Len several pieces of shredded paper.

After class a trembling Len approached his teacher. Only his growing anger helped him to control his tears and embarrassment.

“Mr. Goldberg,” he said with a shaking voice, “I just want you to know that I never, ever cheated on any test. I studied really hard with a friend and I really knew my stuff. I am going to prove to you how wrong you are about me. One day you will apologize to me for what happened today.” Len was only 13, but his despair made him brave. The teacher stood motionless, hands folded across his chest.

Len did well on each of his subsequent science exams that year, but Mr. Goldberg never acknowledged his improvement. He finished the semester with an A on his report card. Whenever he encountered Mr. Goldberg in the hallway over the next three years the teacher quickly turned away. No apology was ever made. Ironically, at graduation, it was none other than the science teacher who was chosen to present Len with the award for exemplary work in all of his subsequent science classes. Mr. Goldberg presented the medal to Len and tried to shake his former student’s hand as he murmured congratulations. Len took the medal but ignored the proffered hand. He did not reply.

Mr. Goldberg left the school shortly after and no one knew where he went. Len went on to major in chemistry in college and graduate school and eventually opened his own chemical firm. Often, he thought about his traumatic freshman experience. Perhaps his need to prove an unfair and cruel teacher wrong had motivated him to work hard and succeed in school and in his later life. Len realized that he probably should have accepted Mr. Goldberg’s conciliatory handshake. Despite his intent, the man had actually done him a favor.

Estelle Glass, a Teaneck resident, is a retired educator who is now happily writing her own essays.

By Estelle Glass

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