The staff at the group home was demoralized. The residents, termed "troubled" by the Faniily Court, and called "juvenile delinquents" by the neighbors, had broken out of control and were running away, smashing windows, even snatching purses from helpless elderly women. And all this despite the best efforts of a loving and caring group of underpaid counselors.
As psychiatric consultant to the harried staff of the home, it was my job to support the staff in their time of trial, and to offer psychodynamic insights into the "acting out behavior" of these sad and deprived boys.
"We have no impact. We make no difference," one of the staff moaned at our weekly meeting. "We just babysit these kids far a few months or years. Their backgrounds are so chaotic. They've been bad. they are bad, and they'll always be bad, no matter what we do."
"Don't be so sure." I pleaded. "You never know what kind of impact you make on a kid. These kids are not about to come up to you, now or in the future, and say, 'Thanks! You changed my life.'"
"Do you know." I went on, "that one man who made the most profound impression on my life has no idea of what an impact he made on me?" I had their attention, and went on.
"He was my second grade teacher. We all loved him, and he loved us all. At lunchtime, he would not go to the teacher's lounge, but would walk around the schoolyard, like the Pied Piper, all of us crowding around him, hanging on his tales of intrigue in the jungles of Borneo. He spoke of native boys climbing palm trees in their bare feet, throwing down coconuts in exchange for a slice of Lifebuoy soap. With his lilting English accent and sparkling eyes, he could transform the gravel of Roxbury into the sands of the Kalihari.
"During that year, I came down with polio, and spent six months at home, in bed. Twice, he came to see me, each time with a gift. The first was an album of 78's: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, by Mozart. How impressed I was that an adult vould bring me serious music; others brought Tubby the Tuba. I listened to this Mozart, and it was beautiful. He had introduced me to the joys of great music.
"He cane again, bringing vith him Alice in Wonderland. 'Read this book now,' he said,'and you will find wonders in it. Read it again in a few years, when you have grown, and you will find new wonders that you did not see before.' He had opened a window for me into the complexities and subtleties of great literature.
"By the next year. I was on my feet again. He was no longer my teacher, but I still was among his horde in the yard at lunchtime. One day. I wandered into the drug store in Grove Hall to see if any new comic books had come in. He was in the store, smiled, and asked what I had come to buy. What should I say to a teacher? That I had come in to check out the latest novel of Charles Dickens? Did they have any of Barktok's string quartets? Could I trust him with the truth?
"'I came in to buy a comic book,' I mumbled, counting the cracks in the linoleum.
"'Well, then,' he declared, 'Let me buy one for you.'
"'Damn.' I said to myself, 'Now I’ll have to buy Archie, or some other wholesome piece of shit.'
"He strode over to the comic book rack. This drug store had one of the finest collections in town. There in the third row lay my heart's desire. Oozing from the cover of The Crypt of Terror was a scaly monster, covered with slime, his long nails tearing the flesh from a screaming, disheveled, large-breasted woman, whose throat dripped blood—hardly fit reading matter for a yeshiva bochur and connoisseur of Lewis Carroll and Mozart.
"My eyes wandered back and forth from the object of my lust to the cover of Archie, where Veronica and Betty giggled at Jughead's latest faux-pas. Did I dare to reveal to him the evil that lurked in my heart? Would the Shadow betray me?
"I picked up The Crypt Of Terror, and once again scanning the linoleum. murmured, 'This one.' He did not blink nor flinch nor wince. He put his dime down on the counter. I knew he knew that there was evil lurking in my heart. I also knew that if there was also an ounce of goodness there, he would be one of the few to know that, too.
"This man taught me so much, gave me such gifts," I told my rapt listeners at the group home. "When I finished medical school, I was feeling so proud, so good about myself and about life. There were so many people I wanted to thank. He was high on the list, but I never told him, never thanked him; he never knew what he had done for me.'
"Why didn't you tell him?" demanded one of the staff.
"I guess I was embarrassed to say such loving things to a man who might not even remember me," I answered.
"Well, if he was so important to you, don't you think he deserves to know that?" asked another.
"All right, all right. I’ll do it," I promised them.
That night, I wrote to my teacher, telling him what I had told the group home staff that day. I sent it to him at a Hebrew Day School in Mamaroneck, New York, where I knew he had become principal. After a week or two. I stopped checking the mail for a return letter.
Several months later, the phone rang around suppertime, and my wife answered. When a voice with an English accent asked for me, she assumed it was one of my friends calling, as he often does, with a poorly disguised voice. Putting on her best English accent, she began to banter with him, and stopped abruptly. Turning red-faced to me, she announced. "It's Mr. Plotnick, from Mamaroneck."
"lt's Hoshana Raba." he began. "That means that I still have time to ask your pardon, for the opportunity to ask forgiveness from one's fellow man does not end at N’eelah on Yom Kippur. I received your letter and did not know how to respond. It was the kind of letter that every teacher dreams of getting."
I was quite overwhelmed with a flood of emotion. and do I don’t remember the exact details of our conversation. We exchanged pleasantries and information about each other, and vowed to keep in touch.
A year later, at the time of the High Holidays, he wrote me a letter. He was in his 70's, had married within the year for the first time, and, to his wonder, and to mine, was about to became a father.
I have not seen him since the fifth grade.
He would not recognize me today, nor I him. I'm glad, in a way, that I
can still have him as I knew him then, and as I still need him to be.