Bamidbar: 20: 9
(Based on a true story)
There are days when I-95 in Connecticut is smooth sailing from Stanford all the way to the New York state line. Then there are days when it is a veritable parking lot, and the drive is a nightmarish hell that makes you wonder why anyone would attempt this commute every day.
April 13th was the latter of those two options. Leon and Chani Dubowitz had been sitting in traffic for forty-five minutes, and they were still in Greenwich. They were definitely going to be late for their appointment.
Their three year old son Menachem was a very good boy who usually did very well in the car, but he was beginning to reach the end of his patience. His favorite song was Joshua Giraffe by Raffi, and they had been playing it over and over again on the minivan CD player until Leon thought he knew not just the words but all the instrumental accompaniment by heart.
They were on their way to visit a preschool program in Paramus for the coming fall. Leon had accepted a job in Parsippany, so living in Connecticut had become impractical. The Jewish preschool programs in Bergen County book up very quickly, and Chani considered herself fortunate to have found a spot for the fall anywhere. The director of the program at Shomrei Emunah had told her there was only one spot left, so they rushed down to check out the program as soon as they could.
Leon himself had grown up in northern New Jersey, but when he was a kid it was a very small community. The idea that all the preschools booked up completely by September for the coming year was entirely foreign to him. Fortunately, Chani was super organized and had done all the research on schools in the area.
By the time they pulled into the parking lot of the synagogue, all three of them were wrecks. Chani thought both of her boys could use a good nap, the three year old, and the twenty-eight year old, but there was no time for either one.
The receptionist at the synagogue office was very kind to them, offering coffee for the adults and milk for Menachem. She buzzed the preschool director, who came out to greet them after a few minutes. Leon found himself calming down, and even Menachem seemed to warm to the colorful atmosphere and regain his composure.
Things began to go south quickly. Mora Dina had a professional smile glued to her face as she greeted them. She was very polite, but both Chani and Leon suspected something was wrong.
“Unfortunately, the last spot in the threes for next year was filled a few days ago,” Dina Potashnick said in the sing-song voice of an early childhood teacher who was still using her classroom demeanor despite speaking with adults, “but we’d be happy to put you on the waiting list for the fall. Things often come up as the year goes on.”
“What?” Leon said. “But we just drove here two hours from Connecticut.”
Mora Dina kept her servile smile glued to her face. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else we can do. You can still have a tour of the school if you’d like.” And she proceeded to walk back to her office.
“I took the whole day off from work,” Leon said with exasperation, but Mora Dina was already gone.
Chani shrugged her shoulders. “Oh well.”
Leon could feel the pressure building up in his head. If it were possible, steam would have been coming out of his ears. “’Oh well?’ She’s got a lot of nerve. If she knew we were coming all the way from Connecticut, the least she could have done was call us when the spot was filled.”
The couple each took one of Menachem’s hand and began to walk down the hallways of the synagogue. Leon continued to rant, voicing his displeasure in a loud tone.
“I have half a mind to march right into Mora Dinah’s office and give her a piece of my mind!”
Suddenly someone stuck her head out of one of the classrooms and stared out at Leon.
“Shshshshsh!” she said.
Leon froze in his tracks. “Oh my G-d! It’s Mora Rina!”
“Who?” Chani asked.
“Morah Rina. Rina Erlich. She was my preschool teacher when I was a kid. Morah Rina, it’s so nice to see you! What are you doing here?”
“I substitute here sometimes when someone is out. It’s nice to see you too, Leon. What are you doing here?”
“I was bringing my son Menachem here to get a spot for him for next year.”
Rina leaned down and pinched Menachem’s cheek appreciatively. “He’s adorable. And Baruch Hashem he looks like your wife.”
Leon smiled for the first time that morning.
“So nu, why all the screaming?” Rina asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why have you been standing outside my classroom howling like a hyena?”
Chani and Leon related to Rina the aggravating events of the morning. Chani spoke calmly, and Leon raged, ranted, and gesticulated in frustration.
Mora Rina smiled sympathetically at the couple.
“You know, Leon, you can always catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“There’s no point in getting so upset. You’re better off keeping your cool. Or let me put it in the terms I would have said to you twenty-five years ago when you were in my class. Try using your inside voice.”
Leon was having a hard time calming down, even as Mora Rina continued to give her sage preschool advice.
“You still don’t get it? O.K., let’s try a different tack. Sometimes it’s better to talk to the rock than to hit it.”
“You know, when Hashem told Moshe to talk to the rock to give Klal Yisroel water when they were thirsty, but he was so upset at them that he hit the rock? He was punished by not being allowed to go into Israel. He would have been much better off keeping his cool, wouldn’t you say?”
Leon still seemed upset.
“Leon? Let’s try to turn that frown upside down.”
That finally did the trick.
“That’s better. Now go to the front office and Annette behind the desk will give you a cookie and a sticker.”
For the record, Menachem got the sticker, but the cookie was all Leon’s.