Growing up Malka had always been the smallest girl in her class. Maybe that’s why she was so assertive. All those years of trying to prove that she was as mature or competent as any of the others had left their mark. Now, as a married woman and mother of six, her diminutive frame and round baby-face belied her forty-two years.
As she moved the seat of her mini-van forward she glanced into the car’s mirror and was pleased with her reflection. Quickly she readjusted the hat covering her hair and stuck the key into the ignition. It would be a long trip to the Negev but she was as capable as her husband was to make the drive. Just, it was such a shame that he and the girls would miss out. Of course, it wasn’t like they were missing the swearing-in. This was just a minor graduating ceremony.
She hadn’t told Avi that she was definitely coming and she could imagine his pleasure when he saw her. First his eyes would brighten, then there’d be a smile, and then, without embarrassment, he’d give her a big hug. Malka was pleased that he’d never been embarrassed, even as a teenager, to show his affection to his parents. Of course, it seemed Avi never got embarrassed by anything.
Oh, the pranks he used to pull! He’d been just four-years-old the time he caught a lizard on his way to nursery school. Avi put his new pet along with some green leaves inside his lunch bag and happily anticipated showing off his prize. Unfortunately his nursery school teacher hadn’t been impressed when the lizard escaped from the bag. In fact, she’d been terrified and Avi had called her a scairdy-cat. That was the first time Malka had been called in for a private parent conference.
It wasn’t the last time. They called her in because he liked to leave nursery school by the window instead of the door. They called her in because he’d put his chair on top of the table and sat high up when he couldn’t see what was happening in the front of the room. They called her in when he organized a strike after the kindergarten aide made fun of the new Russian child who barley understood Hebrew.
Malka would usually listen to the complaints politely and promise to talk to Avi about the wisdom of his actions. Her response to the kindergarten teacher was far less civil, though.
“I’m proud of my son for defending Alex,” she said in no uncertain terms. “And your aide should be ashamed that another five-year-old had to fix her damage.”
The teacher had the grace to blush. She mumbled something about keeping order in her room and then agreed that she’d speak to the aide.
“However,” she added just as Malka was leaving. “You might want to consider starting Avi on Ritalin before he begins first grade.”
Malka smiled frostily and deigned to reply to such a ridiculous suggestion.
A bright boy, Avi grasped the first grade lessons quickly and then became bored. Sometimes he relieved his boredom by daydreaming but more often than not he’d get up and wander around the room looking for another classmate who’d also finished his work. It just took a month for Malka to be called in for a conference.
“Avi is a good, smart boy,” Malka spoke adamantly. “He’s bored and you need to challenge him more.”
“I have thirty-five boys whom I need to keep in order so I can teach them to read, write, and everything else,” the young teacher defended herself. “I have no time to go to the bathroom, let alone help the slow children catch up. Avi needs to learn to sit still.”
“You need to give him activities so he’ll want to!”
“What do you suggest?”
“I learned accounting,” Malka kept her impatience out of her voice. “Not education, but if you’re incapable of providing him with stimulation I guess I’ll have to send him with some.”
On her way home from work the next day she stopped at a teaching supply store and bought supplies. Her activities kept Avi quiet for a while and then the “good student” cards began. Desperate to keep order in her classroom the teacher began handing out cards whenever the boys sat nicely in their place, raised their hands and answered questions correctly, did their homework, and made a good grade on tests. Once a month they could “buy” prizes with their cards.
Avi had dozens of cards, not for sitting still, of course, but for correct answers, homework, and tests. He had more than he needed to buy the best prizes but Alex did not. So Avi gave some of his cards to Alex and in gratitude Alex shared some of his mother’s delicious tea cakes. The next month Avi discovered that Chaim, the boy who was too shy to raise his hand, was just three cards short from getting a yo-yo. Avi again gave away cards and still had plenty left to buy a kazoo. The following month he again helped Alex, Chaim, and a third boy, but the teacher caught on and was angry.
Malka was called in again and she was indignant.
“How can you be angry at a boy for being so kind-hearted?”
“Your son has no respect for order. I think he needs Ritalin.”
“I don’t think so,” Malka countered.
It was hard to say who was more relieved, she or the teacher, once summer vacation began. When Avi entered second grade he found an older, experienced teacher but she didn’t seem any more patient with him than the first-grade teacher had been. Malka was called in the first time after Avi brought a dog to school as an audio-visual aide for his book report. The second time was when he rigged up a Tarzan-like rope on the playground. Then he began selling out-of-date candies he’d found next to the trash behind the grocery store.
“Your child needs Ritalin,” the older, experienced teacher declared.
Malka just shook her head.
“I can’t have him in my classroom if he doesn’t take it.”
“This is a public school,” Malka countered. “You can’t refuse to have him.”
“It’s for his own good. Avi’s heading for disaster if he doesn’t learn to control himself.”
“You want to stifle his creativity!”
“I want to protect him,” the teacher answered confidently. “How many times have you had to take him to the emergency room the past year?”
Malka blushed. There’d been the broken arm when he fell climbing up a fire escape, the stitches when he shinnied down a tree, the cracked tooth from the go-cart he’d made from old odds and ends.
“Avi is not hyperactive,” she declared. “He can build with Lego by the hour, he listens to stories on DVDs without any visual stimulation, and he can get lost in a book.”
“Maybe you’re right,” the teacher conceded. “I suggest you make an appointment with a neurologist, for Avi’s sake. If you can bring me a letter stating he has no need for Ritalin I’ll drop the subject.”
Malka did bring the letter and, true to her word, the teacher dropped the subject, but it was brought up again and again each following year. Although she had positive conferences with her girls’ teachers Avi’s were always disappointing.
“Your son is so smart but he gets caught up with such silly activities that he misses out on half the learning.”
“He’s got a kind heart but he needs to control himself better.”
“If you disciplined your son more he’d be an excellent student.”
“He’s charming as can be, but charm alone is not going to get him through life.”
Malka didn’t know if it was due to the charm or his good test scores but he was accepted to one of the best high schools in the country. She had high hopes the school’s modern teaching techniques would serve Avi well. So she was bitterly disappointed when she received a call from the counselor.
“You need to take your son to a neurologist for testing,” he informed her.
“We did that!”
“Seven years ago.”
“That’s a long time ago,” the counselor said gently. “He should be retested.”
Reluctantly Malka made an appointment and reluctantly she took Avi there. To her dismay she witnessed the examination and saw that her son was not able to follow instructions or answer questions as easily as he’d done when he’d been in second grade.
“He has ADHD,” the neurologist informed her.
“The brain grows with the child and with the growth things can change.” This was said kindly and then he explained how often Avi should take Ritalin.
It seemed to Malka that her son was almost relieved to hear the doctor’s diagnosis. He declared he was going to inform his classmates that he was taking medication so none of them could find out on their own and make fun of him. Things went well for a couple of months and then he stopped taking the Ritalin.
“It makes me feel like a robot,” he complained to his mother and she accepted his decision.
He made another decision in the spring. He wanted to go to a more open high school and he found one not far from home. The learning level was a little low so he made excellent grades. The staff was easy-going and seemed to understand that teenage boys need a lot of freedom. By the end of his senior year Avi had really caught hold of himself. After graduation he amazed his family by telling them that he was going to go to a top, pre-military Torah academy instead of straight into the army.
After two years of learning he was ready to be a soldier. No mother could have been prouder than Malka when, following basic training, he was accepted into the training course for an elite unit. After months of hard work the course was over and now he was receiving his certificate.
Israel is a small country so Malka wasn’t surprised to meet someone she knew as soon as she walked into the base. What astonished her was that the person she knew was the neurologist and he remembered her. His nephew was also going into the special unit. It was Avi, though, not the nephew or any of the other thirty boys, who received recognition as an excellent soldier.
“Not bad for a boy with ADHD,” Malka commented to the neurologist who was seated in front of her.
“Not bad at all,” he smiled.
“But, tell me,” she spoke earnestly. “How can a boy with ADHD be able to control himself enough to be accepted in a special unit and excel?”
The doctor sighed. “The army discipline is excellent for these kinds of boys.”
“If discipline is so good for them,” Malka controlled herself to keep from yelling. “Why don’t they have more of it in the schools?”
The neurologist sighed again. “Many parents won’t let the schools discipline their children.”
“So we have to drug the kids?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“You know, Avi only took the medication for a month or two.”
“I’m thankful it worked out for him,” he was sincere. “There are plenty of kids who don’t take it and end up with such poor self-images they drop out of school and have no future.”
“On the other hand,” he admitted. “There are always side effects to medication, including the risk of addiction.”
“So how’s a parent supposed to know whether to drug or not?”
“They have to pray,” the neurologist said decisively. “A lot.”
Malka nodded. Later after she’d congratulated Avi, received his warm hug, and given him the goodies she’d brought with her, she entered her car. As she pulled out of her parking spot she said her own prayer, thanking HaShem that Avi had made it successfully to adulthood without being drugged. As she merged onto the highway she added another prayer for parents of mischievous, high-spirited children. She prayed that all of them would make the right decision on whether to drug their child or not.