I was 11, playing a made-up kind of baseball with a group of kids, our last game before the end of summer. I was at bat when the pitcher accused me of cheating. I vehemently denied this and told him he was just mad because I was a better pitcher than him. He rushed at me, fists waving, calling me names. We started punching each other, me with my eyes closed, furiously banging away at him. Suddenly I heard him curse me as he stopped hitting. I opened my eyes. He was gone. I burst into tears. One of the boys asked why I was crying, that I should be cheering. I’d won the fight. I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt crappy.
That fall I started going to a Jewish School every Sunday morning. The teachers, all veterans who’d helped liberate Buchenwald, created the school so children could learn about Jewish history and culture. I had a lot of questions and it felt safe to ask them in class. Although my classmates made fun of me, groaning each time I asked a question, my teacher, I’ll call him Bernie, always responded respectfully. Often he answered a question with a question. When I asked why he did this, he said his job was to help us learn to think for ourselves. The first time he didn’t have an answer for my question I asked what was the point of asking questions if there were no answers. He said, “The point of asking questions is to ask questions; some are so big there are no definite answers.” I liked the idea of asking big questions.
I felt so comfortable with him that during a break I told him about the fight and asked him why I felt bad afterward. As always, he took time to consider his response. “I think that’s a question only you can answer.”
“But I won. Why did I feel bad about winning?”
“You tell me.”
“It didn’t feel good to hurt someone.”
He grinned. “But you won, right?”
“Yeah, but what did I win? That’s what I keep wondering.”
“Keep wondering,” he said, “it’s the beginning of wisdom.”
The next Sunday I asked Bernie, “Is it possible to win and lose at the same time?”
Not for the first time, he asked, “What do you think?”
“I think I won the fight and lost my self.”
“What self did you lose?” He asked kindly, with obvious curiosity.
I’d spent the week thinking about the contradiction between winning and feeling bad. “I lost the self that thought she would never hurt anyone for any reason.”
“If so,” he asked, “how do your recover that self?” It didn’t occur to me this was possible. I pretty much saw everything as black and white, good and bad. No gray.
“How can I recover something I lost? There’s no do-over.”
“No, but you can learn from the experience. The kid came at you and you reacted. Afterward, you thought about what you did and how you felt. We all make mistakes. What matters is how we deal with them. That can only happen if you think about your actions.”
“People say I think too much. I’m too intense. I’m too serious. I’m too sensitive.”
He put his hands gently on each side of my face. “Nancy, whoever the people are, they don’t get to decide who you are. Only you.”
He reminded me that life is complex and complicated. No one act defined me or anyone else. I could choose not to meet anger with anger. I could respond to unkindness with kindness. It was up to me to decide how I wanted to live, who I wanted to be.
How do you want to live? Who do you want to be?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.