My Special-Needs Sister
I want my friends to know that it’s okay to be different.
The ringing of the phone interrupted my quiet afternoon. It was my daughters’ principal. She told me that everything was okay and I should not worry, but if I have a few moments, could I please stop by the school to speak with her about one of my girls. We agreed that tomorrow morning would work for both of us.
Even though she reassured me that all was fine, I could not help being rather anxious about the meeting. In the back of my mind, I wondered if Ruchama’s transition into a different building as a brand-new junior-high student wasn’t going as well as I anticipated. Our concern was based not only on this transition, but also because her older sister with special needs went to school in that same building.
The next morning, the secretary invited me into the principal's office. I walked in slowly, wondering what this could be all about, and closed the door behind me. Rebbetzin Meyers smiled warmly and asked if I would like something to drink. I politely declined, anxious to begin.
“Mrs. Eisenbach, I called you in here to discuss Ruchama. I felt that it was most appropriate to share this with you in person and not on the phone. First of all, I would like you to know that Shulamis is, thank God, doing well this year. Her aide is wonderful and we are proud of her achievements. I anticipated Ruchama’s arrival into the junior high with a bit of apprehension. I was concerned that she should feel comfortable with the fact that her sister with special needs is also here. I am sure that she worries about her and I have done my best to make sure that Ruchama has her space.
"Several times we noticed Shulamis taking a peek into her classroom, but we’ve spoken to her aide and made sure that the sisters spend time together only during the lunch period. Ruchama needs to get settled in our school and she needs to think of herself as a separate entity than her sister.
“The reason I have called you for a conference actually has nothing to do with that. I think that Ruchama has beautiful traits and has actually done quite well for herself this year. Last week, our language-arts teacher assigned an essay to the class. Each girl was asked to pick a quote from the list provided and write a brief story of how it applies to her life. After the teacher had a chance to look over Ruchama’s paper, she felt that she had to share it with me. It was so touching — it moved me to tears. I wanted you to read it.”
She handed me the paper and I began to read:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
When I think about the most important lessons that we learn in life, I realize that they are right in front of our eyes. I have a sister with special needs who teaches me so much. I have learned about others just from observing how people behave around her. I think that people are afraid of the things they do not know — just because they do not know them. If people would take the time to get to know my older sister, they would realize that she is a warm and friendly person.
There are plenty of people with special needs who have behavioral problems or don’t know how to act in front of others. Some can help it; others cannot. My sister has special needs. My family does its best to take care of her and help her learn how to behave in front of others. They say, “It doesn’t matter how much math or science you know — it’s all about having the right social skills and being a mensch.” I sleep in the same room as my sister and many times, when the lights are off, we talk. I ask her about her friends and school. She loves talking about them. When she tells me something that happens in school, I try to teach her what to say in response. She means well, but she doesn’t always have the right words.
A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s house on Shabbos afternoon. Other girls were also there. When it was time to leave, I invited one of the girls to come back to my house to play a new board game that we had just gotten. She looked at me and said, “I can’t.”
I asked her why. She said, “I don’t want to because of your sister.”
I felt like crying. The tears started forming in my eyes and filling them up. I swallowed to keep them from spilling onto my face. I didn’t know what to say. Should I tell her, “Don’t worry, it’s okay? She won’t bite? She is part of my family and I love her?” There was nothing I could say. I couldn’t tell her anything. I walked home alone.
When I came home, I went straight to my room. I didn’t want to tell my mother and father because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings either. I thought about what she had said. It’s not my fault. Yes, sometimes, many times, it is hard to go to school with her, sleep in the same room as her, and share everything I have with her. But I love her.
I wish I could just feel that this is the way God made it, so it must be a good thing.
She’s warm, friendly, and really cares about me. She worries about me when I am sick and tries to help me with my homework. She even shares everything she has with me. She meets me in school after lunch to help me carry my things upstairs because she knows that my books are so heavy for me. Her carpool gets her home before I arrive on the bus. Every day, my sister walks to the bus stop just so that she can carry my backpack home for me.
I think that if this girl would get a chance to know my sister, she would like her. She probably doesn’t want to come over because she doesn’t know anything about her and is afraid. It’s worth taking a chance. People who take the time to get to know my special sister, love her.
I haven’t found the right words to tell people when they say things like this. I wish I could be tough and not care. I wish I could just feel that this is the way God made it, so it must be a good thing. But I feel bad. I want my friends to know that it’s okay to be different. Yes, my family may be a little bit different than yours, but it’s fine. We are regular people trying to do the best with what we have. My parents would feel terrible if they knew that sometimes girls won’t come over because they are afraid. I wish that I could come up with a way to teach them not to be afraid.
They are afraid of the unknown.
I felt a lone tear slide down my cheek as I tried to quickly brush it away before the Rebbetzin noticed.
“Mrs. Eisenbach,” she said, “I think that this paper serves as a message for me. I think it’s time to talk to the girls, time to give them inspiration and some basic knowledge about differences in people. We each have some good qualities and we each have some that are not as good. As Jews, we are required to accept each other with joy. Even though this might be difficult at times, it is something we should always strive for … to accept one another unconditionally.
"Some children come by this more naturally than others, but perhaps it is up to us to refine and educate our students. Our character traits can always use a good boost and maybe this can be our next project for our students. I can thank both of your daughters for this privilege.”
I thanked the Rebbetzin for providing me with a personal nachas report and for demonstrating an understanding that my daughter was speaking from her heart. It seemed to me that this paper was almost a whisper to remind us that God wants us not only to take care of one another, but to care for one another as well. I left her office with great pride and joy in my heart for both my daughters.
Excerpted from Hidden Gems, Artscroll Publications.