Sarah didn’t want to go to school. Ordinarily she loved school; well, she loved her old school, with all her friends. But on Friday her family moved to a new city. She didn’t want to go, but her dad had started a new job. She had no choice.
Today her mom would take her to her new school. Sarah put on her favorite warm-up pants and a big, baggy sweatshirt. Then, she tied her long brown hair as a French braid. She hoped she looked okay, but since they didn’t have any mirrors up yet, except the small one in the bathroom over the sink, she wasn’t really sure how she looked. That alone made her uncomfortable.
“Let’s try to get to school right at the start. I have lots of things to do today,” said her mom at breakfast.
“Can’t we wait a day or two? I could help you unpack,” Sarah suggested, hopefully.
“You’ll have plenty of time to unpack, and I have a lot of errands,” replied her mom. Sarah didn’t want to do errands, but she didn’t want to go to a new school either.
“You love school. The sooner you get settled in school, the happier you’ll be,” said her dad. “I know it’s hard to start in the middle of the school year, but we couldn’t help it. The Torah tells us to be kind to strangers, and you’ll be a stranger. I’m sure people will be kind to you,” he added.
“How do you know they’ve even read the Torah?” snapped Sarah, her anxiety rushing to the surface.
“I know it will be hard. But you had friends before. You’ll make new friends here. Waiting isn’t going to make it any easier. The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll find our friends and our community,” he said, giving her a hug and kiss. “We can only do our best and trust to God. Things will work out.”
Sarah wanted to believe that everything would be fine, but just glancing at the kids as she and her mom walked up to the school entrance confirmed her worst fears. At her old school, everybody wore sweats or warm-ups. Here, everybody was wearing jeans. And nobody had braided hair. “I’m dressed all wrong. Everybody’s wearing jeans,” she said in panic. She felt like she was going to puke.
“Don’t worry,” said her mom. “We’ll dig out your jeans or we can buy some new ones. For one day you’ll survive.”
The principal led Sarah to her new classroom. The kids giggled when the teacher introduced her and sat her at the only empty desk, next to a boy, introduced as Dwayne, who clearly resented having her nearby. “My desk is the capital of Boy’s Country. Girls aren’t wanted. And this is my new book bag. Don’t get your cooties on it,” he hissed quietly, as soon as the teacher left.
“You can be sure I won’t touch it,” she said with mocking extra sweetness, hoping to shut him up.
The morning seemed to go fine. Everybody ignored her except when the teacher made somebody show her something or do something with her. Then they got to math. All the kids seemed to be stumped on a problem that Sarah had learned at her old school. She raised her hand. “I know how to do it,” she offered when the teacher called on her. The other kids groaned and snickered. Big mistake, Sarah thought.
It was too late. “Please come up and show us the solution on the board,” said the teacher. Sarah walked up front.
“She’s dressed like she thinks she’s at the gym,” one boy whispered, loud enough for the entire room to hear.
“That will be enough,” warned the teacher. Sarah quickly solved the problem. “Very good. I couldn’t have done it better myself. Did you all follow what Sarah did?” she continued. Sarah slunk back to her seat and wanted to die.
At lunch, the girl assigned to show her to the lunchroom disappeared to join a bunch of other girls as soon as they passed through the food line. Sarah looked around and saw only one open table, where a boy sat by himself. He didn’t look like a member of Dwayne’s Boy’s Country. They were all sitting together in a noisy group. Feeling that she had already done everything else wrong and seeing no other seat anyway, she went up to the table.
“Mind if I sit here?” she asked.
“Be my guest, but you won’t win any popularity contests by sitting with me,” he replied.
“I haven’t won any yet. I’m Sarah.”
“Hi, I’m Aaron.”
They sat eating in silence for a few minutes. “I’m the new kid, but what’s the matter with you? Do you have leprosy or something?” asked Sarah, trying to start conversation.
“I just don’t fit it in with most of the kids. I like programming computers. I like math. I think you did a great job on that math problem. The other kids call me Dork Brains,” he said.
When the bell rang, they went back to class together. The rest of the day passed without any incidents. Sarah was thankful when the end of school bell rang. Walking out, she passed Dwayne and his friends. “See you tomorrow, Mrs. Dork Brains,” one of them shouted. The rest laughed.
At dinner, Sarah’s mom announced: “I found your jeans. How did your day go?”
“OK,” Sarah replied. She didn’t want to talk about the day.
“I passed a synagogue a few blocks from here on my way to work. We can check it out on Shabbat. Maybe they have a kid’s service that you can join in,” said her dad. Sarah knew many of the Shabbat prayers. At her old synagogue she was often asked to lead some of the prayers in the grownup’s service. It made her feel great. But Sarah wasn’t excited this time. It just meant more new people to meet.
Still, she was thankful when Friday arrived. The rest of the week had gone along without any big problems. Aaron was nice enough, but she missed her close girlfriends from her old school. The girls were polite but distant. The boys referred to her as Mrs. Dork Brains. Aaron told her to ignore them so she tried. If she could just get through one more day, she’d have the whole weekend without having to think about school.
Dwayne and the rest of the boys seemed louder than usual. “I’ve got something to show you, Mrs. Dork Brains, my pet spider,” he declared, when she sat at her desk. Dwayne held a glass jar, twisted off the lid, flipped it upside down, and shook out a big spider. It landed right in front of her on the desk.
Sarah hated spiders. At home, she would call her dad if she saw one. He would scoop it up and get rid of it. She wanted to scream, but she felt all the kids looking at her and held her scream. Thinking fast, Sarah grabbed Dwayne’s book bag, which was sitting on top of his desk, and used it to squish the spider.
“That’s my spider! And that’s my brand new book bag! Now you’ve put mushed spider guts all over my new book bag!” screamed Dwayne.
The teacher rushed over. Dwayne was sent to the principal’s office for punishment. Seating was moved around so Sarah found herself sitting next to some girls and right in front of Aaron.
“Great job, Sarah,” Aaron whispered.
“Good for you,” said the girl next to her. “Dwayne’s a jerk.”
On Saturday, the family went to Shabbat services at the synagogue her dad had spotted. Sitting with her parents in the main service, she noticed a bunch of kids her age, some a little older, some younger. After the Torah was taken from the ark, the kids all slipped out of the service. “Our Tot service and Junior Congregation are starting,” announced the rabbi. “Anyone who wants to attend should go to the chapel.”
“I’ll bring you over,” said her father.
“I’d rather stay here with you,” Sarah said.
“You won’t meet any kids staying here with us,” he said, gently leading her out. Her mom took her baby brother to the Tot service.
The man leading the Junior Congregation greeted each child by his or her Hebrew name. Sarah didn’t expect to know anyone. Then Aaron hurried in after her.
They started the Junior service. Different kids led different parts of the service, alone or in pairs. As the service went along, the man turned to one particularly quiet girl: “Shana, you haven’t done anything yet. Will you lead the Amidah for us?”
Shana looked about Sarah’s own age. She seemed popular enough, but was probably shy, like Sarah herself. “I’ll do it if someone does it with me,” Shana said.
After the math incident, Sarah vowed not to volunteer again, but she found herself raising her hand. “I’ll do it with her,” she said.
The two girls did the Amidah, and went on to lead other parts of the service too. Then all the kids took turns pairing up with one another to share the leading of other prayers and honors. This is a great bunch of kids, thought Sarah. The younger kids climbed all over the bigger kids. The oldest kids treated the younger kids nicely. It was sort of like a family.
Late in the service, a man arrived, the head usher. He asked some of the kids to lead parts of the main service: Alenu, Ashrei, and Ein Kelohenu. “Can you take Anim Zmirot?” he asked the man leading Junior Congregation. ” Michael was going to do it, but he’s sick.”
“No, That’s too hard for me on short notice. I’d need much more practice,” he replied.
“I can do it,” Sarah said quickly. “I’ve done it many times before.”
Sarah’s parents’ mouths dropped wide open in surprise when Sarah went up to lead Anim Zmirot. She chanted it loud and clear. At Kiddush, Shana and her parents came up to Sarah and her parents. “Can Sarah come over for a play date?” Shana blurted out.
“You have a lot of unpacking and …” her mom started to say.
“But it’s Shabbat. The boxes can wait, can’t they?” her dad interrupted.
Sarah and Shana went on to become good friends. At school, a girl asked Sarah if she could show her how she did that really cool braid in her hair the first day.
One Shabbat, Sarah suddenly bumped into a verse in the Torah that made her think twice: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex: 23:9) Sarah read it over and over again, remembering that awful first week of school. She promised herself to always be nice to new kids in school, for she knew what it was like to be a stranger.