Jr. Jewish World /

Jewish World Review

Poor Ricki

by Libby Lazewnik

SHANA WAS ABOUT TO SLING her backpack over her shoulder and leave the room along with the rest of her class, when the following words froze her in her tracks:

"Shana, please come up here. I'd like to talk to you."

Normally, she would have welcomed a chat with her favorite teacher. Just now, it was the last thing she wanted. Miss Greenbaum ruled the seventh grade with the proverbial iron fist inside a velvet glove. She was funny, interesting, interested, and good company. That was the velvet. Shana had an uneasy feeling that it was the iron she was about to encounter now.

The expression on Miss Greenbaum's face as her star student approached her desk was not encouraging. Shana sat gingerly at the edge of the front-row seat in the empty classroom, clutching her schoolbag to her chest as though she wished she could hide behind it. But there was no hiding from those clear, gray eyes.

"Your report," Miss Greenbaum began.

"I know," Shana said miserably.

"What happened? That report was not only a good few cuts below your usual standard -- it was hardly even a report at all! If I didn't know you better, Shana, I'd have suspected that you threw it together in about five minutes -- with your eyes closed!"

The teacher's gaze was penetrating. Under its scrutiny, Shana hung her head. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.

"I'm not really asking for an apology. What I would like, though, is an explanation." Miss Greenbaum's voice softened. "What happened, Shana?"

Shana was silent.

"Did you forget about the report? Did you have a problem getting to the library to do the research?"

No answer.

"Shana? Are you going to say something?"

"I -- I didn't forget. I did the research."

"Then what was the problem?" The teacher paused. The silence stretched. "Shana, I'd appreciate it if you'd answer me."

In a moment, the answer came. Shana burst into tears.

It took no longer than an instant for Miss Greenbaum to move around from behind her own desk to the seat beside Shana's. She took her student's hand and said firmly, "Talk, Shana. I want you to tell me what's going on."

Shana sniffled. "It n-nothing."

"I've never known a person to cry over 'nothing.' Especially a person as levelheaded as you are. Now, tell me, Shana."

Shana took a long, shuddering breath. "I feel stupid. It's all my own fault, really. I should be able to organize my time better. Ricki's not to blame at all..."


"My younger sister. I don't even know why I'm bothering to mention her. It's really all my own fault."

"You've said that already," Miss Greebaum reminded her. "What I want to know is where your sister comes into this. What possible connection could she have to the report I assigned this class?"

Shana bit her lip. "If I tell you, I'll just sound like a complainer. And I'm not, really! It's just that Ricki --" She broke off.

Her teacher turned her chair around to face Shana squarely, and said, "You're one of my top students this year. It's been a pleasure teaching you, and reading your written assignments. There's obviously something troubling you, and I respect you too much to just let it go." She leaned forward, as though she wanted to banish Shana's hesitation with the forcefulness of her own personality. "What I want you to do, Shana, is simply tell me a story. A story called Why I Turned In Such A Sub-Standard Report. Just tell it to me the way it happened, and let me be the judge of who -- if anyone -- is to blame. Okay?"

"I... guess so." Shana was well aware that she didn't have much choice. In a way, that was a relief.

Miss Greenbaum leaned back. "You've got my full attention. Begin."

Shana took a few seconds to collect her thoughts. Then begin she did.

* * *

MY SISTER RICKI is a doll. Let me make that clear from the start. She's sweet and nice and hardly every refuses to do a favor for anyone who asks. I don't want you to think she's selfish or anything. Not Ricki!

But there's another side to my sister. Though she's only eleven, she's a deep thinker -- always pondering questions about life and frustrated if she can't find the answers. Also -- and maybe this is because she spends so much time thinking that she doesn't pay enough attention in class -- she's not the world's best student.

All this means that Ricki needs someone to talk to. Sometimes it's me; other times her best friend, Yocheved. When Ricki has something on her mind, she doesn't like to keep it to herself. She needs to talk about it... endlessly.

Ricki's not the kind of kid who can let things go. She'll keep going until she's thrashed out a question or a problem to its bitter end. Now, that's great, if you have all the time in the world. When Ricki's in the middle of discussing something, time has no meaning for her.

The problem is, time does go on for the rest of us.

Let me give you an example of the way it happens.

"Shana," Ricki said to me the other week, just as I was sitting down at my desk to make up an outline for my report, "do you have a minute? I really need to talk."

"What else are big sisters for?" I answered, privately wondering how long this talk would take, and if it would leave me enough time afterwards to finish the outline. I had been looking forward to getting it out of the way early enough to leave me time to read my new library book before bed. "What's the problem, Ricki?"

It was the old "Am I smart?" thing. You see, because she doesn't always get such great marks, Ricki had almost convinced herself that she was dumb. Then she was told that if she just paid more attention in class and studied harder, she'd see that she was just as bright as the best of them. She makes a special effort now and then, and when she succeeds, she feels on top of the world. But the old question -- "Am I really smart, or am I basically dumb?" keeps haunting her. And when it does, she needs to talk about it -- and talk about it -- and talk about it.

That night, I listened to Ricki analyze herself, and then she listened to me analyze her, and then she did it again, and then she asked me to do it again. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking and I was growing more and more nervous.

"It's getting late," I hinted finally. "Why don't you sleep on it, Ricki? We can continue the discussion tomorrow, if you want."

"But I think I've almost got it," she said eagerly. "The way I see it is this: people have different kinds of brains, see? Some learn well out of books. Others have `street smarts' -- a lot of plain old common sense that helps them to get along in life. Now the real question is, what kind of smarts do I have? Well, here's what I think..."

And she was off and running.

Some half-hour later, I tried again.

"Ricki, I have some homework I need to get done tonight. I basically agree with what you've figured out, and if I have any new insights I'll be glad to share them with you tomorrow."

"Oh, are you busy?" she asked with, it seemed to me, real concern. "Don't worry, Shana. This won't take more than a few minutes. In -- oh, let's say ten minutes, tops -- I'll have this all worked out in my mind, and then I'll be able to sleep. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this!"

I'd heard that before, and I knew that Ricki meant it. But that wasn't doing very much to help me get my assignments done. As it was, I'd already give up on my hopes of curling up with the book I'd been looking forward to starting that night....

It was nearly forty-five minutes later that we stopped talking, and that was only because our mother came and hauled Ricki off to bed.

"We'll continue tomorrow," my sister told me brightly as she left the room. "It's so great talking things over together, isn't it?"

I managed to get the outline done before I collapsed in exhaustion, but to say it wasn't my best work would be an understatement. The next afternoon, I promised myself, I'd spend a lot of time in the library, doing terrific research so that I could write a really good report.

But Ricki buttonholed me just as I was putting on my jacket next day.

"There's something I don't understand about one of my teachers," she said. "Do you have a minute, Shana?"

"Well, actually, I was about to --"

"I really want to hear your opinion on this. I could also use some good advice. You see, Mrs. Steiger keeps telling us that..."

"Ricki," I interrupted desperately, "I don't even know Mrs. Steiger. Wouldn't it make more sense for you to talk this over with a school friend?"

"I've already tried, with Yocheved," she said. "But even though she's my best friend, I have to say that Yocheved disappoints me sometimes. I could talk to her forever, but she never has enough time for me!"

I happened to know that Yocheved and Ricki spent hours on the phone practically every evening. On the other days they were at each other's houses, doing homework together and talking, talking, talking. Ricki's attitude seemed a little unfair to me.

"There must have been a reason," I said. "Yocheved seems like a pretty devoted friend."

"Maybe," Ricki sniffed. "But she sure got off the phone in a hurry last night. We couldn't have been talking for more than a few minutes!"

"A few minutes?" I asked skeptically.

"All right -- no more than half an hour! Then she said her mother needed the phone and she had to get off."

"Well, she did have to. If her mother had to make a call."

"Fine! But why didn't she call me back afterward?"

I had a feeling I knew exactly why Yocheved hadn't called back. "Maybe," I suggested with an effort at tact, "she had something important to do."

"What could be more important that talking to your best friend?" Before I could think of an answer, Ricki hurried on, "But I don't really want to discuss Yocheved right now. I'll probably want to talk to you about my problems with her -- maybe tomorrow, or better yet, tonight. Right now, I need to talk about Mrs. Steiger. You see --"

"I'm on the way to the library," I blurted, placing a hand on the doorknob.

"Oh!" Her face fell.

My heart twisted. How could I be so selfish, thinking only of myself, when my little sister needed me so badly?

"You could come along, if you want," I offered quickly.

"What a good idea! I'll do that. Just a sec while I get my jacket..."

So I had Ricki's company on the walk to the library, which I'd planned to spend thinking about how I wanted to structure the report. Then, in the library, I'd hardly got started on my research when Ricki was seated beside me, bored.

"Do you mind if I talk while you write things down?"

"Ricki, it might be a little hard to concentrate that way."

"But you really don't need that much concentration just to copy things out of an encyclopedia, do you? It's kind of a mindless job, isn't it? Now, about Mrs. Steiger --"

So much for my research.

The following afternoon, I had time for one more quick visit to the library. I checked carefully to make sure Ricki wasn't around before dashing out of the house and down the street. It wasn't until I'd turned the corner and was safely out of sight of the house that I allowed myself to slow down. I felt sneaky and horrible doing that, but the report was due next day! I managed to jot down a few more notes, and then it was time to go home and take care of all my other homework, and it was my turn to dry the dishes that night, and then I simply had to write the report. Luckily, Ricky was away at Yocheved's house most of the evening, studying for a test. I got my other homework out of the way first, then tackled the report.

I'd barely begun, when there was a sound at my door.

I looked up. It was Ricki.

"What kind of friend," she began as she marched into the room and sat down on my bed, "doesn't care about her own best friend's feelings?"

"What's the matter?" I asked wearily, hoping against hope that she'd cut it short this time.

"Yocheved's a really nice girl and all that -- but she could be a little more caring. Take tonight, for instance. All she wanted to do was study. Okay, so we're having a test tomorrow. But couldn't she have taken out a minute to listen to something that's been on my mind for days? All she had to do was listen for one little minute, and then I'd have been happy to study to her heart's content. But would she do it? Not on your life! `Let's save it for after we study,' she told me.

"'But you know what'll happen then,' I argued. 'It'll be late, and I'll have to go home! Come on, let's take a break -- just for a minute!' But Yocheved refused to budge."

Ricki stopped short, as if struck by a sudden thought. "Shana, do you think there was a deeper reason for that? D'you think maybe she's angry at me for something else? Maybe I should call her and discuss it."

"Yes, yes!" I urged her. "Give her a call right away. It's best to clear up misunderstandings quickly."

She started getting to her feet -- and then sat down again. "I think it would be better if you and I talk it over first. I don't want to say anything that might hurt her feelings. Let's first try to figure out why she acted that way, and then talk about how I ought to react..."

I threw a longing look at the clean white pages that were supposed to be filling up with my report. Ricki, it was plain to see, would brook no delay. If I didn't want to be selfish, I had to be there for her when she needed me.

I resigned myself to another long conversation. The report would have to wait.

* * *

"SO YOU SEE, Miss Greenbaum," Shana ended, "you were right. I did write that report in too little time, and with my eyes closed -- or half-closed, anyway. Because Ricki kept me talking for two solid hours before going off to phone her friend, and then my mother needed me to help her put the baby to bed, and by the time I sat down to my report it was so late I could barely see!" She looked beseechingly at her teacher. "I'm really sorry. If you want, I'll do the report over."

"And have the same thing happen again?" Miss Greenbaum retorted. "I think you have a more serious problem here -- a problem that needs to be addressed. You have to learn how to stand up for yourself, Shana. You deserve time, too -- time for yourself, for what you need and want!"

"But I don't want to hurt my sister's feelings. Poor Ricki --"

"Never mind poor Ricki," her teacher said firmly. "I'm talking about 'poor Shana' now. Sometimes it's necessary to hurt someone's feelings a little, just to get them to learn a crucial lesson. You wouldn't avoid giving a child a vaccination against a serious illness just because the needle will prick a bit, would you?

"Well, it seems to me that your sister urgently needs to be vaccinated, against developing a very unpleasant middah (character trait). Now, listen closely...."

* * *

SHANA CAME HOME TIRED but exhilirated. She and her teacher had had a long talk. She knew exactly how Ricki felt after thoroughly discussing a problem. It was a clean, fresh feeling, as though you'd dropped a heavy burden and were ready to take on the world.

But first she needed to rest. As she walked up the block to her house, she planned her evening. First supper -- because of her long talk with Miss Greenbaum, she'd barely make it on time -- and then helping Ima out in the kitchen, and then the moment she was looking forward to most of all: when she could go into her room and encase herself in the peace and quiet she craved. There wasn't much homework tonight, so she'd have time to read her book and take a bath and maybe call a friend to chat. Or maybe not. She'd take each minute as it came, a precious and delightful gift, to use any way she pleased...

Her agenda worked out well in its early stages. Supper and kitchen duty behind her, Shana went upstairs to her room. She closed the door, looked around at her dear, familiar things, and broke into a smile. The evening was hers! She'd get that little bit of homework out of the way first, and then --

"Shana?" There was a quick rap at the door. It opened a few inches, and there was Ricki's face, smiling at her in the eager way she had. "Shana, do you have a minute? I really need to talk to you."

Shana opened her mouth -- and then closed it again. She thought of what Miss Greenbaum had told her, about how she wasn't doing `poor Ricki' any favors by allowing her to become so wrapped up in herself that she didn't see, or care, about anybody else's needs.

"A minute I do have," she said. She glanced openly at her desk clock, then nodded at Ricki. "Start now."

Ricki looked at the clock, then at her sister. Her expression was one of bewilderment. "What do you mean? You know it'll take more than exactly a minute!"

"But a minute," Shana said softly, "is all I have tonight."

Ricki's expression changed to one of petulance. She stamped her foot. "Oh, you're as bad as Yocheved! All you care about is yourself! You never give me any time or attention!"

Shana thought of all the evenings she'd sacrificed to act as a soundingboard for 'poor Ricki.' She thought of Yocheved, who had done the same thing in person and over the phone for three devoted years. "The best way to keep someone from becoming spoiled and self-centered," Miss Greenbaum had said, "is to teach them to be thankful."

"Aren't you being just a little -- ungrateful?" Shana suggested gently.

Ricki's face fell. "Oh, no, of course not! How can you say that, Shana? You know how much I appreciate the time you spend listening to me and helping me work things out."

"I'm glad to give you the time, when I can," Shana said. "Unfortunately, right now I have other plans. Unless this is an emergency...?" Her voice trailed off on the question.

Ricki hesitated, then said, "No. It's no emergency, I guess. But I really did want to talk..."

Shana decided to extend the allotted minute -- but only by a little. She used the time to explain to her younger sister about the things she could do when other people could not spare her all the time in the world to talk. A diary was great for that. So was just sitting in a quiet place and thinking.

"What you do with me is basically think out loud," Shana pointed out. "You could do that yourself, and then, if you feel like it, share your conclusions with me or Yocheved or anyone else."

"I thought you liked talking things over with me," Ricki said wistfully.

"I did. I do! But the fact is that no one has all the time you'd like them to give you. And, much as I like helping you, I have to save some of it -- even just a little bit -- for myself. Understand, Ricki?"

Ricki's answer was to throw her arms, with a touch of shyness, around her big sister's neck. At that moment, the phone rang.

"Ricki! For you!" came their mother's voice from downstairs.

She glanced at the extension in Shana's room. "May I?"

"Go ahead."

Ricki picked up the phone. "Hello? Oh, hi, Yocheved."

"Hi! Listen, I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to discuss whatever it was that was on your mind the other night. I was really nervous about that test. But I have some time now, if you want."

"Great!" Ricki exclaimed. "Don't worry, this'll only take a minute."

She stopped. She glanced over at Shana, who smiled. Ricki grinned back. Then she said into the receiver, "Actually, I'm in Shana's room right now, and I kind of get the feeling she wants to be alone. And I know that Monday nights are a little hectic at your house, with your mother out. So why don't we do it another time - -- at your convenience?"

Her friend's dumbfounded silence made Ricki smile again. She was still smiling as she hung up the phone and skipped off to her own room to find a brand-new notebook she could use as a diary.

Doctor Shana, vaccination successfully completed, stood in the precious peace of her room, and she was smiling, too.

Author Libby Lazewnik is one of Jewry's most acclaimed juvenile fiction writers.


© 1998, Libby Lazewnik