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He wore a black collared shirt with the logo of American royalty, a purple horse, embroidered over the left breast. His hair was glossed and spiked with an expensive gel that smelled like an overripe kiwi. My attention, however, was focused on another feature: his lips. As they separated, the metal wires fixed to his teeth protected a smile that flashed “under construction.”
The words that came out of his mouth were, like his teeth, less than perfect. For at least a second they were caught in the thick, almost visible, humidity of that Pennsylvania summer, bringing our spat over the excesses of designer clothing to a standstill. Then his comment, loaded with contempt and unfounded anger, almost knocked the wind out of me: “At least I’m not a deaf f— like you.” With that one line, he had taken our petty argument to a place only inhabited by religious slurs and racial epithets. The air stuck in my chest was let out in a short sputter, triggering a catharsis. My lips parted as I began to smile and to laugh in the same motion.
I walked away that day having discovered the power of laughing last. I laughed at the irony of having heard him. I laughed because people like him motivate me to succeed. He thought that being hearing impaired made me a lesser person. In reality, it made me a stronger person because I finally realized the power of being comfortable with myself. A year later, I knew I needed to impart this power to one of my Bar Mitzvah students, whose struggle could only be combated with self-confidence and courage.
When Michael came for his first Bar Mitzvah lesson, he sank into the comfortable chair in my room. His shoulders were slouched, yet his entire body was stiff with tension. As we began our session, I could tell why Michael was nervous. His Hebrew literacy was poor at best and the quiet noises he did make sounded like a creaking, rusty hinge on a barn door. I told him about my hearing problem and hoped he would realize that he needed to sing louder.
By his fifth lesson, Michael’s voice was still so quiet that I could hear neither the words nor the notes he was singing. If he was not comfortable with his voice during our lessons, there was no way he would make it through his Bar Mitzvah. I said, half annoyed, half joking: “Michael, your voice isn’t going to get any better. Sing it loud, sing it proud. Your grandparents will still love you, trust me.” I got my first glimpse of a smile that I had never seen before. Then Michael started to laugh.
Each week, Michael’s self-confidence grew as he learned to accept his own vocal shortcomings. After his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, Michael’s father told me that I was the best thing that had happened to his son. At least that is what I think I heard through his thick Russian accent. At the Bar Mitzvah party that night, Michael approached me in high spirits: “Josh, my voice didn’t crack that bad, did it?”
“Oh, it was just awful,” I said playfully. “With all that feedback from the microphone, even I had to plug my ears.” We looked at each other briefly before erupting into laughter. I realized then that I had taught him more than just his Bar Mitzvah portion.