Secret Sessions // My student was clearly suffering; I had to help her. But how?

As told to Shlomit Steadman

It didn’t take long for me to notice that my student Shifra needed help. She sat in the very last row of seats, slouched over, and avoided eye contact. She didn’t speak unless spoken to, and when she did, her voice was so low that it was almost inaudible. I never saw her smile or interact with her classmates. Her school work was sloppy, and most of the time she didn’t even bother to hand it in.

“What’s going on with Shifra?” I asked my principal a few weeks into the school year.

Mrs. Teichman sighed. “Are you having problems with her?”

“Its not that she is misbehaving,” I explained, “but honestly, I think she is depressed. Is something going on that I should know about?”

My principal sighed again. “She needs help. She should be seen by a therapist. Something must have happened to trigger her depression. She wasn’t always like this.”

“So why isn’t she getting the help she needs?” I asked, confused. “She’s 17 years old. How will she graduate like this?”

“Her mother refuses to allow any kind of outside intervention,” she explained. “She insists that her daughter doesn’t need a therapist. We can’t do anything without parental consent.”

“Why wouldn’t her mother want her to get help?” I wondered.

“Shifra’s mother is a well-known mechaneches, and she believes that she can handle her daughter’s problems on her own. But sometimes “the shoemaker’s children go barefoot,” and I’m afraid her mother is doing her more harm than good.”

“I’ll try calling her,” I said. “Maybe I can explain the situation.”

“It’s good of you to try,” Mrs. Teichman replied, “but I’m afraid that you won’t get anywhere with her.”

Shifra’s mother was as sweet as sugar until I explained the reason for my call.
“I think Shifra could use some professional help,” I said.

Her voice suddenly became cold. “My daughter is a typical teenager and doesn’t need outside help. I’ve been in chinuch for over 30 years and I know how to deal with these things, Miss— What did you say your name was?”

“Chana Fried,” I squeaked.

“Is this your first year teaching?” she asked.

I gulped. “First year in this school, second year teaching.”

“You young people think that everyone needs psychotherapy these days,” she scoffed. “You’re still wet behind the ears. Sometimes a mother knows best.”

I wanted to point out that Mrs. Teichman agreed with me, but the words got stuck in my throat.

“Good luck, Miss Fried,” she said before terminating the conversation.

It took me an hour to get back to myself after I hung up, and I vowed that I would never call this mother again. The next day I told my principal what happened.

“I warned you,” she said. “Our hands are tied. There’s only so much a school can do.”

But I couldn’t bear to watch Shifra suffer. She seemed to be shrinking more and more into herself with every passing day. My heart ached for her. One afternoon I called her over to my desk to have a talk. I was surprised by how forthcoming she was. She seemed grateful that someone was reaching out to her.

“I’m in a lot of pain,” she admitted.

“Would you like to talk to someone about it?” I probed gently.

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