Over the course of your student life, you take a lot of tests, and schools have all sorts of ways of assessing the full range of student ability – social, emotional, and academic achievement. In other words, schools tackle the essential task of knowing what students know. I’m writing this blog post as our first ever student-led conferences are underway, where students run the conferences, informing their parents about how they’re doing, what their goals are going forward, and what kind of learners they are. It’s been interesting to watch the faces of the children, their interactions with their parents, and the obvious pride with which they share their knowledge with their family. I wish I could have had this chance when I was a kid, to show that I was more than the sum of my test scores. I did OK as a student (i.e. I was a fairly average student), and I found taking tests to be a pretty unpleasant experience in general. God must have had mercy on me because on one of my final exams, on a sunny day in June 1990, a few days before I was about to graduate, he saved the best test for last.
It was the final exam for my safah (Hebrew language) class. In this class in particular, I was a below average student, and the thought of having to sit through a two-hour final exam in a hot and stuffy school gym was excruciating. The main component of the exam was a sight-unseen short story, entirely in Hebrew, with no Hebrew-English dictionary in sight or any pictures to help you with your understanding, and you were tested on your comprehension and other forms other higher-level thinking. The name of the story was “Hachasidah“:
In Hebrew, a chasidah is a stork, and the root of the word chasidah is chesed, “kindness” indicating the character of the bird. It was a short story of a man who is sitting home alone when a stork flies too low and crashes into his window, breaking its leg. The man gently picks up the wounded bird, and brings it into his home, tending to its wounds over many days. He bandages the storks leg, keeps it warm in a box by his bed, and holding it tenderly in his arms, feeds it with a baby bottle while stroking the birds wings. And when the stork is healed, he takes it outside and it flies away. A few days later, he hears a commotion on his roof. The stork has brought hundreds of other storks with it, and they have landed on his roof, their long pointy beaks singing songs of praise to the man, todah, todah, todah, repaying his kindness. And then they lift off and fly away, never to be seen again. The end.
That’s not how I read the story, not in the least. In fact, how I understood the story was waaaaay more interesting.
We already determined that the story was called Hachasidah, החסידה, The Stork. Because I had no pictures to guide me, or a dictionary to translate, when I read the title, my mind went to what it knew, which wasn’t a whole lot. You see, every noun in Hebrew has a gender, either masculine or feminine (or both), and you can also designate the gender of the noun (in this case, the stork) by adding a ה to the ending of the noun, although not in all cases. For example, איש means man and אשה means woman. כלב means a male dog and כלבה means a female dog. And so my mind saw this:
Which meant that when you add a ה to the ending of the noun, it becomes female and so this is what I then saw in my mind when I read the title:
And to my sheer delight and utter amazement, the short story I read was about a man who is sitting home alone when wondrously, miraculously, a flying chassideshe woman flies too low and crashes into his window, breaking her heimeshe leg. The man gently picks up the wounded woman (did he not know about the laws of shomer negiah?), and brings her into his home, tending to her wounds over many days. He bandages the woman’s leg, keeps her warm in a box by his bed, and holding her tenderly in his arms, feeds her with a baby bottle while stroking the woman’s “fliegelach“. And when the chassideshe lady is fully healed, he takes her outside and she flies away. A few days later, he hears a commotion on his roof. The aforementioned chassideshe woman has brought hundreds of other flying chassideshe women with her, and they have landed on his roof, which is by now covered in Shabbos robe-wearing rebbetzins and balabustas, some with fancy sheitls and others in plain tiechels, their long pointy Jewish beaks singing songs of praise to the man, todah, todah, todah, (a dank, a dank, a dank in Yiddish) repaying his kindness. And then they lift off and fly away, never to be seen again. The end.
It was by far the best short story I have ever read in my life.
It goes without saying that I failed the test spectacularly.
Yet to this day, it was the best test I ever took.