by Yehudis Davidson

This story is an excerpt from the new book, Winners, a collection of winning short stories by teen girls. Click here to buy the book.

When I turned six, I figured out I was different. It was time for my parents to register me into a regular first grade, and I understood from the conversations in my house that nobody wanted me.

“Down’s Syndrome.” The words had been mentioned before, but at that point I think I realized what they meant. They meant that I was strange, different from everyone else and that no school cared that I had no place to go. All that mattered was that I was too different to be in their school. Nowadays, I can just imagine the principals talking to each other at the time. “What will the other parents think? She’s too different for our school!”

It hurt. It really hurt. I might have had Down’s Syndrome, but at that point I understood that I was different and those differences hurt me. Now, I’m twenty-four years old, and many different episodes of strangeness stand out in my mind.

In first grade, I ended up at a school for special needs. Like I said, it was the only school that would accept me. My siblings wouldn’t even think of going to such a school, but I had to go to a place made for people with disabilities, people who are different.

In the middle of fourth grade, a regular school accepted me. I was so happy that I started jumping up and down and couldn’t stop laughing! I’ll be normal, I thought. I was so excited. But on my first day of school, I started wishing I was back with my old, non-Jewish class.

When I walked into my new classroom, the girls asked me so many questions. The main one was, “Why are you coming here in the middle of the year?” I was so embarrassed. My fifteen year-old sister, Malka, who had come with me, answered them. “Tova went to a different school before, but she didn’t like it, so she came here.”

They accepted the answer, I guess, but they thought I was different—I could tell. The teachers treated me normally, and nobody bullied me in class. Still, I wished that someone would send me notes or whisper to me during class, like everyone else seemed to be doing. But no, they sort of ignored me.

Isn’t everyone different, anyway? Everyone has things about them that are different and things that are the same. I may look and talk differently, but I love ice cream and hate spinach just like everyone else. I may have Down’s but I still have a heart.

During recess one day, two girls came over to me and asked if I’d sing and dance for them. I was so happy with the popular girls’ request. I thought they wanted to be my friends, so I sang and danced with all my heart and soul.

But the next day, they weren’t nice. Instead, they ignored me as usual. I wondered why they’d acted like that. After all, we’d become friends the day before, when I sang and danced for them. Two days later, they again asked me to sing and dance, which I did, thinking that maybe now they wanted to be my friends. But right after that, I saw them laughing and talking to other girls about me. I have Down’s, but did they think I was blind and deaf too?

When I got home that day, I thought about why those two girls spoke to me in the first place. Was it because they wanted to make fun of me? I did realize that they didn’t want to be my friends.

Every Shabbos, I wished a friend would come to visit me. All my siblings spent Shabbos with their friends, while I stayed home in the company of my parents. I’d sit on the couch, watching everyone else play, hoping someone would invite me over. Nobody did—ever. But since I loved my parents and siblings so much, I had a great Shabbos anyway.

In the middle of fifth grade, one Shabbos, two classmates finally came over to my house. As soon as I heard the knock and saw them, I started hoping things would turn around. Two of my classmates, Yochi and Shana, came in, said “good Shabbos” and asked me if they could have “some of that ice cream” I talked about. (A few days before, I’d told them about a cool ice cream flavor we’d bought.) I gave them each a bowl with three scoops, chocolate syrup and sprinkles, and sat down with them.

While they were enjoying the cold treat, I tried to make conversation. I told them all sorts of things about me. That didn’t interest them much, because right after they finished eating, they thanked me and told me they had to go. Maybe they really wanted to visit because they liked me, but perhaps their mother had said they had to be home then. When I shared my thoughts with Malka, she didn’t agree with me.

“That’s so not nice,” she exclaimed, an angry look in her eyes. “If they ever do that again, tell me right away, before they leave.” I nodded. It wasn’t like Malka to talk like that.

Another Shabbos, a different girl came over. She was nicer than Yochi and Shana; when she came, we played for, like, fifteen minutes. Then she said, “I’m really in the mood for a cookie. Do you have any?” I gave her one. She finished it, thanked me, wished me “good Shabbos” and left. I didn’t tell Malka about it this time because I didn’t feel that the girl was mean. After all, she talked and played with me for fifteen whole minutes! I wasn’t mad at her.

In sixth grade, my school had a Melavah Malkah for the students and their families. We all went: my parents, siblings—Malka, Eliezer, Chana—and me. I was hoping that there I’d make friends. Sitting at our table was my classmate Rivka and her family, and also the family of one of Chana’s friends. I sat down next to Rivka, but she got up right away and moved to the opposite side of the table. I wasn’t sure if it was because of me or if she just didn’t like her seat, so I got up and moved next to her again. But Rivka turned to the girl sitting on the other side, and didn’t pay attention to me at all. I felt like crying, but I held back my tears and I moved next to my very favorite person, Malka. Chana, my eight-year-old sister, sat near me too. She always likes to talk to me, as if I’m a baby that she has to take care of. Maybe she thinks she has to watch over me because I have no friends.

The meal was pretty good. It was okay that no classmates came over to me, because I was with my wonderful family. But during the soup course, I saw Chana’s friend staring at me. “Why’s your sister so funny looking?” she whispered. Before Chana could answer, Malka got mad. “That was so mean. Tova is the prettiest, nicest person I know!”

Later that night, I heard Malka repeating the story to my mother. “Why are people so tactless?” she asked. “And why do people judge just by what they see? It’s not like Tova doesn’t understand when people talk about her. And she’s so sweet, she’s almost normal. You just have to get to know her.”

“Malka, you don’t understand because you live with her; you know her inside and out. But someone who lives with people that are just like them, can’t imagine that someone who looks, talks and acts differently could be nice and fun on the inside. Don’t get me wrong; Tova is the light of my life, she’s wonderful to have around and I love her.”

“I know, Ima. But it’s so hard when I see people not interacting positively with her, when in a sense, she’s more normal than they are! She understands things in a different way, and sometimes, she’s the only one who can comfort you. Remember when my best friend got hit by a car in seventh grade? Tova was the only one who knew how to handle it. She held my hand and cried along with me, although she hardly knew my friend. There was such love and understanding that emanated from her embrace, and comforting words, that it helped me get through that difficult period. Tova has such a special neshamah.”

I felt amazing after I heard what Malka had said about me! I felt wanted and loved. At that moment, I didn’t care that I had no friends. All I thought about was that I had the best big sister in the whole world.

In seventh grade things finally changed. One Wednesday evening, my mother had just finished reading her emails when she turned to us, teary-eyed. “Rabbi Greenberg is really sick,” she said sadly. She told us his name and all of us sat down to say Tehillim. Rabbi Greenberg was the father of Tehilla, one of my classmates. Even though she had no close friends, everyone liked her. She was quiet and sweet, but not very influential. She never acted rude to me, but didn’t try to be my friend either. I’d never want something bad to happen to her, chas v’shalom. So I davened for her father with my whole heart every day.

In school the next week, people avoided Tehilla, not sure what to say. My sister told me that would probably happen. But I went over to Tehilla and asked her how her father was doing. She had tears in her eyes as she answered that he was getting worse. “We’re all davening for him,” I replied sadly, tears in my eyes too. I gave her the card that I’d made for her father. She accepted it, murmuring her thanks.

I visited Tehilla twice a week. Whenever I came, my first question was asking how her father was doing; usually the answer wasn’t very positive. Sometime I gave Tehilla cards I’d made with Chana, and other times I brought over supper that my mother had made. Tehilla and I became close friends, though obviously I wish it would have come about some other way.

Tehilla would come to school with red eyes. I would too, for I’d become so close with her. At recess, Tehilla and I would sit down and say Tehillim.

Three months later, Rabbi Greenberg finally came home from the hospital. The moment I heard the great news, I yelled in excitement. I danced excitedly throughout my house, singing, “Rabbi Greenberg is doing much better! He came home!” I felt such joy, as if he was my own relative. I raced over to Tehilla’s house. I hugged her tightly, a big smile on my face.

She didn’t come to school the next day, since she wanted to spend time with her father. I was bored and felt lonely the whole day. But I was happy because Tehilla’s father had come home!

A month later, the disease flared up. Rabbi Greenberg was taken back to the hospital, and his illness became worse than before. Tehilla tearfully told me, “The doctors said there’s no hope. All we can daven for is a miracle.”

When I said the paragraph of Refa’einu Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, davening for that miracle, tears fell from my eyes. Three months later, Rabbi Greenberg passed away. My mother picked me up after school and told me the news. I ran out of the car, into our house, and fell on my bed, crying. Then I rushed over to Tehilla’s house and hugged her tight for a long time.

The whole class came to Tehilla’s house during shivah, at different times. But I was there a lot, more than anyone else. When my classmates came, they didn’t know what to say. They just sat there doing nothing. I didn’t understand them; when I came, I went straight over to Tehilla and held her hand.

Two weeks later, Tehilla came back to school. Nobody welcomed her or talked to her. I heard two girls saying they didn’t know what they should say to her. I was the only one who talked to her.

After sheloshim, Tehilla gave me her diary to read. She said she couldn’t tell me exactly how she felt, but she wanted me to know. On Shabbos, I sat down to read it.

November 2, 2000

We found out the terrible news five days ago: Tatty was diagnosed with “yenner machalah.” Our once wonderful house has been turned upside down. We told people in the community about it three days ago.

Tova, a special-needs girl in my class, has somehow sensed my pain. I never really knew her; I was too afraid to talk to her. I always thought that such people are socially awkward and aren’t the type you could be good friends with. But today, she came over to me and asked me how my father was doing. I know she isn’t the only one in my class who knows, but nobody came over to me aside from her. I understand my classmates; after all, they probably think I’ll start crying on them and make it really awkward.

But Tova wasn’t like that at all. After I told her that Tatty isn’t doing well, she told me, tearfully, that she was davening for him. My mother has said that people like Tova have a special neshamah. I never really understood what she meant until now. I was touched by how she was so teary without even knowing my father—she hardly knows me! But she gave me a card that she made for Tatty. I wish I’d gotten a chance to know Tova before all of this. She’s so cute!

November 17, 2000

Tova comes to visit twice a week. Her presence makes me feel relaxed somehow. Her first question always is, “How’s your father doing?” Over the course of two weeks, we’ve become very close friends. She’s not your typical friend, not someone you could have a two-hour phone conversation with, but she’s the closest friend I’ve ever had. While my classmates are distancing themselves from me, Tova is becoming closer.

Every day during recess, Tova sits with me and we say Tehillim together. She’s so special. She comes to school, her eyes red. She’s able to feel my pain in such a deep way, almost as if it’s happening to her. Unlike most people, Tova isn’t bound by regular inhibitions. With her, it’s a pure connection; she sees past all the stuff that people tend to build up. That’s why I’m so glad to have her as a friend. I know she’ll never dump me because of peer pressure or anything else. She’s an amazing person, and I feel so lucky that she’s my friend. 

February 22, 2000

Tatty came home from the hospital today! Our house has become so happy again; I can hardly believe it. My beloved father is doing better. Of course, Tova, my loyal friend, made sure to be here for this great occasion. She hugged me with a laughing smile on her face. You could see that she actually felt pure joy; she wasn’t just doing it for me. In school, two days later, Tova and I didn’t say Tehillim. Instead we just acted normal and had fun! I realized that she’s fun to be around. She does the funniest things, and makes some trivial things seem hilarious. She’s so cute!

March 25, 2000

Tatty’s illness has worsened. He was admitted to the hospital again. I’m so scared. The doctors said there’s no hope. I see Tova, during Shemoneh Esrei, crying. Though I know why, I can’t fathom how she can feel my pain on such a personal level.

June 17, 2000

Tatty passed away. I keep pinching myself. It has to be a dream. No. Tatty. Come back! I need you so bad. How could you leave me?! How will I ever be able to face reality again? I feel like I’m losing myself. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t go to school. I don’t want do anything. I don’t care about anything. All I want is Tatty! Oh, Tatty, why did you go?

 June 18, 2000

Tova came over today. She hugged me tight, which was exactly what I needed. I didn’t want consoling words. I wanted my special best friend’s loving embrace.

June 24, 2000

My classmates came during shivah. It was kind of weird, but I was happy they came for me. They didn’t know what to do. I imagine it was really awkward for them; it was awkward for me too. There was only one classmate of mine who didn’t feel intimidated at all. She sat right next to me and held my hand, and that was more comforting than anyone’s consoling words. I know that even after shivah, Tova will be there for me whenever I need her.     

Reading that painful diary made me want to cry. But Tehilla’s words also made me feel loved and wanted. That, I think, is when my life changed for the better.

In the spring of eighth grade my class was taken to an amusement park as a reward for good behavior. I’m afraid of heights and any type of roller coaster; at amusement parks, I’d always go on the kiddy rides. Because most people my age like roller coasters, I was always scared I’d have to walk around the park alone.

When we were splitting up at the park, my teacher asked, “Who doesn’t like scary rides?” I raised my hand right away. I looked around; nobody else had raised her hand. Maybe the teacher will walk around with me if I’m the only one, I thought. That would be better than being alone.

Then I heard her say, “Only Tova? Everyone else likes roller coasters?”

But suddenly, someone said, “Me too. I’m going with Tova.” It was Tehilla! Did she say that just so I wouldn’t be alone? It was really sweet of her, and I was touched.

We mainly went on kiddy rides. There was a miniature roller coaster that Tehilla urged me to go on. I held my hands firmly on the handle and closed my eyes the entire time. I was surprised to find it enjoyable and thrilling. When I finally opened my eyes, as the ride began to slow down, I saw that Tehilla looked unimpressed, as if she didn’t think it was fun.

“Didn’t you enjoy it?”

“Mm-hmm,” she murmured indifferently.

I had a blast the whole time, going on rides, and being in Tehilla’s company. It looked like she was enjoying herself, too. After the rides, we went to the games section of the park, where people win stuffed animals and other stuff. I won a huge, bright yellow stuffed banana, while Tehilla won a giant, cute penguin. The whole bus ride back to school, I proudly showed everyone my prize.

I thanked Tehilla for going on the non-scary rides with me. She looked at me in astonishment. “I’m so grateful to you!” she exclaimed. “I hate going to amusement parks because I’m usually the only one who doesn’t like roller coasters. So I just go around with the other girls and wait for them at the exit. I was so glad when I saw your hand raised.” I was so filled with joy then to have Tehilla as a friend that I decided to give her my banana. Although she kept saying she didn’t want to take it, I insisted. I told her that I loved her and that I wanted her to have it.

At the end of ninth grade, my sister Malka got engaged, and two months later she got married. I had such a great time at her wedding. I wore a pretty navy gown, and my long brown hair was pulled into a gorgeous updo! Malka looked stunning; she was an exceptional, perfect kallah.

I finished high school with Tehilla being my best and only friend. She hardly ever came for Shabbos, and that was difficult for me. Nobody else tried to befriend me or invite me to their house, and that bothered me, even though I came to realize that the other girls didn’t mean anything bad. They just thought of me as different and didn’t know how to accept me. Only Tehilla seemed to understand me in a special way.

After twelfth grade, everyone, including Tehilla, left for seminary. Tehilla got accepted to a top school, and I was happy for her; she deserved it, for she was truly a special girl. But I missed her terribly! I stayed at home for the first half of my “sem” year and volunteered at an old-age home during the second half. I sent Tehilla lots of packages, and even visited her in Israel (with my family) during the winter.

Tehilla stayed in seminary for two years. While she was gone, I visited Malka, her husband and their two daughters a lot. Eliezer was away, learning in yeshivah and looking for a shidduch. Mainly I hung out with my mother. For those two years, she was my best friend, which reminded me of when I was a young girl.

After seminary, Tehilla went to New Jersey for a year and got engaged. I was ecstatic! Her wedding was bittersweet because her father wasn’t there, but she looked beautiful, and her husband was a very special man. That was one of my favorite weddings. Six months later, Eliezer got engaged. His wife, Dina, became my good friend. They live three blocks away from us, and I spend practically every day in her company. She’s very sweet, and treats me like I’m normal, not just a girl with Down’s.

Over the next three years, almost everyone in my class got married. I was invited to all of their weddings, and now it seems like they have all accepted me as a friend. Though I have lots of friends, Tehilla will always remain my best friend. She and her husband live in New Jersey, and it’s a bit hard to keep up our relationship, but I know in our hearts we’ll be best friends forever.

Recently, the story of my life has taken an incredible turn. Like I said before, I’m twenty-four. Even though I know that isn’t so old, watching everyone around me getting married, I wish I could go out on even one date. Chana’s already in shidduchim. I try to make peace with the fact that nobody will want to date me, but still, it’s hard.

But amazing news has come! My parents found a seminary that will accept me. I, Tova Isaacs, am going to sem! I called Tehilla as soon as I found out the news. “Guess what? I’m going to seminary in Israel!”

“Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed. “That’s so exciting! Seminary is the best thing that could ever happen to you! Also, Israel is an awesome country! You actually feel the holiness, and you feel so safe, so at home.”

I knew that about Israel already, since I was there before, but even so, Tehilla’s words increased my tremendous joy.

I’ve been counting down the days, but the time seems to be dragging on! I keep sharing my exciting news with my family, my neighbors, the cashier in the grocery store, the people at the old-age home and just about everybody I meet. Every day, I ask my mother, “When am I going?”

The long-awaited day is tomorrow; I’m going to board the plane, along with my parents and Chana, as I embark on a journey that will change my life forever.