From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Lost and Found

Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

This past summer for the third year in a row, I was the camp “Mom” at Camp Moshava in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. It’s a job I love. I get to see things in the kids who go there that their parents generally don’t. The reason for this is that children, once they are away from home, have the opportunity to reinvent themselves. They can present themselves to others any way they want. And most often, I’ve found, the best they have to offer comes out. As parents, we work hard to give our kids what they need to make it on their own without us. Occasionally, we get a little glimpse that we have been successful.

One of the boys at camp this summer was the kind of kid who makes you wonder if anything you say penetrates. He spent a lot of his time being brash and swaggering, impressing his friends. He was at the age where it’s considered cool to act self-assured, a little obnoxious, and to court trouble. It’s not that he had ever done anything seriously bad, but the staff at camp tended to keep a special eye on him. He was very good friends with another boy, a quieter type, more of a follower. The two of them lived in different cities and saw each other at camp each summer.

Partly because of this one young man’s reputation, I happened to be close by these two on one of the trips out of camp. We were in a crowded and popular arcade. The boys had been playing the games, taking turns cheering each other on as others watched. I noticed how easily they both blended into the crowd. The clothes they wore were unremarkable—typical shorts and T-shirts. They both wore baseball caps, like most of the other boys there in rural Wisconsin.

What happened next was so quick, I almost couldn’t be sure of what I’d seen. A child, about ten, there with his father, reached into his back pocket for something. As he pulled his hand out, a twenty-dollar bill floated to the floor. Just as quickly, one of these two Moshava boys—the quieter one—picked it up and put it into his own pocket. I was so shocked that, for a moment, I couldn’t think how to react. In any case, I was far enough away and the room was so crowded that by the time I did move, the child and his father had moved away, unaware of their loss.

But I wasn’t the only one who noticed. The boy’s friend—the one we staff members thought we had to keep an eye on—had also seen. Without a word, he reached into his own pocket, took out a twenty and ran after the child and his father. I watched as he stopped them and handed over the money. I couldn’t hear the exchange, but from the pleased expression on the face of the father and the relief on the face of his son, I could imagine what was being said.

I moved over to where our two campers were playing, expecting to overhear an animated conversation. But there was none. The two of them just continued playing as if nothing had happened. The only difference was that now, both of them were quiet.

I thought about what had happened on the long bus ride home. I wasn’t sure how to or even if I should intervene. Being a camp “Mom” is tricky. I would know what to say to my own child if she were either of the players in this scenario, but I didn’t know these boys well. And I wanted them both to understand the ramifications of what had transpired. I wanted to understand, also.

As we reached camp, I asked the boy who had given his own money to the child at the arcade to wait for me a moment when he got off the bus. The others in his group kind of nudged him and said good-naturedly, “Okay, what did you do now?” It seemed the expected thing to say.

“I saw what happened at the arcade,” I said when we were alone. He said nothing.

“Why did you do it? Give your own money to that little boy? You weren’t responsible for making up to him what your friend did.”

He looked at me anxiously. “Of course I was!” He said it almost angrily.

I was surprised by his reaction. He was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “Look, don’t do anything to my friend. Just let me handle it, okay?”

I thought about his request for a minute. I decided he’d earned the right to try to handle it. I asked him to tell me later what happened.

That evening as the boys were on their way back to their cabins, I heard a knock at my door. It was my young hero.

“I want to tell you something,” he said. “You wanted to know why I did what I did? I saw someone else do almost the same thing once. It was my grandfather, and it was in his tobacco store in Brooklyn. I used to visit him there. One day, a customer came into the store. He bought something and when he reached into his pocket to pay, he dropped some money on the floor. A kid picked it up and put it into his own pocket.”

He stopped and seemed to be thinking hard. I waited for him to continue. “My grandfather finished waiting on the man and waited for him to get almost to the door. Then he called out, ‘Oh Mister, did you lose something?’ My grandfather had reached into the cash register and taken out a bill. But he pretended to come around the counter, bend over and pick it up off the floor. The man thanked my grandfather and left.”

There was a long pause before my friend said, “I was the kid who put the money in his pocket.”

“What happened next?” I asked.

“My grandfather didn’t say anything at all to me. He didn’t tell me to put the money in the cash register or give it to him. I felt awful. The rest of the day, he didn’t speak to me except if I asked him something. Finally, I put it back. As we were closing up, I told him I was sorry. I knew it was wrong. I don’t know why I did it. It just seemed okay to do at that moment. And the man dropped it. It wasn’t as if I stole it or anything. But my grandfather just shook his head.

“That night, I was still feeling terrible. We went out for a soda and my grandfather told me something. He said other people could get away with that kind of thing but not me. He expected more from me because he knew what kind of person I am.”

A lot of thoughts ran through my mind as I listened. We often try to give kids positive reinforcement for good behavior as opposed to punishing them for bad behavior. It’s really true that children rise—or sink—to the level of expectation. Here was a child who had been identified, and he probably knew it, as someone we had to watch. Well, I still felt we should watch him, but now it was for other reasons.

“Did you tell your friend this?” I asked.

“Not yet,” he answered. “But I will.” He seemed sad, reluctant.

“Your grandfather is going to be pretty proud of you when you tell him. He’ll know how much you love him and that you really took to heart what he told you!” I was trying to cheer him up.

“Yeah, that’d be great, wouldn’t it?” the boy said glumly. “But I can’t. He died last year, suddenly, right after my bar mitzvah.”

I took a breath, looking at this child in front of me. I wanted to convey what I felt to him, wanted him to know just exactly how his stature had changed. I was thinking how I could convey to him that the connection he had with his grandfather was forever and that he was living his grandfather’s example. Most of all, I guess I just wanted him to understand that he had done something of merit, had learned something of value, and could have a positive effect on someone else. I thought if I could just find the right words, he would be comforted. Then they came to me:

“Your grandfather died after your bar mitzvah?” I asked. “Well, then he got to see what I saw today—a boy, one who loved his grandpa a lot, become a man.”

Marsha Arons

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