A teen improves with 'Crime and Punishment'

"Adolescence is difficult," was the mantra chanted by family and friends whenever our teenage daughter's behavior ran counter to all we knew of logic, proper conduct, and, at times, even sanity.

"Don't you remember your own teenage years?"

"Yes, yes, I do," I replied to those who aimed to cheer.

But I knew our daughter was not just another teenage girl going through the anxiety and emotional vacillations of a young woman in bloom. She harbored a genuine sadness that ran deeper than I could reach. I wondered if any parent truly understood the whys of a troubled teenager. I had added up and recombined all my own reasons, only to slowly discard each one.

What I didn't realize was how little it took, under the right circumstances, to diminish that sadness, allowing in the initial ray of light that would eventually dispel clouds of gloom. I had never even heard of Iris Singer before she turned our child's life around by a simple act of kindness.

I watched Michele drive off to school that morning, chugging down the street in the old maroon Buick, a hand-me-down from her grandfather. I arrived home first in the afternoon, and listened to the Buick grind to a halt in the driveway shortly thereafter.

A buoyancy in her step convinced me something positive had happened that day. And when I caught the glint of a smile in her eyes as she entered the house, I was hopeful of a change of heart - if only for a day, or even a moment.

Tucked under one arm was a thick library book; a frayed yellow place mark peeked out near the end of the book.

"What are you reading, honey?" I asked.

"Crime and Punishment," she answered quickly and leaped up the stairs toward her bedroom, her backpack swaying lightly as she moved.

At dinner that evening we learned about Iris Singer, a ninth-grade English teacher whom Michele, now a junior, had never had.

"She saw me reading my book in the library," Michele said, "and asked if I had to read it for English class."

"Do you?" I asked. She had never mentioned this book before, probably unaware that I, too, had read it.

"No," she said. "I'm just reading it myself." She glanced up at her father and me briefly, her fork toying with the few remaining green beans on her plate. "No one in my class has read it, not even the teacher. Not even Mrs. Singer."

"I'm confused, honey," I said. "Did you say Mrs. Singer would read the book?"

As she responded, I sat quietly, awed by the graciousness of a teacher who agreed to read this lengthy novel, just so a student she'd never met before would have someone with whom to discuss it. Mrs. Singer had always wanted to read it anyway, Michele told us, and now a strong incentive had come her way.

"Are you sure she has time?" I asked, hoping the teacher would not disappoint our daughter. Michele's world consisted of books and music, not dates, proms, football games, or school clubs. Her adolescent years were being lived in her head. Mrs. Singer was entering sacred space.

Two weeks later our daughter asked if she could spend the following Friday night with Mrs. Singer and her husband in their condominium on the beach. Since the teacher lived some distance from both our home and the school, she had invited Michele for dinner and to sleep over. They would discuss the novel that evening, and we could pick her up on Saturday morning.

My husband and I readily agreed, grateful to see our daughter happy about the adventure and eager to share her thoughts on the brilliant but radical student, Raskolnikov, and the simple and saintly Sonia.

The following Saturday we met Mrs. Singer as she and Michele briskly approached our car, laughing and chatting as they walked.

In the days that followed I learned only that the teacher had loved the book and shown empathy for the misguided protagonist. I don't know when, or even if, Michele saw Mrs. Singer again. Sometime in the weeks that followed she told us she had given an oral book report on "Crime and Punishment," and that a few students had expressed interest in reading it.

"After all," she said, "kids can really get into a weird student like Raskolnikov." She smiled.

The next semester Michele ran for a student council seat. She didn't win, but she seemed comfortable with the loss.

Mrs. Singer didn't work miracles. Michele still had her days of gloom, but they were far fewer. She still spent considerable time alone in her room reading or writing, but not all the time. Sometimes I heard her on the phone with her new friend, Edie.

A kind teacher had cracked open the door to a human heart and coaxed in a little warmth. With that warmth came the light of promise for our daughter and a gift for me as well - the realization that even a small kindness can engender the confidence a young person needs in order to cope with the many challenges strewn on the road from adolescence to adulthood.

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