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"Hopeless Students"


“He doesn’t understand a thing, and he never will understand a thing in Mathematics.” That’s what his teacher commented on his Sixth Grade report card. Likewise, regarding all his other subjects he was called “weak, lazy,” and other such names. His average monthly grade was 4 or 4.5 out of 10. And now, this childhood friend of mine, a member of the same Bnei Akiva group, Chaim Brazis, is an internationally known professor of Mathematics and a member of the Academy of Science of America and of France.

My friend, Rabbi Moshe Hagar, the head of the pre-military yeshiva in Yatir, was the worst soldier in his platoon during basic training. When he dismantled his rifle, his officers would have to go looking for parts he lost, and he was in total shock, and slept with his army boots on. His commander called him “Kuni Lemel”. At the end of basic training, when he was accepted into the squad commander course, his own commander said to him, “Hagar, YOU’re going to be a squad commander? You’re a nothing!” Now he’s a colonel, and a deputy division commander.

Dr. Orit Alpi, an instructor in psychology at Ben Gurion University, hands out to her students a copy of a bad elementary school report card, with no name, as an exercise for them, and asks them to predict the future of that student, and indeed, they all paint a morose picture. Then she reveals to them that it is her own report card.

Stories such as these can be found in abundance. Albert Einstein did not speak until age four, and did not know how to read until age seven. He was described by his teachers a slow thinker, with weak intelligence, and prone to foolish dreams. He was rejected by the Zurich Polytechnic.

Charles Darwin, father of the Theory of Evolution, was considered by his teachers and his father to be a simple boy with a below-average IQ. They thought he was wasting his time with hobbies like collecting animal species and observing nature instead of studying. Even at university he did not excel. Rather, he loved to collect insects and to read nature books.

Louis Pasteur was an average pupil, and chemistry he came out fifteenth out of twenty-two students. In university as well he did not achieve impressive results. Yet there have been very few researchers who produced as much of benefit for all mankind as he did.

The famous sculptor Auguste Rodin, was called an idiot by his father. His uncle called him “uneducable”. His teachers called him “a bad pupil”, and he three times failed the entrance exams to Art School.

Lev Tolstoy, the great Russian author, was declared by his teacher to be lazy and lacking talent. At the University, studying the humanities, he failed his exams and was described as being incapable of and uninterested in learning.

Thomas Edison, the prolific inventor and physicist was described by his teachers as too stupid to learn.

Walt Disney was fired by the newspaper where he worked due to his lack of ideas.

Beethoven, the brilliant composer, did not play the violin well, and his teacher called him “hopeless as a composer”.

Henry Ford, who suffered from dyslexia, was a failing student, and went bankrupt five times before he succeeded in becoming a millionaire.

Winston Churchill was both dyslexic and psychologically depressed. After a whole career of failures, starting in sixth grade, he was made prime minister of England at age sixty-two.

There are many many more such people who after discovering in childhood that they suffered from learning disabilities, later succeeded: The author Hans Christian Andersen, the physicist Alexander Graham Bell, the artist Leonardo Da Vinci, American General George Patton, the millionaire Nelson Rockefeller, and American President Woodrow Wilson.

Ascending in holiness, the Netziv of Volozhin, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, did not reap blessing as an elementary school “Cheider” pupil. It was decided to send him to learn a trade, yet he broke out in bitter weeping and asked for one more year to try (from the book “Gedolei HaDorot”, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern II:801). HaGaon HaRav Yosef of Lutzk was a mischievous boy who did not want to learn at all, and he was removed from all Torah learning (“She’al Avicha Veyagedcha”, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Shvadron I:127; and see my work, “Ani Lo Shaveh”, page 125). The Chassidic Admor Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Rimenov was a very weak student as a boy, until he slowly pulled himself up through enormous toil (“Sarei HaMe’ah”, by Rav Maimon IV:113-129; “Ani Lo Shaveh”, page 225).

Ha-Gaon Maharam Shik in his childhood had a weak ability to understand. He couldn’t understand even one page of Talmud. Yet he didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he toiled a great deal until he slowly achieved wisdom. (Gedolei HaDorot II:718). Rabbi Nachumke of Grodno, spiritual mentor of the Chafetz Chaim, following a move by his family to a new town and a new school when he was ten years old, could not succeed in Torah learning. He lost his love for learning and fell into a depression, deciding that he was incapable of it. He then joined up with a gang of wild boys and would wander around the town. It was decided to send him away so that he would not have a deleterious influence on other boys. He left the house of study, returned home, ceased studying, started collecting edible nuts from the forest and selling them to assist in supporting the family, and only a long time later slowly got back on track.

“The Rambam had a great deal of trouble understanding, and he had little desire to learn” (Seder HaDorot, 527, Entry: Rambam). Ascending further in holiness, Rabbi Akiva had trouble learning and remained an ignoramus until age forty. Then he went to learn Torah with his son (Avot DeRabbi Natan 6) and became the light of Israel.

Likewise, the son of Rabbi Eliezer and grandson of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai strayed totally off the track into a life of abominable sin and corruptness. Rebbe [Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi] approached him, ordained him as a rabbi, and assigned a Torah scholar to him to teach him. Yet he did not succeed in learning, and daily expressed his desire to return to his where he had been. All the same, the Torah scholar encouraged him, saying, “We’ve made a rabbi out of you, and you want to go back there?! That doesn’t suit you!” In the end he abandoned his bad ways, decided to learn, great in Torah and became a scholar (Bava Metzia 85a). It should be noted that Rebbe, in awarding him the title of “rabbi” was relying on his judgment that ultimately he would return to the proper path.

**Dear readers, if you have any other such stories, please send them to me.