Break His Teeth – Journey From Being Illiterate

A Life-Lessons Story

The Story of Passover???

The very first time that I read the Haggadah, the book we read to guide us through the Passover Seder, I was expecting it to be a story, the story of Passover.

But I could not find much story.

Instead, statements about “the wicked son” caught my attention.

It said that the solution to the wicked son, who is called “the rasha,” was to break that child’s teeth, and on top of that, to make him uncomfortable, to exclude him.

I am sure there is a reason for what the Haggadah is saying that is beyond my understanding

It says to “break his teeth.”

What does that really mean?

My Story

I was illiterate until my last year of high school.

I have used the term “break my teeth” when explaining how I finally learned to read.

That was long before I even heard of the Haggadah.

You see, I was one of those kids who I am sure many people wanted to break my teeth, and I did feel excluded. In fact, I was excluded.

In the 4th grade, the school administration of PS 98 placed me in a kindergarten class for the rest of the year. I imagine they figured I couldn’t learn.

The kindergarten class went to the park every day to play. So I thought I was lucky. On top of that, little children liked me and that felt good.

By the time I reached the summer of my senior year in high school I had remained unable to read.


My peers nicknamed me “Simple” which was a short way of calling me “Simple-Minded.”

What that meant to me was that I was stupid. I was certainly confused.

I felt lost and small in a huge world of stuff that I felt unable to understand.

One of my greatest confusions was how to decode a bunch of letters and words on a page.


I had a summer job on the beach in Far Rockaway as a mother’s helper.

Neil, who had been a lifeguard, showed up wherever I happened to be.

At first, I had no interest in Neil. But then as he persisted, I slowly began to like him and to enjoy spending time with him.

Pretty soon he was driving me home from the beach every day in his sun-roofed Peugeot sports car.

We went to movies together, played tennis together, went bike riding together, laughed a lot together, and over the summer we become inseparable.

We were in love.

When the summer was almost ending, we played tennis in a court near his house and then Neil brought me to meet his parents.

He had talked often about his parents, stressing how educated each of them was, his father, a scientist and his mother the assistant principal of a junior high school.

Neil, the pride and joy of his parents, was a premed student.

His parents weren’t particularly warm to me. But I didn’t give that much thought.

After all, they weren’t the first ones to treat me like that.

Why Did You Go to the Second Page?

The next morning, before work, as I usually did, I visited Neil at his lifeguard stand.

This time, as soon as he saw me, he handed me a book.

I’m not sure of the title, because I wasn’t really able to read it.

I looked up at Neil, sitting in his tall lifeguard chair.

“Read the first four pages,” he drilled me.

I knew I couldn’t read that book nor any other.

“Does he know?” My heart was pounding.

I took the book and stared at it.

I looked at the first page . . .

Slowly, I turned that page and went to the second.

After turning to the fourth page, I handed the book back to him.

“What did it say?” he snapped.

I mumbled… “I don’t know,”

It’s more than 50 years later and I still remember his words as if it were this morning:

“If you didn’t understand the first page, why did you go to the second page?”

I stood silently at the side of his tall lifeguard chair hoping he would reassure me.

He didn’t say anything else.

He didn’t even look at me.


My stomach churned.

I felt a sense of panic.

I went to work with the children I was assigned to, but was not really present as I went through the motions.

At home, I suffered the agony of hoping he would call, hoping he would make it all better.

He didn’t.

I couldn’t stop thinking about him, dreaming about being with him.

The loneliness was torture – the contrast of going from such wonderful love to overwhelming emptiness.

There was no one to comfort me.

I even tried going on a date with a boy named Dave, who had been trying all all summer to get me to go out with him.

We saw the movie Splendor in the Grass.

The plot was of two teens in love. They had been forced by his parents to break-up. The girl was so distressed that she tried to commit suicide.

I so related to her feelings.

When I got home, I cried and cried as I tried to fall asleep.

But I stayed awake all night thinking and crying.

The Letters on the Page

I admitted to myself that Neil was not with me anymore because he found out I couldn’t read.

I didn’t know why I never learned to read.

It’s not like I didn’t try.

It was just so difficult and frustrating to figure out what the letters on a page were saying.

And when I could make out the pronunciation, I still couldn’t put it all together to make sense of what it meant.


In school, I had been taken out for remedial instruction. But it wasn’t very often and it didn’t make a difference in my skills.

In those days, no one knew about ADHD or dyslexia.

If you couldn’t read, you were just stupid!

And that was my experience of each struggle with the words on a page.

Visions of My Future

Now, my not being able to read meant more than just heartache. Now, not being able to read was a catastrophe.

Now, not being able to read meant I can’t have a boyfriend.

I foresaw constant and repeated rejections in my future . . .

Visions of having no friends and no future family.

All because I wasn’t smart enough, which showed up in my not being able to read.

But as I cried and cried, the feelings of powerlessness slowly turned into determination.

Then. . .

“This will never happen to me again,” I assured myself. “I have to learn how to read.”

Baby Books

That Monday, after school, I went to the library and searched for a book that I could read.

I tried so many different sections of books in that library.

It became more and more discouraging when there wasn’t even one page in one book that I could read.

Finally, I snuck into the little-kids section, hiding, hoping that no one from school would see me.

I looked at some picture books – the ones with 5 or 6 words on a page. And there, I found a book that had a few words that I could read.

I would have to figure out the rest. It was one of the books we knew as “baby books.”

But that did not matter today.

That is what I was able to read, at least some of the words, anyway.

I found a hidden corner of the library so that no one I knew would see me and make fun of me, or tell anyone else.

I sat there in the corner of the library, looking at the words of the book that had lots of colorful pictures. But it wasn’t the pictures that interested me today.

It was the words.

I wanted so much to read them.

I struggled with almost every word. But I wouldn’t give-up.

I literally “broke my teeth” on every word.

“If I look at it long enough, I will get it,” I kept telling myself.

And I looked, and looked, and looked at the words.

By the end of the 5th day with that book I was able to read it to myself.

Then, I looked for another book from the shelf. That, too, was a picture book, a baby book. I checked it out of the library and stayed with it until I finally fell asleep.

By the end of the next day, I was able to read that book also.

After two weeks, I was able to read most of the picture books in the library.

Archie and Veronica

I decided to try comic books. I used to be fascinated by the pictures of Archie and Veronica. Until now, I had to use my imagination to figure out what the words in the dialog circles meant.

Now, I was determined.

I opened the first page that had dialogue.

I wanted to weep from the frustration.

I couldn’t really read it.

I took a deep breath and again told myself that if I look at it long enough I’ll get it.

I strained myself to concentrate on the letters in the words and not the pictures of Veronica talking with Betty.

I again, “broke my teeth” on every word.

It was just so hard.

But I couldn’t give up.

I knew that if I give up, my life would continue to be filled with rejection and heartache.

I had to figure this out, no matter how long it took.

By the following Friday, I was able to pick up almost any comic book and understand the gist of what it was saying.

It wasn’t perfect. But I was on my way.

I went from comic books to Nancy Drew books.

I read and read until I read my first real book.

I was reading the classic Exodus.

I couldn’t put it down. Each page fascinated me and I understood a lot of it.

In school, the guidance counselor called me in to commend me on my scholastic improvement.

By February, six months after that dreadful day at the side of Neil’s lifeguard chair, I was placed in the Honor’s English Literature class, where the students were assigned a new classic to read each week.

I kept up and relished each day with each book.

Reading and learning became my passion.

Break His Teeth???

It makes me wonder if what is meant by “break his teeth” is to teach him how to learn. There are those of us who must break their teeth and strain their brain, as I had to.

The Torah Commentaries on the Haggadah add that to break his teeth means to blunt his teeth or to set them on edge.

Setting someone’s teeth on edge means getting them to fight back, as well.

That is what it means to break one’s teeth.

When excluded, when rejected we need to show our children how to fight back and to use that to become successful.


Today, I speed-read English. I am a licensed teacher of Elementary School and of Spanish in NY, NJ and California. I am getting better and better at translating the Biblical Hebrew texts that I study and at reading, writing and speaking Hebrew.

But I really broke my teeth, and still do, in order to do that.

Today, after having had a 34-year career as a teacher, I am Chana Klein, MSEd, MCAC, PCC, EEM-AP, ACG, PCACG, DIAMBP, NET, AGI, SSS®, etc. That is, I am a Master Certified ADHD Coach, a Certified Professional Coach, an Advanced Eden Energy Medicine Practitioner and have more Coaching and Alternative-Medicine certifications than anyone on the planet.

I am an Autism Spectrum/ ADHD Expert.

I serve as the International Coach Federation (ICF) ADHD Leader and as an ICF and ADHD Coach Certification Assessor. I am the Director of the ADHD/Autism Division of Impact Coaching Academy.

I am the co-founder and Ethics Chairman of The Professional Association of ADHD Coaches.

I am proficient in Chinese Medicine, Chinese Medicine Face Reading, Interactive Guided Imagery, Korean Hand Therapy, Sleep Medicine, Sounder Sleep System, Homeopathy and much more.

That and much more is the result of perennially breaking my teeth to learn more and more, breaking my teeth to fight back against the feeling of being stupid and against being excluded.

I think rather then telling us to break the “wicked” son’s teeth, the Haggadah is saying we need to get that child to somehow work hard at learning.

Then, he will not be excluded.

Perhaps it is telling us to break his teeth so that he will learn what he needs to know in order to be connected to God, to His people and to himself.

These are our children. It is just the beginning for them.

In The Beginning. . .

To say that any of our children is wicked or simple or any negative judgment is ignoring the fact that Avraham Avinu was a product of pagan civilization.

Moshe Rabbeinu was raised in the Egyptian palace.

Perhaps the greatest of us start off as the simple one, or the evil one, mentioned in the Haggadah.

Rabbi Akiva was considered an ignoramus who couldn’t learn.

His father-in-law had said that if he had been able to read even one pasuk (passage), he would not have disowned his daughter when she married him.

But it was Rabbi Akiva whose advice he later sought, not even knowing that this was the one he had disowned.

Our Role

We as parents, as teachers, or as anyone in contact with that child, don’t know who a child will become. For that matter, we don’t know what anyone is capable of becoming.

It’s our role to let them, to encourage, to inform, to be a support.

No, it’s not easy. It’s not simple, and sometimes it’s not even clear.

But it is our responsibility in order that our children may find their own greatness,

and in order that we find ours.

Copyright © Chana Klein 2017