Mr. Bienstock by
(261 Stories)

Prompted By Embarrassment

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Second semester, senior year in high school. I walked into the first day of my last Social Studies class to be greeted by Norman Bienstock, a brand new teacher. This was his first job. He seated us according to a seating chart and called out our names, to put them with our faces and begin to learn his new students. “Elizabeth Sarason?” “Betsy”, I replied. He peered closely at me. “Are you any relation to Robert Sarason?” “Yes, he’s my cousin.” The color drained from his face.

My cousin Robert, son of one of my dad’s brothers, is seven years my senior and was a wild kid growing up. I only saw him at big family get-togethers, but he was constantly in motion; the kind of kid who would tease his younger cousins, or try to pull up the skirt of the little girls for a quick peek. He rode a motorcycle, wanted to be a vet, but couldn’t get through college. He wound up as the head of HAZMAT at UC Davis, quite a responsible position. In adulthood, I’ve found that Robert cares a lot about family and has a soft spot for all of us, but I didn’t know that then. He seemed like something out of Rebel Without a Cause.

Mr. Bienstock explained he had been friends and “running buddies” with my cousin. I looked at this mild-mannered guy and that seemed improbable. He might have worried that I had my cousin’s wild temperament; he couldn’t have been more wrong. I was the valedictorian of the class, into music, theater, a real goodie-goodie, as he quickly learned. He could count on me for decorum and discipline. We got along fine.

Until March, 1970. My Uncle Roy, Robert’s father, passed away rather suddenly after a short struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was the first of the eight Sarasons to pass and the family was heartbroken. Robert came in from California for the funeral. It was the first time I’d seen him in years. That night, at shiva I spoke with Robert. (Shiva means “seven”, as we traditionally observe seven days of mourning after the funeral, though that is no longer strictly observed. But it is a time when the community cares for the berieved family, so they can grieve and not have to tend to daily needs. We all come together and express our grief communally.) I told him that his old pal Norman Bienstock was my Social Studies teacher.

His face lit up. “When you see him tomorrow, ask him about Rozelle”. “Who was that”, I queried? “Never mind, just ask him.”

So I went to class the next day, raised my hand, waited to be called on and said, “Mr. Bienstock, who was Rozelle?” He stared at me for moment, as if in a trance. His face turned a thousand shades of red. He refused to answer. I didn’t seek to embarrass him, but I told him my uncle had died and Robert was in town. I, again, put forth the question. He looked uncomfortable. I am not normally a smart ass, but now others in the class took up the question and started chanting, “Ro-zelle, Ro-zelle!” He was trapped. He collected his thoughts for a moment, trying to be delicate. Finally, he said, “Let’s just say, nothing that a shot a penicillin couldn’t cure.”

Naïve as I was, it took me a moment to process this. Rozelle was a pro who had given my cousin and his buddies a venereal disease! So Robert had deliberately sent me on a mission to embarrass his old buddy. And I succeeded. I felt pretty small and was sorry I had put Mr. Bienstock in that position. He seemed to get over it and quickly moved on to that day’s lesson. Perhaps this gave him a certain amount of “street cred” with the tougher element in class.

Norman showed up at shiva that night. He and Robert embraced like the old friends they were. He told Robert about the day’s embarrassment. Robert had a good laugh, as this was the desired effect. But all was quickly forgiven and forgotten and I saw the two of them in action (though it was still difficult to imagine this mild-mannered teacher running with my wild cousin). I was relieved that my part in the scheme was forgiven as well.

Robert went out of his way to see me when I came to Northern California, and even came east for David’s bar mitzvah in 1998, pictured here at my house, the following day. He sent comforting words when our oldest first cousin, who we all thought was immortal, passed away, many years ago now.


I did not stay in touch with Mr. Bienstock, but came across the Featured photo on my high school Facebook page a short time ago. The person who posted it said it is three years old and he was 70 in the photo. Norman is now retired. She commented that he was her favorite teacher and lots of other students chimed in about him as well. Evidently, he grew into a compassionate, caring teacher. Happy to find my momentary lapse in judgement had no lasting effect.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Dondero HS, social studies, shiva, Robert Sarason
Characterizations: funny


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Just a terrific story, Betsy, and a truly embarrassing situation. That said, I think that there should be a special category — maybe even an exception — for embarrassments, like yours, that are solely the result of being set up by someone else. One should really be blameless in that situation. That said, I am glad that it all turned out well for you, Robert and Mr. Bienstock. But I think I would have given Robert an earful for that stunt.

    One thought that occurred to me in reading your story. “Rozelle” is a pretty uncommon name for a woman, regardless of her profession. It is, however, the last name of a famous Commissioner of the National Football League, Pete Rozelle. He was Commissioner from 1960-89, thus it would have included the period of your story. As such, I am thinking that “Rozelle” was likely just a code name among the guys for another sort of “pro.”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      That’s interesting, John. As a high school kid, I wouldn’t have been aware that Pete Rozelle was the NFL commissioner (and the Rozelle incident would have happened years earlier.) But I like the “pro” idea. Who knows?

  2. Ah Betsy, innocent kid that you were!
    Thanx for sharing that rather embarrassing memory!

  3. Great story, Betsy! I can just see you sitting there, all “decorum and discipline” with your hand raised and no idea what you were set up for. Although I have to admit, after you saw Mr. Bienstock turn red but repeated the question, I wonder if maybe there wasn’t a bit of the imp in you? Of course you had no idea it would turn out to be THAT embarrassing! I’m so glad you had the photos of both Norman and Robert — really fun to envision both of them back in the day in the context of your story.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You know Barb, it was so long ago, that I can’t remember if I was being an imp or just pursuing the answer. But by that point of course, the whole class was in on it and took up the chant, so poor Mr. B didn’t have a prayer.

  4. Suzy says:

    Fun story, Betsy, and a good reason to suggest the prompt Embarrassment. It’s interesting that, at least so far, everyone else has written about a time that they themselves were embarrassed, while your memory is of embarrassing someone else. As others have commented, you were set up by your cousin so it wasn’t your fault, but still, I would think you might have been suspicious since you say Robert was a wild kid growing up. I’m glad Robert and Norman got to see each other at the shiva, and all was forgiven (if maybe not forgotten). Thanks for sharing Mr. Bienstock with us.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Robert set me up, but all’s well that ends well, I guess. It seemed harmless enough, just those boys being boys and they were good friends once upon a time. Like you, I, too am glad they reconnected and reconciled at shiva. It brought everything full circle. And I was happy that I found that Facebook post, which was after I suggested the prompt. That was just a stroke of luck. Nice to learn that Mr. B turned into such a well-liked, nurturing guy.

  5. Marian says:

    Love this story, Betsy, and I’m glad that Mr. B and Robert had a chance to close the loop. Your innocence makes the story even more impactful, and I really liked Mr. B’s response to the chant. Quite a memory!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a great story of embarrassment, Betsy. I would have done the same thing as you at that age and not even understood what it meant as quickly as you do. So wonderful that he became such an accomplished and beloved teacher.

  7. John Zussman says:

    Good story, Betsy, and I can just picture you naively asking that question and persisting until he answered. I find it interesting that he actually answered honestly if obliquely. Either he was in some way proud of the status it gave him or maybe he just hadn’t yet learned the teacherly art of evasion!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Now that you mention it, John, it is curious that he actually answered me, even indirectly. As I said, it did take me a few beats to figure out what he meant (perhaps it took others a while as well). Maybe he thought it was good to give an answer, then move on. I found the Facebook post really interesting – so many said he was their favorite teacher. He was so green when I had him, but maybe this was his first, tentative step toward becoming the fully realized person he would become.

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