I graduated from public high school more than 50 years ago. It’s hard to believe, because it seems like yesterday. Time becomes an accordion as you age. Sometimes memory squishes the long ago and the now close together, sometimes it stretches it out. The story I’m about to share is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. When you read it, I think you’ll see why.

It happened long ago, long before I had learned much of what I now know about Judaism, including the fact that halachah does not allow for mixed dancing. However, the message it taught me is so powerful that it still bears telling.

One of the traditions during high school was the Homecoming Dance. Girls would anxiously wait for boys to ask them to this event, boys would nervously rehearse their asking, and like the animals entering the Ark, pairs would match up. Dresses were bought (pastels and satin were all the rage back then), tuxedos rented, corsages purchased, and for one grand and magical evening, I could trade my plaid skirt, ponytail and knee socks for a gown, pumps, and an up-do. Ah, the glamour of it all!

Back then, I had a major crush on David. He was gangly, and wore glasses, and his 1960’s hair made him look like a mophead, but to me he looked like Paul McCartney (the “cute” Beatle). My best friend, Sarah, told me she’d talked to her brother, Aaron, who knew Allen, who was friends with David, and through the high school grapevine I was assured that David liked me too. And to my delight, David asked me to the prom! I was very excited and spent every waking moment dreaming of our perfect evening while I practiced walking in my first pair of heels. I picked out a mint green, long satin dress, bought some pink frosted lipstick, and found the perfect mint eyeshadow to match my dress. Hey, it was the 60’s, ok? Meanwhile, David made reservations at a fancy restaurant, rented his own mint green tuxedo, and hired a limousine and driver to chauffeur us. I was a princess, he was Prince Charming, and in my mint green fairy tale we’d live happily ever after.

Then, three days before the prom, my fairy tale was shattered. David called to tell me he couldn’t take me to the prom. I asked for the reason, and he just stammered, said he was very sorry, and quickly ended the conversation. I was devastated and confused and hoped it would be made clear at school the next day.

Sure enough, between classes, I caught sight of him in the hall. He was huddled in conversation with Sarah, my best friend. From a distance I saw them nod in unison and give each other a smile and a high five. Aha! All had become clear. David had dumped me and asked Sarah to the dance instead! I locked myself in a bathroom stall and cried, and then pulled myself together, vowing to give both the cold shoulder. I would keep my dignity, stay aloof, and not say a word to either of them.

When lunchtime came, I ignored Sarah and sat with another group of friends. When she called that evening, I said I was busy and couldn’t talk. David tried to talk to me after school, and he looked upset and tense, but I walked right on by, head held high. He should be upset, I thought! He dumped me for my best friend! I seethed inside, imagining him and Sarah at the dance together. My feelings were hurt, but I consoled myself knowing my pride was intact. I snubbed them the next day, too.

On the evening of the dance, my parents took me out to a nice restaurant. My mother had returned my dress and shoes, and I promised myself that I’d never buy anything in mint green satin again (a promise I’ve never regretted). And thus, the evening came and went, without my having talked to either Sarah or David. The next day, Sarah cornered me at my locker and demanded to know why I was mad at her.

“How can you not know?”, I blurted out. “You went to the dance with David!” She looked at me in astonishment, and said, “What are you talking about?” I told her I’d seen them huddled in the hall, smiling and high-fiving, and she reminded me they were in the same math class, and were merely comparing answers on a test they had just taken. They were pleased they’d both gotten the extra credit question right! With that, she marched off, miffed that I could have thought such a dastardly thing of her.

That evening, the doorbell rang. It was David. This time, I let him talk. He confided that his father had lost his job several months before. His family was struggling financially, and David had been embarrassed to tell me. In fact, they couldn’t buy groceries that week, and the night he’d called, he’d just given them his savings, earned by washing cars and mowing lawns, money he’d planned to spend taking me to the dance. His father had walked into the room while we were on the phone the night he called to cancel, and David didn’t want to embarrass him, so he quickly ended the conversation. He planned to explain it at school the next day, but I never gave him the chance. I’d assumed the worst of both him and Sarah.

Few things hurt as much as a broken heart or a guilty conscience. And I had both, piled on top of the emotional melodrama of adolescence. I wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it. Even now, 50 years later, the echo of that pain remains. I apologized to both of them, more than once, but the damage was done. Sarah remained a friend, but no longer my best friend. And David never asked me out again.

Pirkei Avot (1:6) says: “dan l’chaf zechut”, judge every person meritoriously. Only G‑d knows everything that goes on in a person’s mind and life, while we humans see merely a snapshot. It’s our responsibility to search for ways to interpret what others say and do in a positive light, giving them the benefit of the doubt, as we’d want them to do for us. We must ask ourselves, “What situation could possibly make ME say or do that?” Perhaps the fellow who just cut me off in traffic is rushing to the hospital because his wife is having a baby. Perhaps the rude clerk in the store had her car break down and can’t afford to fix it. Perhaps David had a family emergency of some kind.

G‑d is good, and we are created in His image. Therefore, there is good in all of us. We must seek it out. We must presume it, and as much as we can, judge people in a positive light. It’s been close to 50 years since I saw David or Sarah. We graduated and went our separate ways. I learned a valuable lesson from them, but wish I’d learned it without hurting them. If I could, I would tell them how that event changed me forever. I learned the hard way to dan l’chaf zechut, to judge others well.