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Lessons for Life

Mishpacha Contributors

Though you’ve long forgotten why the Wars of the Roses began, there are some lessons that linger, some teachers who will never be forgotten

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

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LESSONS GIVEN, LESSONS GAINED Shoshana explained that she wrote the same opening line to each of her eighth-grade talmidos: “U’mitalmidai yoser mikulam, I have learned most from my students.” But then came the Dear Rachel… Shira… Ayelet… Sara… Thank you for teaching me... And she proceeded to thank each girl for a specific lesson she learned from that student. Over and over and over again

T

hinking Outside the Parallelogram

Esther Kurtz

“You guys are making so much noise — even Esther can’t sleep!” I quote my 11th-grade math teacher all the time when I try to explain the type of student I was in high school. She said this on a day that I actually happened to be awake in her class… hmmm, maybe because everyone was talking so much? The whole class laughed, myself included.

I was a terrible student, but I saved most of my antipathy for math. I was not a “math person,” and I’d proclaim it with pride. This went back years, from the first time I expressed frustration with math (I think every kid does — even those who love math), and my mother responded with, “It’s okay, Esther, we’re not a math family. Just do your best.” I know my mother meant well, but that just got me off the hook mentally.

When we took the Iowa achievement tests in elementary school, I’d fastidiously fill in the black circles, making sure they were dark and complete, so my answers would be recorded correctly. When it came to the math section though, I’d make a pattern with each successive answer, so there’d be a zigzag flowing though the answer sheet. If the answers weren’t going to be correct, at least the paper would be pretty, right? (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

The Callback

Rachelli Saffir

It was an “Ask the Expert” moment in my teaching career, and I’d run out of experts who weren’t personally involved with me, the class I was struggling to teach, or the school. So in desperation, I yanked off the Totally Coping Teacher mask and phoned a mechanech in another city I knew from my seminary years.

Rabbi Cohen was warm and encouraging and, to my surprise, didn’t seem to write me off as a failure for finding myself in such a difficult situation. He didn’t even seem fazed that such a situation existed, which maybe meant that someone, somewhere out there, also struggled with a challenging class — who would’ve thought?!

We discussed options: what could work, what probably wouldn’t. How to bring up the subject within the class without allowing them to run the discussion. Whom to speak to, when and where and how. When to look closer, when to look away.

I hung up the phone with a plan — and a flutter of nerves. It could work, it might work, but would it work? (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)


 

The Substitute

Miriam Klein Adelman

Miss Smith took over our ninth-grade English class in the beginning of the term, subbing for a teacher out on maternity leave. Before we were even seated the first day, she marched over to the right side of the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote in large letters: “Experience Makes a Person Bitter or Better.”

“Every day I will write a saying on the board,” she announced, “and by the end of the six weeks, you’ll have a list of aphorisms that will enrich your life.”

But from that day, our class made her life miserable. We never behaved with substitutes but Miss Smith seemed particularly vulnerable. She’d walk into the room, write her saying on the board (we always seemed to let her do that), and then one girl would start, “Chop,” the next would follow, “Chop,” and so on, around the room, until the final student would call out loudly: “Timberrr!”

Miss Smith brought a cup of hot coffee into class one day and when she wasn’t looking, Sarah dropped a plastic cockroach in it. Every five minutes another student would request permission to go to the bathroom. One time we hoisted a pail of water over the door that was supposed to pour onto the next person who walked in. We planned it perfectly because Miss Smith walked into the room at precisely the same time every day. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

Gleaning Wisdom

Esther Stauber

One year, I went to the eighth grade graduation of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB), accompanying my good friend who was then the main eighth-grade Hebrew teacher, Morah Shoshana Hayman Hy”d.

As the commencement exercises concluded, Shoshana and I inched our way to the exit against the tide of throngs of celebrating family members, laughing and teary-eyed students, and numerous staff members. Slow as it was, it took even longer to exit the auditorium, as we were stopped every few feet by girls waving autograph books. “Wait! Morah Hayman! You haven’t signed mine yet...”

As each of her students came by in turn, I watched as Shoshana fondly and thoughtfully looked at every girl presenting an autograph book and, leaning on the nearest wall, scrawled her note.

Finally greeted by a cool blast of fresh air as we made it out of the packed auditorium, I asked Shoshana if she had some standard message to her students, or if she wrote something different to everyone.

Shoshana explained that she wrote the same opening line to each of her eighth-grade talmidos: “U’mitalmidai yoser mikulam, I have learned most from my students.”

But then came the Dear Rachel… Shira… Ayelet… Sara…

Thank you for teaching me... (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

Go Green

Faigy Peritzman

“It’s not easy being green.”

Kermit the Frog’s motto took up a large spot on my locker door, alongside a poster of a basket of apples. There were ten red apples and one green one. The caption: “Be Different.”

That summed up my personal perspective during my teenage years.

I considered myself deep, philosophical, and unique. Not the best combination for my teachers or the administration. But they took me in stride.

When I sat there arguing about the meaning of life, wondering if a tree that falls in an empty forest makes a sound, they’d humor me and respond, gently guiding me off my soapbox to a more grounded approach.

Sleepover Shabbos was the highlight of the year. The whole middle and high school, grades seven through twelve, would pile into the school building, each class sleeping in a different room. Meals were shared in the auditorium. We’d spend the whole night racing down the halls or huddled in DMCs, with the day devoted to singing zemiros and attending workshops.

I must have been in ninth grade, when my principal Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg z”l passed me in the hall on Shabbos morning and asked me how I was enjoying Shabbos. On a sleepless high from an incredible Friday night, I responded animatedly, and then I started telling him about the major philosophical debate we’d discussed the night before. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557) 

 

All in a Name

As told to Avigail Rabinowitz

 It was the disheartenment of a tenth-grader. That’s a very specific type of melodramatic despair. Growing up, I attended an out-of-town elementary school with one class per grade. My classmates and I shared the first ten years or so of our schooling (nursery through eighth grade) as a family of sorts. I was the elementary school G.O. president and proud color war captain. I knew every student in school through the twelfth grade — if not by name then surely by face — as well as the teachers, administrators, and even the janitor.

When I started high school in a large Brooklyn Bais Yaakov, the shift to my new non-identity as one more fish in the vast sea was quite the adjustment. Ninth grade saw the beginning of my acclimation, as I tried gaining a footing in my new schedule, commute, school, and social angst. I schmoozed with many but clicked with none. Until that point in my experience, friends weren’t made; they were a birthright. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

Delivered to the Door

Ahava Ehrenpreis

I rarely look back on my high school years. But I know that certain responses and patterns of behavior still a part of me now, all these years later, were instilled in me then by one particular rebbi.

I attended a Bais Yaakov, just as my daughters did, but there were some interesting differences. Mine was located in the Midwest, theirs on the Eastern Seaboard. Our entire student body numbered under a hundred, significantly fewer than the numbers in my daughters’ grade levels. The common denominator among the students was that we were Jewish, and our parents knew that a public-school education — even with additional Jewish learning — would not be sufficient to build future homes based on Torah and mitzvos.

Family lore has it that when my mother came to take my brother out of public school, the teacher was aghast that such a bright boy was going to attend a fledgling institution. My class of 12 girls had varied backgrounds, with parents with a potpourri of occupations: a rabbi, a businessman, a plumber, a doctor, a bus driver, a Lubavitcher shaliach. It didn’t matter to us. Like my daughters and their classmates, we kvetched about too much homework, too many tests. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

Sunny with a Chance of Eternity

Penina Goldschmidt

Anyone who was in Camp Sternberg Anna Heller that summer will remember it forever.

That summer spawned a search that altered my entire experience of life from then on. Because camp is a magical place to begin with, where anything can happen. School is rigid, with schedules and requirements and responsibilities and skills that need to be mastered and knowledge to be learned and boxes to check off. But in camp we were free — even free to learn, if we wanted to.

And we wanted to, because we were learning something we’d never been taught before.

In camp you don’t really care where people come from. Sure, you ask (Brooklyn, South Bend, Miami), but it matters so little that you forget the location as the words die in the breeze that rolls off the lake and up the hill. As far as we knew, the new shiur counselor fell from the sky, or maybe she materialized into existence in camp itself. All we knew for sure was that she was teaching us something essential, taking us down a path no one ever had before.

How do you know there is a G-d? I mean, how do you know, for sure?

What am I doing here, anyway?

Why does stuff happen? (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

My First Student

Riki Goldstein

I deliberated between two favorite Friday night outfits: the gray sweater I’d picked out at the mall or the long black-and-white houndstooth skirt that looked so elegant and grown-up. My hair was blow-dried; I hoped the air outside was not too damp. It was my favorite time of the week.

And, we had guests. I had my favorites among my parents’ regulars, but this week promised to be especially intriguing: a guy from New York and a lady from Basel were with us for the whole Shabbos. “Are they on a shidduch?” I asked my parents.

“Uh, kind of,” was the reply. “They ‘met’ online and now they’re meeting face to face.”

Thirteen-year-old me found this absolutely fascinating. Especially as he, Joel from New York, wore a yarmulke, and she, Ledicia from Basel, seemed to know absolutely zilch about Jewish tradition. She told us that she identified as Jewish and was a member of a Reform synagogue. Now, this was cool. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

Two Words

Michal Eisikowitz

When I first met Mrs. G. as a callow ninth-grader, I was underwhelmed.

I took in her slight build, delicate features, and soft, velvety voice… and wondered how such an understated woman could have earned the reverence exuded by my older sisters.

Could this soft-spoken educator — a paragon of refinement who, you suspected, had atrophied her physiological capacity to speak past 70 dB — ignite apathetic adolescents, give pause to image-obsessed teenagers for whom “inspiration” was not cool?

Then I experienced her first lesson, and it was breathtaking: powerful sources, brilliantly interwoven in a way that built up to a trenchant, hard-hitting climax. You could hear a pin drop.

“So this is what makes high school different,” I remember thinking.

Mrs. G. didn’t used drama or guilt or tearjerkers to create artificial intrigue. Her core ingredient was content: penetrating, timeless truths delivered with humility, wisdom, and grace. Her messages needed no fire and brimstone.

She respected us deeply (“Good morning, ladies! How are you today?”); she treated us as intelligent, thinking adults — presenting information, allowing us to draw conclusions — and we responded in kind.

Even her barely perceptible mussar was palatable, coming from a person of obvious consonance. The most cynical among us shriveled in Mrs. G.’s presence: no duplicity to mock, no hypocrisy to expose. We felt deeply — she was the real thing.

But for me, Mrs. G.’s greatest gift lay in two words. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 557)

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MM217
 
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