Followers and leaders

One of the warnings that we began receiving when we were very young was to maintain control, no matter what the situation. We were told and have told our offspring to control instincts, desires, actions, and virtually everything else. Pondering this reality, I have begun to wonder exactly what advantages ensue from being in control.

My best guess is that I am thinking about this business of control because of some upcoming events. Beginning tomorrow, I am working in a teaching assignment where I function not as the teacher in charge of the class’s direction and teaching but as the co-worker who assists the class teacher. This is a teacher who is quite decisive and I have mixed feelings about being the second player in this situation.

Initially, this may seem to be a perfect environment for a substitute teacher. There are no lesson plans to follow, no need to supervise kids at recess or in the cafeteria. But I am feeling that this may be my challenge because of this anomalous imperative to be in control.

My reputation is not at stake, nor is my self-esteem. What I do see, however, is that there are times when the control that we have always sought is not really as important as it has always seemed. By accepting this assignment, I have tacitly subscribed to the protocols and situation that exists. My job is to make it right.

And so, I have an opportunity to learn something about assisting rather than directing, supporting rather than directing, and deferring to the one who is the designated leader. It sounds pretty simple; the only complication is the fact that it’s uncharted territory for me. We’ll just have to suck it up and let someone else be in charge. Doing that should be more than enough. Shalom.

Loving what you do

If you aren’t having fun doing what you do, why do it? If you’re a neurosurgeon, there probably isn’t much fun to be had in an operating room. Gravedigging probably doesn’t provide many giggles per day, but I don’t know any gravediggers to ask.

This theory guides my teaching methods virtually every day. The fun is to be determined by the grade level. Older kids understand irony and nuance. Younger ones will respond to mispronouncing the familiar or emphasizing the obvious.

In the event that you’re inclined to remind me that fun is articulated nowhere in the curriculum, I suppose that you are correct. But if you spend one hour, one day, or one week in a classroom, you will see what humor does for the educator and the educatee.

Some of it is logic. If kids are asked to add pages of sums, they will quickly drift into boredom. But find a color by addition sum activity and they will embrace it with enthusiasm and energy.

Your next question may be whether or not a sense of humor creates a better, more competent teacher. Along the way, I’ve seen quite a few teachers who seem to have been deprived of anything comedic. I remember the story of one teacher who was in the habit of throwing books in the direction of disobedient students. Does that sound like something amusing for anyone in the classroom?

On the other end of the spectrum, yesterday I indulged in a staring contest with my second grader while he was at lunch. This was the student who later asked me if I could come back Monday or tomorrow (Saturday) and displayed a very sad face when I told him that Saturday was my day off.

Does any of this have to do with who is the better educator? Positively not. But I firmly believe that my kids, seeing me having fun with them, are learning the subject matter and the realization that I love what I do.

My best example of that understanding was the little boy whom I found magical in this second grade class. Every time I looked at him, his entire face smiled at me. I would look at him for no specific reason and waved at him; he immediately waved back. It was the best that teaching ever gets with very few words spoken and many laughs along the way. Shalom.

To create

Watching some essentially mindless television on Tuesday, I grappled with what was impeding my progress on my next book and what it would take for me to regain my momentum. Without putting it into those words, I realized with some flash of insight, that I was missing the one piece, the essence of what would differentiate the book from the thousands of other Holocaust books that are in print.

From the top, a number of things will distinguish it. It’s new, its characters are products of my imagination, and the plot, although similar to other stories of survival in the Warsaw ghetto, has a recounting of its own events. The purely literary view is that all written works are their own unique events, specific to their authors and everything that the authors bring to the keyboard.

But my revelation took the book’s identity to a whole new dimension. No, I won’t disclose what it is, because I’m still developing the plot and all other components. But the realization that I had was that without this type of hook or special item, the book would not have the character that I seek.

And so I suggest, to those who would seek to create a work of art, be it in photography, other visual arts, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, architecture, or whatever – identify what it is about the story you are telling that defines your piece of art. All of the work that you do will magnify and intensify that concept, making it truly the work of your heart.

Now that I have arrived at that place, I have no further obstructions to the completion of my book, other than the time necessary to research the history and accuracy as well as the actual creation of the manuscript. Exactly what was I missing? Direction? Energy? Focus? or the perfect French term, Je ne sais quoi? (I don’t know what). It’s all of the above. Find your center, your core, and your artist’s singularity. Once that’s done, your work will flow. Shalom.

In a lighter vein

Whenever I am in need of inspiration or direction, my library provides endless sources of subject matter. Most recently, I consulted A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Ausubel. There are many hundreds of pages that contain entertaining and instructional stories. Here are a few examples.

A forty-year-old man married a twenty-year-old and was continually questioned about their age disparity. The man’s answer was quite simple. He said that when he looked at his bride, he felt ten years younger; likewise, she looked at him and felt ten years older. And so, they both felt thirty. No harm, no fowl.

I like this one too. A rabbi questioned the town’s rich man about how much the man gave to charity. The man responded that he was a modest man who doesn’t say much about his donations. In response, the rabbi encouraged him to say more about it and donate more. Sounds like perfect logic.

A poor man who was down on his luck asked the rich man for some money, warning that if he didn’t the poor man would go into the hat business. The rich man asked why that would matter to him, to which the poor man said that with his luck, every man from then on would be born without a head.

My favorite is probably the story of the rosebush and the apple tree. It seems that the rosebush was feeling very proud of itself. It believed that because its flowers were the most beautiful and smelled the best, no other plant would be worthy of the praise bestowed on the rose bush.

The apple tree had an excellent response. It suggested that the rose bush could not compare in kindheartedness. When questioned why, the apple tree responded as follows: “You do not give your flowers to people unless you first prick them with your thorns. I, on the other hand, give my fruit even to those who throw stones at me.”

As always, I call attention to lessons. In the last case, we see the reminder that it is the nature of the gifts we give, not their appearance that matters. Shalom.

In the loop

If you’re interested in acquiring the  most interesting information concerning Covid-19, ask a fourth grader. Yesterday, our conversations wandered into the realm of the virus and one young lady advised that all they knew was that they had to wear masks and maintain social distance. While it’s certainly not necessary to tell our kids all of the details about this virus, somehow, they have been deleted from being informed.

The best part of teaching is teaching. No, I didn’t make a mistake. Every day is a brand new day and an opportunity to bring new and vital information to hungry minds. For example, I suggested to my fourth graders that they motorize shopping carts and they created endless innovations for the idea.

As the kids change, the joy changes. Sometimes I see the light bulbs illuminate when I explain the origins of a word. Other times, I empower them with a new math problem solution. But all parts are good, for everyone involved.

Not surprisingly, there are never behavior issues with enlightened, engaged students. They create gifts out of paper instead of talking or acting out.

If we need to make lasting, crucial changes to our world, we must begin in the classroom. Let’s find new methods to support, encourage, and advance our students instead of spending that time with debates derision, and distress.

Ultimately, the children only understand arriving to school on time, eating breakfast (sometimes), and jumping into the day’s lessons. They are far from lucid about Covid-19 and resist change in routine, no matter how large or small.

What they do get is that knowledge and information improve them. They know when teachers care or don’t care about them. And whether or not they can articulate it, they know the reasons why their teachers are in the classroom. As we plod through the solutions for Covid-19, we must include them so as to maximize their stamina, thus healing the world. Shalom.

Armani

Many years and paydays ago, I had the occasion to walk past the Giorgio Armani store and look at the stylish and extremely expensive clothes that they featured in their windows. Expensive is a relative term, of course. When you are living on an extremely tight budget, most items that are optional are too expensive.

It was most likely during my time in Chicago because the Armani store was close to my college campus. But for reasons that I could not determine at that time, I wanted something from Armani more than anything I could describe. Maybe it was the unavailability or maybe it was the attraction of buying something outside my price range.

Here we are many years later, and I just tossed my Armani shirt into the washing machine. Somehow I managed to buy it, either or sale or due to some windfall. But the moral is something I am forever teaching my students. Want something badly enough, work hard for it, and one day it will be yours.

Clearly, the prize in this case is not as important as a college education or new home. But I offer it as an example of what can be done with persistence and focus. Very often, I ask my students what they would want to possess or where they would travel if money was not a problem. The answers are often predictable but occasionally surprising.

This week a 2nd grader disclosed that he would have all meals delivered to his home so that his mother didn’t have to cook any more. This was also the student who was relieved to determine that I would make every effort to reappear in his classroom. It’s all about determination and keeping our goals firmly in focus.

Once again, it’s all about dreams. If we lose our dreams, we have nothing left for which to work or get out of bed in the morning. Admittedly, most of my goals were quite a bit more substantial than an item from Armani. But I continue to believe that we must succeed at our small dreams in order to keep working on the big ones. Shalom.

Growth

While I can’t put my finger on the exact reasons, I can usually determine immediately if my class is well-behaved and welcoming. Maybe it’s the way some students will say hi or wave at me when I enter. Or maybe it’s the response I get when I say, “Hello everyone!”

In some ways, I’m inclined to believe that it is the nature of my greeting that sets the tone. Another alternative is that the majority of my students are inherently kind and once they see that I’m of the same persuasion, they behave accordingly. Most likely, it’s both.

Monday was a great example. My duty began at 12:30 and when I entered the classroom, third graders were staring at their Chromebooks. The lady watching them introduced me and three or four students waved a greeting. We engaged in brief conversation and as always, I have one or two students determined to provide directions for the rest of the day’s events.

But it’s all done with small voices and large kindness. My best guess is that they have a good teacher. Some of it may have to do with my practice of saying “please” and “thank you,” as well as speaking with them intelligently and with respect.

More than anything else, it’s about expectations. No matter what grade what school, what time of day, I always anticipate cooperation. Through the years, I have also discovered that complete silence is nearly impossible to accomplish.

And so, I have broadened my areas of reasonability and have learned to accept a level of murmurs. While some of us require absolute silence, others of us can function otherwise. Somehow, it all comes back to growth. If we want our kids to grow we just can’t stifle them in their growing processes.

Somewhere, somehow, I must be doing something right. My students ask me to be their regular substitute and to return as soon as possible. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Shalom.

You are special

Most days that I am in the classroom, I identify at least one student who can benefit from a little bit of extra attention. My role as an educator is to dedicate my time to each of my students and I do everything in my power to do so. But with a class of 14 special education students, spending considerable time with each child is more difficult than usual.

Friday was no exception. My student was a young man, probably five or six, who was well-groomed and unusually polite. In comparison to some of the students who were yelling for no reason and kicking fellow students, he was a tremendous relief.

Somewhere in the middle of the day, I took a moment to tell him that he was special. As of that moment, he never left my side. He dragged a chair next to my desk and asked me to assist him in every project that we had. When we went to recess, he repeatedly asked me to watch him perform some act of agility or expertise. And most significantly, he asked to use my special purple pen, probably because it was mine and allowed him to have one more form of proximity to him.

If I made one extraordinary student feel empowered or extraordinary or simply happy for one day, I am elated. He confirmed my profession and my commitment. Based on the hugs and appreciation I received from other students in the class, I did not sacrifice their status by singling out my one young man.

It is unusual to find someone who does not relish the feeling of being considered special. Because this is easier to accomplish in the context of a classroom, I utilize every opportunity to bestow the special status as often as possible. And so it goes for the rest of us. When we make our loved ones, our clients, our friends, and our neighbors feel that they have improved our lives in large and small ways, we create magic, both for ourselves and others. If you are at all like me, you can never have too much magic. Shalom.

Being alone

One of the most negative outcomes from this pandemic is the number of suicides and reports of people having trouble with being alone. The loneliness comes as a result of losing a loved one or from the inability to interact with the community or both. Although I have no power to bring back someone loved and cherished, I have made a number of observations as a result of my own loss.

Write that person a letter and record your memories of times spent with him or her. Do this before too much time passes and your memories have the potential to fade. You won’t have anywhere to mail the letter but there is some form of release or gratification in the process of recording your feelings.

Seek out someone or several people who knew both of you. It may be that those people are unaware of your loss and you will have a chance to catch up while exchanging recollections from the past. My life was vastly enhanced by the condolences and cards that I received, especially because of the kind thoughts that were included.

Develop a new friendship or alliance. Our community has a forum for those who have shared interests and although much of the contact is virtual, many neighbors find enjoyment from comparing stories or seeking information about a service or product that they need.

Identify new activities that you enjoy doing by yourself. It may be painting, jigsaw puzzles, indoor gardening, or writing a memoir. From personal experience, you may be surprised by how many people are eager to learn more about you, past and present. Plus, the act of writing your life story is cathartic, whether you publish it or not.

And finally, be very intentional about your belongings, your estate, and your legacies. It will make life much easier for those who follow you and it will take quite a bit of pressure off you. This is not morbid – it’s just good planning and something extremely worthwhile. Being alone doesn’t have to be awful; you may learn many new things about yourself. Shalom.

Good and evil

If you spend a few minutes thinking about it, you have probably known a person or persons in your life who were purely good. My mom was one of those. I also remember an English teacher, colleague, and several family members who have left me with memories of only positive personalities and actions.

Now think of someone who was pure evil. Again, I can conjure a co-worker, a boss, a friend who turned out to be toxic, and several others who seemed to have dedicated their lives to dispensing ugly thoughts and deeds. What is the point of all of this, you ask?

My most recent revelation concerns some information I just secured from my current reading material. The author refers to the Kapos and Sonderkommandos in World War II, Jews who were responsible for directing the activities and/or deaths in of fellow Jews in ghettos and concentration camps. In many cases, these were ruthless and cruel people who indulged in much the same torture and brutality that was conducted by their Nazi counterparts. The author goes on to say that while these Kapos and Sonderkommandos did what they were told in order to survive, there is a very fine line between doing your job under duress and enjoying the power, however fleeting.

It all causes me to wonder about the capacity all of us have for both good and bad. It also drives home the point that when we speak of 6 million Jews, we unintentionally forget that each one was an individual life. Each one had family members, pasts and presents, hopes for the future, and accomplishments that they had accumulated. When we lump victims into groups (Kapos, Sonderkommandos, inmates, survivors, escapees, protestors, etc.,) we are incapable of seeing them as the women, men, and children that they were.

Some were good while some were pure evil. But the majority were a combination of everything human, such as kindness, generosity, sacrifice, and the litany of adjectives that could be correctly applied to the lost and those who survived the Holocaust. For my part, I am in awe of those who managed to escape and have told their heartbreaking stories. Each time I do, I remain touched by the memories of those whose lives ended never telling us who they were and what they wanted to be. Shalom.