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A carton of wisdom

From where do we derive wisdom? We can’t look it up online and order a pound or a box or a pallet of wisdom. Many acquire it from parents and grandparents, if they are wise enough (smart enough?) to be paying attention. But in those cases where parents and/or grandparents haven’t been available during formative years, from where does wisdom come?

As one who has occupied this planet for a number of decades, I submit that wisdom is acquired primarily from making mistakes and learning from them. We often believe that mistakes are toxic. Once we stop blaming ourselves (and others) for our errors, it’s inevitable that learning will take place.

The best part is that we don’t always know from where learning will be derived and how it is constructed. Here’s an example: Many years ago, I took driving lessons because my dad admitted that he didn’t have the patience to teach me. Some years later, I was pulled over by a Chicago policeman because I failed to pull over and enable right of way for a fire engine. He didn’t ticket me but I was certain that I wasn’t taught to pull over, just learning it through this wake-up.

It’s definitely not a large dose of wisdom but I am grateful that I have been able to pull over ever since, ostensibly contributing to life-saving measures. In the same manner, I have learned other important facts about driving, teaching and life in general.

As soon as we believe that we know it all or have heard it all, we restrict ourselves from acquiring wisdom. My students teach me daily, about such things as the need for patience, the imperative of teaching them as individuals instead of as a class and the fact that playground behavior is often representative of needs for running, jumping and playing tag without restraint.

We probably won’t have the option of contacting Amazon for wisdom, a fact for which I am grateful. Instead, we need to keep our eyes open to the morsels of good sense that appear on our plates every day. Shalom.

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This morning, we listened to a selection of songs by the timeless and elegant Judy Collins. One of the songs we heard was “Clouds,” in my opinion, an American epic. The thought that occurred to me, as always, was imagining having a singing voice with her clarity and pitch.

Although I’ve had that thought many times, I always stop in my tracks and remind myself that Judy has the exclusive right to her voice and that I have the same exclusivity for mine. It is a matter of competence, something that so many of us seek.

Two questions arise from the subject of competence. When do we reach it and why do we seek it? Perhaps many who sing, professionally or otherwise, never aspire to sound better than they do. That sounds like an excellent place to be. The same holds true for those who bicycle, run, play tennis or write. In their cases, doing what they do is sufficient and rewarding.

For the rest of us, competence is elusive and nebulous. Having had some voice training, do I consider myself competent? If so, when did I reach that status? If not, why do I seek it?

Conclusions are easily reached. The purpose of any activity, whether it is skiing, surfing, cooking, cleaning or coaching, is enjoyment and gratification. The act of performing any of these should constitute competence, whether that is sought or otherwise. In other words, singing as well as Judy Collins is a gigantic waste of time because I enjoy my participation in a local choral ensemble and it’s all subjective anyway.

Does that mean that we should not try to improve? In my opinion, the answer is no. Regardless of the activity, I’m thinking that doing our best or performing well enough to enjoy what we’re doing constitutes competence. To be sure, Judy Collins continues to be far beyond that status. But I don’t need to sing “Clouds” as well as she does simply because I don’t.

My best guess is that I’m not alone in my search for competence. Many of us are not happy with adequacy or being average. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. Aspiring to greater heights is what results in discoveries, cures and other celestial conquests. Shalom.

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Rules that are golden

Yesterday I had special opportunities to inject some real world wisdom into music classes for second, first and kindergarteners. It happened unexpectedly, as we discussed the value of being kind to other people, whether or not they have been kind to you.

Because I don’t think that every second of a music class must be dedicated to music, I took that as a signal to write, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” on the white board. All three grades had trouble with “unto” and I probably should have abbreviated it with “to.” It’s tough being a purist.

In any case, a very sharp second grader compared this to karma and I agreed that it was a similar concept. What surprised me was that no-one had yet told any of these children about the golden rule. That can no longer be said.

Hillel the Elder was a Jewish scholar and biblical commentator who coined a famous interpretation of the golden rule. He said, “What is hateful to you don’t do to another. This is the whole Torah [Old Testament]; the rest is commentary.”

This is my favorite interpretation in its simplicity and suitability for perpetuation in elementary school.

We discussed the concept in all three classes and I was quite pleased with the understanding that we reached. Kids are innately inclined to work well with others, whether in academic pursuits or at play. As we proceeded to games, I explained that if you play a game, you need to be as good a loser as you are a winner.

Once again, the importance of teaching non-academic wisdom became apparent to me. Kids immediately warmed up to the concept of treating others with kindness and respect, not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because it made reciprocity possible and inevitable.

For those who may want to suggest that I hang up my teaching title and spend all my time writing, this is why I am still in the classroom. Ultimately, I hope that my writing dispenses the type of learning that I can offer in the classroom. Until then, we’ll continue with the golden rule. Shalom.

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To dream

Sometimes I look at a class full of students and try to imagine what they will be in twenty or thirty years. The class I’m facing is 4th grade, a very good transition grade between the naivete of little people and the pseudo-sophisticated 5th and middle schoolers.

This is quite an interesting exercise. I’m thinking that the young man who keeps bouncing out of his seat will be an athlete. He’s trim, energetic and wants clear definition of the rules.

Another student, a girl, will be a corporate dynamo. She’s forthright, organized, creative and displays decisive leadership skills.

One young man appears to be headed toward a career in the military. He’s serious, clean-cut, and sports the traditional short haircut of the armed forces. When he interacts with me, it’s consistently “please” and “thank you.” Finishing his assignment, he quietly begins work on a paper construction of some sort.

Some of them don’t provide any clues at all. They are carefully observing all of those around them, either to secure answers or see what everyone else is doing that they’re not.

Because I’m not likely to know how close I am to the realities for these students, all of my speculation is merely mental gymnastics. While I’m observing, I see the chatty children without focus, the medical staff student contingent that rushes to a student with a life-threatening cut finger and the ones who simply follow directions.

Whatever they decide to do with their lives, I now promote and encourage them. When I asked a class the other day what they would do in a lab that allowed them to create anything they wanted, many had very mature ideas. Several wanted to eliminate global warming and one wanted to grow sufficient food to feed the world.

As a facilitator, I verify all of it, thanking them for thoughtful responses. And I always consider myself fortunate to be part of their dreams. Shalom.

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Save the typewriter!

Because technology of various flavors is such a crucial component of today’s education, I find myself trying to imagine many things. All of these imaginings relate to having had this technology available as I was completing my own education.

Kindergarten through eighth grades would have been essentially the same as they were. If laptops or PCs had been available, I sincerely doubt that we would have had them in our home. Our family finances were limited, with one working parent and substantial medical bills.

In those grades, essays or papers could be handwritten, in your very best handwriting. The word “cursive” was unknown to us. When we arrived in high school, things changed.

Now we had to do research. Some info was available in our school library. Had we had current technology, we could have done that online. Consequently, it was the mile or so each way to the branch public library. In extreme cases, we took the number 5 bus to the El, then to the Chicago Public Library on Randolph Street.

Then it was writing the paper by hand, then rolling out the Smith-Corona portable to create a finished product. You had to hope you made no mistakes – we had no correction tools whatsoever, other than the generally ineffective erasers on our pencils.

The net gain was developing a vast appreciation for libraries and research materials. My college days reinforced that love – we still didn’t have computers then.

Is my education more substantial or more comprehensive because of all the labor it entailed? Somehow, I don’t think that we can reach any reasonable conclusions or methods by which we can compare pre-technology to present day education. Students today have access to massive amounts of information that I didn’t have available.

For certain, I never had to create, maintain and memorize passwords. My work was manifestly original because we had no ghost writers for hire or sites available for plagiarism. Whatever data I wanted had to be collected during library hours. After that, it was my #2 pencil and Smith-Corona, generally before bedtime.

Putting in all that work absolutely validated the significance of my education. Most likely, I would attach the same value now if I deleted the typewriter and library trips. But I don’t think I will ever duplicate the intoxicating smells and feels of an enormous reference library and I really don’t want to do so. Shalom.

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The next provocative prompt in my volume of suggestions is the word “comfort.” As a mother, grandmother and educator, this is a word that evokes many responses from me. From the top, I think of comfort much more as something that I deliver than something that I receive. In spite of the fact that comfort is most commonly associated with food these days, I think of it as a much more important process.

Comfort can be delivered and received on multiple levels. On Thursday, I observed a young girl who spent the entire lunch period crying, bemoaning the fact that she missed her dad. It appeared to be the byproduct of divorce, with mom and boyfriend living in the immediate vicinity and Dad living some miles away. Apparently, the issue was more of a symbolic separation than actual distance.

Although I’m not a trained therapist, my instant reaction was to provide comfort. But in order to do so, I began by asking a few simple questions. Where was he? When are you planning to see him? Can you speak to him between now and then? Unfortunately, nothing was going to help because her panic was far beyond reach of rational thought.

Comfort to loved ones requires additional skills. In these cases, we know quite a bit about the areas of sensitivity and pain. And to make the process of providing comfort more complicated, we must emphasize the loving/caring component while injecting rational commentary when possible.

It’s easier for me to react to someone’s need for comfort than to decipher from where the comfort gene emanates. I’m confident that it’s not a question of have and have-not – my life has been full of enough emotion and disappointment for me to have a clear understanding of despair. But when I wonder about why I resist comfort, I reach two conclusions.

Even though I don’t consider those who deserve comfort to be weak, I have always believed that I don’t accept comfort easily because I think of myself as strong and resilient. If there’s a contradiction present, I accept it. The other reason is that I have always thought of myself as a caregiver rather than a care receiver. My hope is that this status won’t change any time soon.

In the interim, I continue to be ready to assist and support others who can benefit from my care and concern. Whether it’s a second grader or senior who is having trouble carrying a heavy package, I am eager to lend a hand or two. Shalom.


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One heart broken

“What broke your heart” was the next prompt that I found in my inspirational and challenging book of things to write about. For the sake of spontaneous thought, the first event that broke my heart was the assassination of President Kennedy. His politics or mine don’t matter at all. He was the president whom the American people loved and his sudden death was a tragedy of huge proportion.

Several years later, a man broke my heart. He was my first love and while he stated that he still loved me, he had to terminate our relationship in order to devote all of his time to pursuing his law degree. Was that a convenient excuse or was it the truth? I continue to wonder but not very often. While I have experienced the ends of other relationships, none was as heart-breaking as this one.

Moving from my childhood home also broke my heart. My cherished memories were all there, from the dark and scary basement to the single bathroom that I shared with my four family members. The knotty pine of our breakfast nook and the huge backyard were sacred spaces for me.

Seeing my son leave for college and my daughter for New York both broke my heart. Both events represented the end of closeness and the indescribable bond that I shared with both of them. As I visualized as both exits occurred, they would never live within my vicinity again.

And there was the goodbye with my precious grandson when I left for the airport to return home. He couldn’t completely understand why I wouldn’t be with him tomorrow and began to cry. Making him cry is the absolutely last of my intentions, particularly because I was as sad as he was about our separation.

While there was no postscript to the prompt such as, “What healed your heart,” I will make certain that my next choice is decidedly more upbeat. In the interim, I am grateful for the capacity to feel as profoundly as I do about this toddler’s tears. Shalom.

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For reasons that I can’t completely explain, I’ve been thinking about the word “courage.” Like so many other power words, courage suggests many people and events to me. The first of these is our American flag, the stripes of which are red, representing valor, another word for courage.

Teaching children courage is not part of any curriculum that I’ve seen; more importantly, it falls under the heading of life choices and values that are the underpinning of formal education. It takes courage to stand up to bullies and defeat their purposes. It also takes courage to get up and get out of bed each morning in order to get to school. If you’re less than competent at a subject or at school in general, the courage required to compete with other students is formidable.


Maybe it’s my Holocaust/World War II research that causes me to ponder the mysteries of courage. A particular type of courage is mandatory to stage a revolt in the Warsaw ghetto or in Treblinka. You know that you are unarmed, weak and disorganized, combatting a force that has put you in the state of incarceration and imminent death. Suffice it to say that I am in awe of this courage, as much as I attempt to face my life courageously.

We need to do a better job at commending our fellow citizens and our children at their displays of bravery. It takes guts to confront a bully, whether you are the bullied or not. It also takes bravery to stop in your tracks to find a new career or discipline because you’re unhappy or unfulfilled. And kudos to you for walking away from a relationship that is hurtful or abusive.

Thankfully, it’s been a while since we celebrated only those public personalities who were the best looking, had the most money or had the greatest performance talent. We must now continue to recognize those who had the discipline to stay with something until success occurred. This may be in the science laboratory, the operating room or the kindergarten playground.

Evidencing courage can only create more. And as one who has always cherished independence and being unafraid to voice my opinions, I must believe that our world can only benefit from those who are determined to stand up for themselves. Shalom.

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In one second

One of the highlights of the holiday season is receiving gifts from my two children. In addition to being creative and thoughtful, they both possess an uncanny realization of what will be the most gratifying demonstrations of their love for me.

This year was no exception and my son, who apparently does extensive research before choosing his gifts, again displayed his support of my writing endeavors. This tasty morsel was a book of prompts, over 600 of them, on subjects to explore in my writing. What a wonderful idea! When I asked him how he could possibly uncover such a treasure, he modestly gave credit to the Internet.

Although I’m not stuck in some linear methodology that would require me to investigate these subjects in numerical order, I thought it fitting to choose the first one first. For the sake of not violating any copyright laws, I can say that the book is 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. They have compiled a fascinating, intriguing collection and their first prompt included things that can happen in a second.

Very few, if any, actions or thoughts require only one second. For the sake of respecting the concept, I will extrapolate one second to mean a very short period of time. On the negative side, this category will include a car accident, plane crash or armed robbery. Our personal experiences can make additions to this group. Household accidents, break-ins, explosions and bombings can all happen within a symbolic second.

If we take a look at the brighter side, we can fall in love at first sight (within a second?). Those of us who have treasured lifelong friendships can often identify those who are to be our friends within a very short period of time. We can reach understanding of a complex concept in a moment of absolute clarity. On occasion, we can stumble into opportunities to assist those in our paths. This can include rescuing a grocery cart so that someone else doesn’t have to walk it back. It can be inviting someone to check out ahead of us at a store. Or it can be picking up a check for someone at a restaurant.

My preference is to ponder those pleasant things that can happen in a second. For the moment, my gratitude is to the two young people who have made my motherhood magical. Shalom.

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Starting over

Fifty-five years ago today, my Mom left this world for the next one. At the time, my family and I were overwhelmed by the grief and loss, realizing that no-one could or would ever replace her. Today, I realize for the first time that there was something symbolic about her dying on the last day of the year.

While I have done my share of holiday, New Year’s celebrations, somehow it has never been acceptable for me to treat the end of the year as a joyous event. But I now understand that the beginning and the end are inextricably connected. It’s clear that December 31 was to be the final day of my Mom’s suffering and sadness. Today, I recognize that it was an opportunity to begin a new year with its own challenges and victories.

By no means do I intend this to be a message of sadness and mourning. I miss her every day of my life and I am certain that I will always do so. But if she were here to guide and teach, I am certain that her message would be to live life fully and with as much happiness as I could generate and experience.

And so, my lesson is to make this last day of the year an opportunity to begin something tomorrow that is new and more wonderful than anything that preceded it. If you want to learn how to speak Italian, do it, without preparing yourself for the failure that is inherent to statements such as, “I’m terrible at foreign languages.” If you love to sing, find a choral ensemble near you and join. If you want to visit New Zealand and you have the means to make it happen, do so.

Each new day effectively deletes the last one and the same is true for years. If 2019 was personally disastrous or unhappy, make it a point to make 2020 twice as good. We have the power to control a great portion of our destinies and it’s a tremendous waste to recreate the sadness of our past with no hope of improving life.

Her memory will always be for a blessing. Shalom.