Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teaching My Own

For years I have been hearing the question, "Are you going to teach your own kids?", and for years I have had what I felt was a pretty good response, "That's such a New York question." By that I did not refer to any particular stereotype of Gothamites, but rather to the fact that if someone is a teacher in a Jewish day school outside of the metropolitan New York area, it is highly likely that they will eventually teach their own child, as many schools simply do not have enough students to have multiple classes. However, in the NYC area, and particularly in Bergen County, New Jersey, where we have 4 Yeshiva day schools with 700+ students each, it should be fairly simple to teach a different section or even teach in a different school.

However, I happen to think that the school that I teach in provides the best education in the area (you are free to disagree, but, hey, it's my blog), and it also is very clear about its Torah U'Madda orientation, and so my kids are in the school in which I teach. However number two, we track students in our Middle School and I teach the top track. As thus, if my own kids are deemed capable of making it at that level, we are going to enter the situation of me serving as Rebbe to my own kids.

My chavruta, who grew up as the son of his teacher/administrator, said to me, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that my only choices would be to either favor my child to the point that the rest of the class hates both of us, or go completely in the opposite direction, so that my child hates me. It seems to me that there must be a middle ground.

Part of that middle ground is due to a flaw in the question. I am not only teaching my son, but also all of his friends who have spent the past seven years in my house, in my car, and interacting with me in all sorts of ways outside of the framework of school. So now not only is my son my student, but so is his entire chevra.

A week and a half into the school year, all is going fine thus far. Part of the reason is because my son and I are both very conscious of this arrangement and thus we are both invested in finding the right balance between father and teacher. He does call me Abba in class (it's not as if this is a secret to the other students), and I try not to always call on him first but also not to always call on him last. I have taken up the practice, which is probably a good one anyway, of having students write their names on the backs of their papers so that, even if I more or less learn their handwritings, I do not instantly see who I am grading and favor or disfavor my own progeny as a result.

I recall that in my senior year in college one of my professors, Alan Charles Kors, informed us one day that during the previous lecture his daughter had been sitting in the back of the room, the first time in his almost three decades of teaching that any member of his family had attended one of his classes. He shared some of her observations with us (something about his using multiple accents for foreign languages). I am not sure if his case was by accident or by design (if your father taught philosophy, would you go to hear him lecture just for fun?), but he did seem to be genuinely pleased and gratified to have had his child as his student for even one day. In that spirit, and contra the warnings of my chavruta, I see this as an opportunity for father and son (with daughters looming in coming years) to see sides of each other that we do not otherwise see - and hopefully another facet to add to our relationship.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on 9/11

Has it really been 10 years already? Perhaps because we have never truly gotten past it; perhaps because we constantly talk about living in a "post-9/11 world"; perhaps because our narcissism makes our tragedy so much more important than the tragedies that came before our generation - for whatever reason, it is difficult to believe that a full decade has passed since that most surreal of days (side note - the word surreal seems to be used way too much, but there is no other word that I know of to describe the combination of shock, confusion, denial, and inability to absorb the enormity of what happened than to call it surreal).

While I am tempted to offer more general thoughts about the day, I am trying to remain true to the educational nature of this blog, and so I offer a few brief thoughts about what we can share with our students about this day. Keep in mind, of course, that our high school students were no older than 2nd graders, and our middle school students had not yet entered school and thus have no memories of their own of 9/11.

1) Heroism. We live in a world that has many heroes. Superheroes, sports heroes - we even apply the term to large deli sandwiches. However, all of our notions of heroism should be defined by what certain individuals, particularly New York City firefighters, did on 9/11. On an average day, these brave individuals risk injury and sometimes their lives to save others. On 9/11, they took this to an entirely different level. Two massive skyscrapers had been converted in towering infernos, people were being evacuated from the buildings and the area as quickly as possible, and hundreds of New York's bravest WENT UP the towers. That had to be an act that overrode every single inherent survival instinct that man has. And while they could not have known that the buildings would collapse like two stacks of pancakes, those fires were certainly many times worse than anything any one of them had ever before witnessed.

Teach this lesson to our students. In a world where people acting poorly or out of evil or malice often get the headlines, remind them of man's capacity to do incredible good. Heroism has been described as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To that I would add that all extraordinary things are done by ordinary people - you do not become extraordinary until after the fact.

2) Perspective. My wife likes to remind me that one of the top stories on the news early in the morning of September 11, 2001 was whether or not Michael Jordan was going to make a comeback for one more run at an NBA championship. A couple of hours later, no one really cared about that.

Now, it is certainly possible to be too glib when making that point. Of course, your skinned knee does not matter in light of millions starving in Africa - but your knee still hurts. Perspective is the ability to evaluate events relative to one another, to be able to deal maturely with the world around us, and to understand that which is consequential and that which is not. When Michael Jordan's career can lead the national news, we should have the presence of mind to be thankful that there is nothing of real consequence that requires our attention. We should enjoy our diversions, and recognize that they are exactly that, and we should work to gradually instill this sense of perspective in our students.

3) Finally, a unique challenge that we face in educating about 9/11. I took my children a couple of years ago to the Police Museum in New York City. It is a small museum with a few exhibits, including a small exhibit about 9/11. That exhibit featured rare footage from the day, and there was a sign hanging up that warned that the film might be too intense for children. Notwithstanding that warning, my older children watched the few minutes of film, and they did not find anything that was too disturbing in it. I don't think that this is because my kids have a high tolerance for watching disturbing images - I think that the nature of attacks were such that we really do not have any images that are disturbing for someone who does not remember having lived through that day. Think about it - the clips of the plane hitting the building or the buildings on fire or even the collapse are not much worse than scenes from an average action movie, and even clips of people jumping from the upper floors are taken from so far away that it is hard to truly appreciate the horror of such a moment. The tragedy as it unfolded was relatively faceless - it took the ensuing weeks of tributes to put human images alongside the numbers.

I was thinking about this in contrast to Holocaust education. In that case, we have no shortage of truly disturbing images - of emaciated prisoners, of mass murders, of torture. The Nazis allowed us to see their barbarity in all of its twisted glory, and as such we can still sense the pain and brutality over six decades later. When it comes to 9/11, we have no such pictures. Remember that hospitals were expecting to be overrun with patients who never came - they simply never emerged from the towers. As such, teaching about 9/11 is a task that requires storytellers, people who remember the events of the day, people who can talk about the despair and the worry and the waiting for someone who never came home or who finally did call home many hours later. May we be up to the challenge of preserving the memory of those who perished simply because they were Americans.