Thursday, February 2, 2012

When Life Gets in the Way

We lost a teacher today. Beth Isaacs - Morah Beth - a mother of four and kindergarten teacher to many more than that, succumbed today to a recurrence of the cancer that she had beaten once already. I was not close enough with Beth to be able to write a proper or fitting eulogy for a woman who had what I consider to be one of the toughest jobs around (seriously - imagine working with 5-year olds for 7 hours a day; then imagine doing it while smiling the entire time - simply amazing), and this is not the appropriate forum for that anyway. I simply want to reflect on how such a moment plays out within a school.

Beth passed away overnight, which means that faculty found out as they arrived at the building this morning. Those who davened in the same shul had received a phone call as they headed out the door. The rest of us learned the news one hushed whisper - "did you hear?" - at a time. We shared the news with our Middle School students, who had been davening for her, although they had never had Beth as a teacher (she taught here 13 years ago and then returned last year when her family moved back to the area). As noon approached, there was a certain quiet sadness just below the surface in the building. Learning is going on more or less as normal, but the adults in the building are wearing the weightiness of their emotions on their faces and some of the older students have felt a need to ask.

[I say "a need to ask" with no explanation what they are asking about because it is interesting to watch how children grapple with death. Even those who may have unfortunately experienced the death of a loved one are not always sure what to think or feel, and so they express themselves in more concrete ways - wondering about the nature of the illness, what her family will do, when exactly she passed away. For the younger and youngest children in the school (including Beth's students - whom she has not taught for about 2 months), the death seems to barely register, and yet now and then a child opens up with a more sophisticated question than we ever would have expected and that question needs some sort of an answer.]

But most affected in the school are the teachers, most notably those who worked with Beth every day in early childhood. Almost every early childhood teacher left to attend the funeral today, and other teachers and staffers pitched in to cover classes and to ensure as smooth as possible a day for the students who are barely aware, if at all, of what has occurred. Our mental health faculty has brought in an additional person to be available for any teachers who need to speak and reflect. Plans for baking challah in her merit are being changed to plans to bring food to her family in their time of need. Every family's bonds are tested by the trials that it faces, and a school family is no different.

There are many other half-formed thoughts in my mind that are not ripe enough to be written, and perhaps much of what I have written was not fully formed either. But a moment such as this requires some reflection. May Beth's memory be a continuing source of inspiration to those who knew her, and may we all remember to appreciate those who make up part of the fabric of our lives and communities.

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