Hey, teachers! I know deep down what you’re thinking! When school supplies were being showcased, you looked the other way. You turned your head from all those “Back to School” signs in stores. But of course you noticed that the days were getting shorter and you faced the fact that your summer vacation was almost over. While kids delighted in collecting the latest in gadgets for school, from book sox to pencil boxes, your stomach was tightening and not because of any sit-ups you might do. It’s that time of the year again.
Sure there is the famous joke, “What are the 3 best reasons to be a teacher? June, July and August!” We know teachers work hard, and how vital the summer months are for unwinding and recharging. From September to June we shlepp our students’ problems on our back. We worry about how they are learning, if they are learning, how to help them do better, and we may even wonder about their home life. They are so connected to us as the year goes on that they become ours, our own children.
During the school year, no one is certain when I say “one of my kids” to whom I am referring. So I try to remember to say “my biological children” if I mean my own children. Because even those I had taught many years ago are still my kids. They may be the ones who eat in McDonald’s and drive to shul. They could be the students who walk in all types of weather to our synagogue or the ones who fly off on every long weekend. They are all mine.
When the first graders have their Siddur party, I pop in to admire their new siddur covers with them as though they are still with me, lining up by my door. When they graduate (if they are lucky enough to stay in day school through 8th grade), I have tears in my eyes. Not just because I remember them as little 5 year olds, but because my baby is graduating.
My “alumni” are sometimes jarred that I truly cannot remember exactly when they have been my students. Was it a year ago? Two? A decade ago? Even longer? I am at a loss, but I do remember they once belonged to me, and in a way still do.
Some kids strive to remain connected. They continue to visit my classroom or to seek me out – once they were like “groupies,” hanging on to every single word or story I told in the classroom – we are still connected. There are the others who may not remain as connected, yet still smile shyly at me, even as adults. Somehow seeing me sends them back in time to their freshly finished childhoods.
Once, I spied a former kindergartner, who was now 15, at a community event. His mother warmly greeted me. I said hello, but noticed that this young man was looking at me blankly. I tried to jar his memory. “Remember me? I was your morah! Remember our Shabbos party?” No response. “Remember how much fun we had learning the Parsha together?” Nothing. “What about our (simulated) trip to Israel?” Not a flicker of recognition. “How about my classroom?” “Oh, yes!” He answered finally. “I do remember! Wasn’t it the one downstairs?” “Jacob,” I said, “if had known you would not remember me, I would’ve failed you!”
Many kindergarteners have come and gone. One mother was unforgettable. She would hold the Shabbos box that her son made in kindergarten like it was the crown jewels. She would lovingly display the contents of that box for all to see well after he had left my class. With it, she would entreat other mothers to send their children to our school. “Look at what they made! A box to celebrate Shabbos.” And she would wipe away a tear.
A few years ago, her son returned to our town, sporting a kippah. He had begun searching for the meaning of life in college, and vaguely remembered his first few years of day school, (he had transferred to public school before 8th grade). He was proud to tell my husband and me that he was trying to observe Shabbos. We were happy to hear about his experiences. But it was a struggle for him, for the college dorm life held many distractions from a spiritual search. At one point, he decided to serve his people best by joining the Israeli Army after he graduated. He even had hopes of being a spy. We tried to dissuade him. “But I could go to a religious unit”.
The next time we saw him, he had graduated and was sure that he wanted to be a businessman, but only in Israel. And yes, he would continue learning a little too. My heart sunk. I thought of all the wasted potential, for this was a bright young man who could go far.
When next he came home, he stood before us wearing a white shirt and suit, with a hat. He had found a yeshiva and was on fire. We were so happy for him. Somehow he was able to make the jump into learning. But first he was tested. Did he know how to learn? He recalled what he had learned in 4th grade with my husband, and proceeded to describe the requirements of a kosher sukkah. The rabbi smiled, and he was accepted.
A few weeks ago he visited us again, this time with his wife and baby. I took a picture. I felt I had to. After all, it was a family photo. And to me, he is my son. Though my husband is certain that it was not only due to us that he became a ben Torah. My husband is sure that it was the tears of his mother who cried over his Shabbos box long ago.
I once told a New York friend how many children I saw actually change in more than two decades of teaching at our day school. I could count them on one hand, I said. Well, to be honest, I could think of only three, three who actually became frum. “Three? All those years, and so few kids! “
Yes, only three. And each one of these three, who lead Torah lives today and are beginning to build families, are three very good reasons to be a teacher – out-of-town.
About the Author: Penina Scheiner is a kindergarten teacher, writer, and busy wife and mom who lives over the rainbow with her husband and kids.
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