Once a year, a group of women in Israel who attended the same high school as I did in Brooklyn, New York, hold a reunion. Women from all the grades and years who have made aliyah attend. We usually gather together at one woman’s home for a few hours in the evening. This get-together is planned around the visit of one of the most beloved rabbis who taught all the grades, from ninth through the senior year.
This year’s reunion was this past week. And we had a very special treat – one of our favorite rebbitzens surprised us there as well. It was hugs and smiles all around. The feeling at these gatherings is warm and comforting, since it’s a sweet reminder of the carefree days we had back then, when we were young and all that mattered was passing some math or spelling test. Having fun with our classmates was our main focus. Life’s challenges seemed so far away, and our biggest worry was whom to sit next to in class and which teacher gave the toughest exams. Life was simple and full of teenage adventure.
I’m going back 30 years or so. Life was very different then. The smartphone era was in the distant future and a more simple way of life was present. Outdoor activities were what we looked forward to, and when it was raining we were off to the bowling alley for some fun. Deep friendships were made since we spent so much time together talking, laughing, or crying about some test we didn’t seem to pass. The new generation of teens might have the greatest technology at their fingertips, and yet we see today so much sadness and loneliness in those beautiful teenage years.
Alongside this fun and carefree feeling that we had in high school also came a major lack of appreciation for our hard-working and beloved teachers. We didn’t think too much about how hard it was to teach a bunch of teenage girls who would rather go outside and play or go to a pizza shop. Nor did we think too deeply about what was being taught. We usually thought about recess, whom we would talk to or play with during the break, which snack we would eat or trade for a better one, and at whose house would we gather that day to continue our laughs and adventures, and sometimes our homework as well.
At the reunion last week, we caught up on old times and found out what each one is doing today. But the highlight of the evening was our beloved rabbi’s speech. He told us a wonderful d’var Torah and we sat there without a sound, soaking it all in, and wished he would go on forever. I’m not sure if it’s just the words of wisdom that our rabbi was relaying to us or the combination of feeling that we were back in our high school years without a care in the world and listening to him today as we never did in those years gone by.
Who looked for wisdom? Who sat so quietly in class taking in every word that the rabbi was trying to teach us? But now we were all glued to our seats waiting to hear the next words that were coming from his mouth. We all wanted to participate and have the rabbi call on us for a question or a response. We suddenly appreciated this rabbi of ours like we never really did in school. All the women in that room would have loved to go back to high school that minute and listen to him as we were doing that night. What a shame that in our most productive and energetic years, we have no patience or appreciation for the important things, and our biggest worry is what to wear to school and what lunch to pack.
At the end of the evening many of us approached our rabbi and thanked him so much for his wonderful and meaningful lessons, and expressed our regret for all those great years that we learned with him and really missed out by not always listening. Our rabbi smiled his famous smile which we all remembered so well from school. He then shared with us his feelings as well – that he too misses those great teaching days when all that was on the teacher’s mind was what to teach and how much information he would be successful in passing over to a particular class.
He told us that today the school system is so different than it was in the 70s and 80s. He said once school was like a home or a family. Everyone in the school was involved with each other. The teachers with one another and with the students, on a totally different level than today. The problems were about how much material would be given over that year and which teacher would get which classroom.
Our rabbi continued that the curriculum today has less to do with how much information will be taught that particular year but about how to deal with all the emotional problems and conflicts the students have today. There are more staff meetings to attend than actual learning to be done. The simplicity of the years gone by has been exchanged for advanced technological knowledge and great emotional distress.
The evening ended and it was time to leave. Each one back to her life and the reality of responsibility and families waiting to be cared for at home. It felt good to be back in my high school classroom for an hour, to remember the carpeted hallway we would run down at recess, and to wonder how nice it would have been if we would have listened even half as well as we did tonight back in those high school years.
I realize that some things like appreciation and maturity do only come with time, and through the experiences that we each have. The next time we might feel regret for not doing more in or appreciating more of the past, we have a great opportunity to stop and think of how we can pass over some of our appreciation to the next generation and hope that through our experiences, our children will learn a thing or two, making this new generation that much more sensitive and connected.