Disclaimer—The opinions reflected herein are my own. I do not claim that they are objectively true. I am not trying to convince you that I am correct. I am simply sharing my thoughts.
When I think back to my youth, I can’t remember much of what I learned, the words I couldn’t spell or chapters of Navi we supposedly read. I only know what the Fertile Crescent is because I’ve heard my kids discussing it. And my notebooks and projects are long gone in the abyss of some incinerator out in Long Island. But what I can clearly recall, what is painted in my mind as a sharp image, is the way teachers and students treated me, both in the classroom and out. These feelings have molded me into who I am.
My fourth-grade teacher who delighted in my spelling-words stories made me realize that I enjoyed entertaining people with my written creations. When I landed the starring role in the school play one year, even though it is unanimously agreed that I can’t sing (and my mother gave me a gown to wear that millennials might confuse with a shabbat-robe), I knew I could get up in front of a crowd and be a star. And when my second-grade teacher stood in the hallway, pointing at her watch in dismay as I haltingly walked into the classroom, late again, it birthed my lifelong struggle with living on the edge of time, waiting until the last minute and being chronically late.
I cried from a rebbi who taught us the story of Joseph being reunited with his brothers, wiping my tears on the backs of my hands in the classroom as his one good eye seemed to tear up as well, because he infused Torah learning with so much passion. And I later cried in middle school from an elderly rabbi with cracked skin on his hands, who had never married, and I wondered who he ate dinner with at night. I always tried to make him happy and fulfilled by sitting through his boring lectures with the utmost respect.
I was comforted in the lap of my third-grade teacher when I broke down one recess, confessing that I had no friends, and she listened to me, helping me sort through those emotions. And two really unique and personable math teachers in my high school years inspired my love of the subject and later (very short) career as a middle school math teacher. But I don’t remember my grades on my tests, or which homework I forgot to hand in. I don’t remember how many chapters we covered in science, or who memorized more Psukim for a contest. These things, these details that I put so much weight into as a child, actually did not matter at all.
Because what makes or breaks you as a teacher is not actually how much material you get through in a year, or how many of your students make it to Ivy League. It’s not about how neat your classroom is, or how many years of experience you have under your belt. What matters is the impact you have on the child, the imprint you leave when you are there, and then, no longer there. Did you build up the child, or break him? Were you a source of comfort and encouragement? Did you connect?
As a parent, I didn’t always know what I was looking for in terms of finding the right education, but it has become crystal clear that I do not care what my children learn. It won’t matter. I don’t need them to be valedictorians or inventors or CEOs of businesses. They don’t have to be in the highest reading groups, the accelerated track or any AP classes. What I need is for them to believe in themselves, to love themselves, to find a passion and to pursue it. Because without these components, there can be no growth, and no amount of state-capitol memorization will get you there. Let them find happiness in their quest for education.
As we wrap up this school year, I want to thank all of those special teachers who have inspired a spark in my children, in all of our children, to become self-aware, sensitive, confident. The ones who stood as role models, and taught with both fervor and fury. Thank you for gifting us with your daily presence, for loving our kids for the many hours of the day when we are not with them. You are dynamic.
By Sarah Abenaim
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer (and retired teacher) living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected].