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Feats of strength, or yasher koach

Over the years, I’ve mustered up the courage, patience and strength on Sunday mornings to brave the minds of preteens and teenagers to teach Sunday School. To be fair and honest, I’ve been met with various levels of success, as I suppose any teacher would encounter. Some days, my kids are fantastic. They are insightful, caring and sharp. Other days, well, this isn’t the case.

Over four years ago, I taught high school students Comparative Religion. At the time, there was a fair amount of anti-Muslim sentiment running around, and I wanted to make sure we tackled this concept in class.

Let me just state that, for the record, the results were not at all what I expected.

In February 2006, we discussed these pictures. I was pretty amazed by my class’s responses. While we were discussing the cartoons that ran in the Danish newspapers, some of them said, "The Muslims just need to get over it. It's just a cartoon."

This took me aback, and it bothered me for two weeks. I couldn't figure out why it did, until it dawned on me: They have no clue what it's like to be on the receiving end of discrimination. Did they forget that once, as Jews, they were strangers in a strange land? Or, alternatively, were they fortunate enough to never have seen it, felt it, been hurt by it? Perhaps they had been but were too dense to realize what was going on? Or were they so self-assured and confident that it didn’t impact them?

Soon enough, their actions and answers told me otherwise. I realized quickly that they had no clue what it's like to be passionate about something, to ache with concern or compassion. To be sure, it was "just a cartoon," and there was probably, maybe, hopefully no malice behind it.

And maybe I’m just naïve.

I expressed my concerns to my class on a following Sunday, and I thought we'd analyze and discuss what we as Jews could do to overcome this sort of thing, how we could help out. In Judaism, there’s this concept called tikkun olam, which means “to heal the world.” To me, it is an exceptionally beautiful idea and almost presupposes that we, as humans, not just as Jews, have the responsibility, duty and obligations to make this world just a little better than how it was presented to us.

This seemed to be the perfect tie-in from the perceived callousness of weeks prior. Surely, there had to be some glimmer of redemption.

When the discussion began, I was pleased to hear that some of them participate in community service of some sort, most of which was likely for college applications. While I shouldn’t have been, I was dismayed to hear that most of the kids don't care. In particular, one student remarked about homeless people: "I don't see why they just don't go out there and get a job and be useful."

While I have never really been at a loss for words, they left me speechless.

I didn't have a way to bounce back from this comment short of wanting to smack that student upside his head, call him an "ungrateful, selfish pissant," and walk out of the room. His sharp, selfish, biting words felt like tazers in my chest. On some theoretical level, I know humans are inherently selfish, self-conscious, self-whatever, but I did not expect to see it in my own class.

I suppose I expected it to be "someone else," and not my own.

Later that day, I was commiserating with my fellow teachers, and they provided some reassuring words:

"It happens in every class."

"So long as you touch one, you've done enough."

“You have that block of three students that are impossible to penetrate."

Just one? An impenetrable block? Somehow, that was not enough for me. It couldn't be.

While I never admitted this to them openly, I went home and cried about them. I cried for them. I could not fathom being so thoughtless, callous and self-absorbed. I could not fathom being able to exist as a person who came from a life of privilege who only cared because their parents made them. It might sound trite, but I wept for their well-being and for their souls. I know they were just kids, but if this was the future, then I wanted no part of it.

When I took the job of teaching Sunday School, I thought it might be a bit of a fun challenge. I’d have to push myself beyond my comfort levels. After these sessions, I realized the challenge was more in-depth and complex than I initially believed.

I discovered that I had been weighed.

I had been measured.

And I found myself wanting more.

I went back that next Sunday and met them head-on. Those final classes were absolutely terrible for those kids, but I had absolutely no intentions of backing down.

As they grumbled under their breath at the end of each class, I thought to myself, Never let it be said that I quit on you as you so apparently quit on yourselves.

This week's entry is for Not of Your World for therealljidol.



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 11th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)

To the yes.

If there's one thing people need it's to have the whole NOT EVERYONE IS LIKE YOU AND DAMMIT THAT'S OKAY thing drilled/nailed/etc. into their heads.

Good on you for doing it.
Dec. 11th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
Well done. I think it's fantastic that you have taken the time to work with them.
Dec. 12th, 2010 10:12 am (UTC)
Good on you for keeping at it. Hopefully most of those kids will grow into empathy as they get older.
Dec. 12th, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)
We are, at the same time, all teachers and students. Glad you had the gumption to barrel back at them. I'll bet they never forget you and your classes. Nice writing too!
Dec. 12th, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)
Bravo for your perseverance. Well told. I bet the still remember you today. Well done.
Dec. 12th, 2010 10:45 pm (UTC)
It would have been great if I had had a Sunday school teacher like you.
Dec. 13th, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Wow, powerful post! I liked this.
Dec. 13th, 2010 02:31 am (UTC)
I'm glad you did not back down!!! I couldn't fathom being so callous, either. I hope that those kids can change their thinking (it does not hurt to hope!).
Dec. 13th, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
Go you! Awesome that you did not back down or take the quiet road of resignation that you couldn't do more.
Dec. 14th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
I feel educated!
Dec. 14th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC)
I think that would be the hardest part of being a teacher.
Dec. 14th, 2010 05:13 am (UTC)
Dec. 14th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
No real response to this other than: I've read this.

Well-conveyed. (There. A little more response.)
Dec. 14th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
I teach and the occasional selfish student makes me cringe. I'm never afraid of confronting them, but they're clearly aping what they hear their parents say.

"Teach your children well."
Dec. 15th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
Apr. 14th, 2011 12:49 am (UTC)
I think that is right bout that. Nice info and thanks. Need to get in google feed.

Nov. 2nd, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
Great writing! I want you to follow up to this topic!?!

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )