Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From my students, more than all others- Why I changed my mind, and will be attending my 25th reunion

This is a followup to my post about my upcoming high school reunion. If you have not read it, please click here to do so before reading further.

When I was a child, December 25th offered slim pickings on TV. Being that the alternative would have involved (GASP!) not watching TV, I went with what was on. While Rudolph and his shiny red nose never did much for me, I was a fan of “A Christmas Carol”. Not any of the high-brow ones, mind you. The only one for me was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Although I haven't watched it in years, I still remember it fondly. To me, the most powerful moment was when the Ghost of Christmas Future came back and showed Mr. Magoo what lay ahead of him, if he stuck with his current trajectory. There was something about the idea of learning from your mistakes, without actually having to live out the consequences, that really spoke to me. Of course, there was and is no such way of doing so in real life.

My students would ask me from time to time, why I became a teacher. I frequently made reference to a gemara that discusses the idea that when God was going to destroy the Beis HaMikdash, he told the angels to save the tzaddikim (righteous) from death. The angels responded by pointing out that the tzaddikim had failed to try and positively influence their generation. God responded that it would not have changed a thing. When the angels pointed out to God that while He knew that, the tzaddikim did not, God accepts that they are not deserving of being saved. I was not the not the most serious kid when I was in high school. Not only did I struggle to deal with the social chanllenges, but I also struggled religiously. While it would have been nice to have a rebbe who cared to help me with both, it would have been acceptable to have one who, having gone through struggles of their own, could have helped me figure things out a bit. While I'm fairly sure I would not have been open to their offers of help, there was no way for them to have known that without having tried. Among other things, like teaching skill and ideas, I have tried to be for my students someone who, having already been through some of what they are dealing with, can help them navigate that challenging part of their life.

So what does this have to do with my changing my mind about my reunion? Quite a bit actually. When I wrote my post about the reunion, I was hoping that what I wrote would resonate with some others, just as I do with whatever I write. I was not prepared for the reaction. Withing several hours, it became my most read post. I started getting friend requests on Facebook from people I did not know. I heard from some former-classmates who told me how much what I had written spoke to them. Surprisingly, some classmates, who were definitely more popular than I was, told me that they also felt similarly. Former students wrote as well. One boy shared a poem that he wrote on the subject when he was at Flatbush, letting me know I could share it, but, tellingly, only anonymously. My post seemed to have touched a nerve.

At the same time, I got two other types of reactions. Some, suggested various versions of “Get over it” with a few, more or less, telling me “Get over it, loser”. It seems that some didn't (couldn't?) empathize with the high school me, while some others saw themselves in my “tormentors” and felt judged. Others, including some former students, pushed back, and urged me, for various reasons, to reconsider. They succeeded in getting me to rethink my decision.

While the thoughts from my family and friends meant a lot and certainly helped, it was the comments from my students which ultimately persuaded me to attend. They seemed to be urging me to respond to this situation with the balance and sensitivity I had tried to model in the classroom. In other words, they were asking me to recognize that this was a teachable moment.

First, I recognized that how I would deal with the reunion would be a message to my students (and children) about how to deal with their own high school “tormentors” and demons. I could be the ghost from the future who could show them how to avoid, or at least, partially avoid, 25 years of pain.

Then I thought about the fact that it was not just them that needed to hear this message. I did. I realized it was time to deal with my own discomfort in a productive way. I plan to attend the reunion and see my friends. I'm also hoping to speak with the person who, for whatever reasons, real or subjective, more than anyone else, represents to me the pain that I went through. Not, God forbid, to say something harsh, embarrass them, or get even. Just to speak. As former classmates. As equals. I don't know how they will react, or even whether they will want to talk, but I do know that I will try.

It will take courage to go over to a person to whom I granted way too much power back then and in the subsequent years as well. It's time to speak and to turn them from a monster into a person.

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