Thursday, August 31, 2017

Remains of the Summer

Earlier this summer I was given the opportunity to speak to a small group of people about how much of myself I bring to the classroom. I don’t remember the exact title, but that was how I interpreted it. How much of my personality, learning and reading interests, struggles, inspirations and aspirations do my students get to see? As summer vacation comes to an end , I find myself revisiting this subject in my mind as I wonder how much of my Grizzly Adams beard,  my hiking,and my learning of Orot Hateshuva and the Torah of the Piasezcna Rebbe my students will see, and in what way.

On some level, it’s an easy question to answer. The hikes are over, my beard has been tamed, and I am unlikely to quote anything from Rav Kook or Bnei Machashava Tova this year. But of course, I am thinking of this question in a more conceptual manner. Of everything that I did and accomplished, as well as everything that happened to me this summer, what remains? Who have I become, and what kind of teacher will it make me?

Of course, to attempt to answer this question I need to think about the different components of my summer and what they meant to me.

I haven’t been able to put into words why I let my beard go for five months. As I got comments and jokes from friends and people I know, I tried to think about why I was doing this. Over time, as the beard grew longer and more wild, I came to really like it, even as I couldn’t fully say why. At times I thought it represented a certain sense of unfettered freedom. At other times, I thought of it as being akin to orlah, just being allowed to grow on its own, free of any human touch. I grew used to absentmindedly  tugging at the beard while I learned. In fact, it wasn’t until I trimmed it so that I would look more presentable upon my return to work, that I realized how much I had come to like having a long unkempt beard. Now that it’s gone, what of it remains with me as I return to the classroom?

I think back to the hiking which started out as a low-key way to get back into exercise. It soon became something bigger than that. The opportunity to get out in the woods, breathe deeply, and see beautiful views, soon became a highlight of my week. Adding to it was the camaraderie, but it was also about the challenge; struggling to climb steep inclines, as I bumped and cut my legs, the cuts and bruises becoming battle scars of pride. The barbecues eaten at the end of some of the more challenging hikes, when my body was depleted, only added to the experience. So how does this all affect me as a teacher when I’m surrounded by the concrete and steel of Manhattan?

Finally there’s the question of my learning, and how it affects me as a person, and as a teacher. Teaching middle school students it is rare if ever if I make reference to, or even more so show them some of the Torah of Rav Kook, the Piaseczna Rebbe, or Rav Amiel. Still, as I learned the Torah of these thinkers as well as others, I tried to think deeply, and tried to internalize their idea and imaginings. While some days it was just book learning, there were many times like I felt it was something much deeper, as my religious personality was rewired. So much of this makes it into the classroom consciously and unconsciously, often in ways where I likely don’t even notice. That’s without even getting into that magical night on a rooftop in the Bronx where a group of us stayed up late into the night studying a Torah of Rebbe Nachman....

So how is the person I am now, different from who I was at the end of the school year in June? The only honest answer I can give is “I don’t know”. I do I know that without straying too far from home, I experienced something deep and wonderful this summer. Something I won’t soon forget. Something which I’m convinced will make me a better teacher.