Congratulations to Morah Yehudis Fishman, whose article below was originally published in NewCAJE’s inaugural online Jewish Educator (Summer 2010/5770) (included here by permission). Other articles on this topic may be found on the NewCAJE website, www.newcaje.org.
My Life as a Teacher – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Like the famous role in Mr. Holland’s Opus, teaching for me was often an afterthought. On one hand, living as a welfare child in the slums of Roxbury, the Judaic teachers at Maimonides School in Boston during the 40’s and 50’s were both my heroes and my saviors from an otherwise humdrum life. But so were the literary and mythic figures that captured my imagination in classic literature. So, as my graduation drew near, being a teacher was too ordinary a profession for a dreamy, somewhat introverted Jewish girl. But, as the saying goes, “A mench tracht un Gott lacht,” or its contemporary counterpart, “Life happens when you’re making other plans.”
As a newlywed all of eighteen years old, I found myself in the role of a teacher’s assistant, playing with blocks long after my kindergarten class went on to other activities. From there, it was a short leap to teaching Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, to a class of girls about a year younger than I was at the time. Much to my own surprise, I succeeded fairly well and was labeled a teacher long before I made a willing choice to adopt that profession.
What kept me there for almost half a century was the realization that I had a long-lasting impact on children — and later adults — that continued over a lifetime, and, in some cases, from my theological vantage point, even beyond. A few examples. I once taught a latchkey boy who was much older than the other children in my favorite
class, the second grade. At first, he was a problem child I was forced to take in. Later, however, we both grew on each other, to the point where he became my helper. On Chanukah that year, he even gave me a gift of an incomplete puzzle — his favorite, he told me shyly — wrapped in newspaper. Then, on erev Pesach, I came to school and saw the newspaper headlines, “Nine year old and his younger brother die in a house fire.” My first reaction was to quit on the spot, but, after a little more thought, it dawned on me that from a religious perspective, I may have been the most important person in his short life.
A similar story. Many years later, I taught a first grade girl who died of cancer. Gathering up all the courage I could muster, I went to visit her in the hospital about a week before she passed away. I stood there trembling, no words coming to me. Instead, she offered me solace! “Morah Yehudis,” she began, “don’t be afraid for me. I’m going straight to heaven. And you’re the one who taught me how to pray to God.”
Of course, it was not only those rare moments that made it all worthwhile. I once taught Torah subjects to the same class of girls through the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. By the third year, both the girls and I were so psychically connected that we rarely had to finish our sentences.
Now in my sixties, I still teach the little ones. And like the fledgling kindergarten teacher I became back in the decade of the sixties, I can fire up my imagination and engage theirs. Their teachers in higher grades have repeated to me what they are told: “We heard that Midrash already; Morah Yehudis told it to us years ago.”
It’s hard to say who through these fifty years has grown more: me or my students. As I continue teaching, I find myself receiving much more than I am giving. In the beginning, when the focus was on my benefits, I felt I would have to wait forever to see any positive results from my efforts. But, as I age, the rewards feel much more immediate. Perhaps, like Mr. Holland, I have learned to appreciate what I give, rather than what I receive. Of course, it helps to get letters and e-mails — and nowadays even Facebook comments — from former students, some of whom are already grandparents, who tell me how significantly I affected their lives.
In the end, I think that’s what it’s all about: changing the world for good, one person at a time. I tell people that if we want to see enduring commitments, we can learn from the negative impact of terrorist children’s’ education that we need to put more passion into education,. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote a teacher who was feeling isolated and lonely that she should think about how the fruits of their labors continue to grow and flourish and dynamically impact the world. Those thoughts do and will sustain me for as long as I live — and hopefully beyond.