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Posts from January 2012

Lessons of the Road

Since the summer I have been teaching my younger daughter to drive. She took her first baby-driver steps driving between rows of parking spots in a huge, empty lot. Then she drove around quiet residential neighborhoods until she could confidently turn on the turn signal and steer at the same time, and I wasn’t constantly slamming on my imaginary brakes. But when we went out into the streets of the real road world, I learned more about other people than I did about my daughter’s driving ability.

In the most public of places we act as if we are in the most private of places, revealing far too much of our personalities. We’re not just surreptitiously picking our noses in our cars—on the whole, we’re selfish and mean, with only the occasional glimmer of kindness.

At first, when the 35mph speed limit was beyond her capabilities, she was constantly honked at, tailgated, cut off, and given looks-to-kill. For goodness’ sake, the girl was trying to drive carefully and all she got for that was an endless line of virtual middle fingers. The worst offenders were, no surprise here—everyone. Who made us all the Grand Patrollers of the Road? Are we all emergency room doctors about to give birth?

But worse than arrogance and impatience is the fact that my daughter no longer thinks the people of the world are law-abiding citizens. How many people has she seen break the laws she studied so thoroughly to pass the “written” test. Folks, we’re going through red lights and stop lights as if they are road spam. We speed and cut each other off and race across double yellow lines because, well, because we want to. The impression that I conveyed to my daughter that the world was, on the whole, a fair and decent place has been trampled. She now doubts everything I ever taught her, except to definitely not pick her nose.

Last week, after she had been yielding for quite some time at a busy intersection to no avail, she asked me why people speed up when they see she is trying to get in? What does a mother say to that, except the absolute truth as I have come to see from the passenger seat: People are selfish, they just care about themselves and getting whatever advantage they can, however insignificant. I had thought that the driving lessons would focus on maintaining distance from the car in front of you, always checking your mirrors, and never glancing at the cellphone, but no, this was the reality that presented itself.

But the other day, thank goodness for that day, there was hope that the world I had explained to her might exist on some streets. She was in the middle lane, signaling to get into the right lane. Three cars sped up, because, well, they could, and passed her. And then, at the light, the woman in the car to our right asked if we want to turn into that lane and that it would be okay. I will add that she was a refined-looking, long-retired woman wearing beige suede gloves. Maybe the manners of days by gone aren’t all gone. And just perhaps, after my daughter has experienced what it’s like to be at the receiving end of both possibilities she will elect to drive and live with civility.

What do we get from our behavior? According to the US Census Bureau, in 2009 there were 10.8 million road accidents and 35,900 deaths. We lose property, we lose limbs, we lose livelihoods, we lose people, we lose a sense of community.

And what are we teaching our young? Sure, it’s a pain to wait at a light when no one’s coming. And it’s annoying that you need to drive at the speed limit when you’re such a good driver and you really really need to get where you’re going. Not to mention those tailgating speed demons who force you to move over, for what? Just so you can wait behind them at a light?

When does it stop? When do we decide that all of the rules apply to each of us, all of the time? It’s not just about breaking rules, it’s about breaking the threads that hold a society together—the threads that create a society.

Have we become islands in our little pods?

Teaching about the Holocaust

In the school where I teach, we read Night, Elie Wiesel’s first memoir of the Holocaust. For me, reading Night and having my students learn about the Holocaust amounts to a mission.  Other teachers, though, find it a pain, a bother. They don’t understand all of the terms, which, I guess, means that they don’t want to learn concepts that are alien to them. I’m pretty sure they won’t be excommunicated from any church which they don’t attend if they learn what Shabbos means or what Kabbalah refers to. It seems that they want to stick to analyzing characters in a neat way as opposed to this small plunk of vicious reality that cannot be analyzed for character development.

It is so utterly wrong that the one Jewish member on the team (or the one who identifies as Jewish) is the one who finds true purpose in this unit. After all, do I teach because children need to know how to identify a metaphor, or do I teach because children need the tools to think and express themselves? It is so very wrong that people think, apparently, that since it didn’t happen to their people then they don’t need to relate to it. Or, worse yet, perhaps because it’s too much for them—too depressing, too horrifying, too outside of any comfort zone—they rush through it to fulfill a requirement but no more.

Generally, there is a research component to this unit. I have found it difficult to oversee this project because most kids want to find a single website that will give them answers to the questions they need to consider, yet I, I can’t help it, I want them to take it  more seriously than the means to a grade. So this year I will try a different way to reach inside those teen walls of indifference. This year each student will be assigned an event or place, and then research it and—this is the change—read original source material from people who lived through “their” event. I’m hoping that these personal stories will bridge the gap between doing schoolwork and connecting to history.

At the same time, other teachers have decided that this year they are going to focus on German propaganda. They will focus on how the Nazis led the Germans to follow them, to believe them, to be captivated by their tales of how lovely it is to be us, Aryans, and how hateful it is to be them, the Jews, or anyone who does not look as we say they should or behave as we say they should or believe what we say they should. And that is good, but it feels wrong. Maybe they are right, since our focus is supposed to be on language and that, really, is what we teach. But really, doesn’t this make the students focus on the poor Germans who were manipulated by the evil Nazis. Where in this focus are the victims—the people who were defiled, tortured, shot, gassed by those who believed and those who were too cowardly to not believe? Where is space for the victims of the “mislead”? Will they learn that excuses are more powerful than actions?

I tell myself that any learning and thinking about what happened during the Holocaust is positive; that I should not think that there is anything wrong with their focus. And yet it makes me uncomfortable. Does it come down to these teachers not being Jewish and so not feeling, intrinsically, the honor/importance that they have been given to transmit this lesson to a generation of citizens of the world? Maybe I’m wrong. But it doesn’t feel that way.

How are we to ever get to “never again”—that violent acting out of group hatred or fear—if our teachers can’t put themselves in another person’s shoes, even if those shoes have been preserved in monstrous piles never to be forgotten?

 Shoes Auschwitz

Piles of shoes that belonged to prisoners killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Poland, wartime. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum #0009 

How Personal of a Personal Day

I took a personal day today. I just couldn’t take one more day of the routine. I couldn’t take one more day of everyone before me. I couldn’t do it. I needed some time to not care about anything--everything.

It was, obviously, supposed to be a “me first” day. And it was, when I contemplated it. For the few days leading up to the decision to take this specific day and then for a few days after I set the date and arranged for a sub, it was my day. I thought about where I would go for lunch and what I would buy with the $100 Hanukkah gelt (money) from my mother: shoes or shirt, or even both. And I wondered where I would spend the time before and after those activities. And it was lovely, this leisurely way of thinking. I was anticipating my day off as much as a teacher looks forward to summer vacation.

But then I realized that I need to bring my car in for service and it would be better to do it today than on the weekend. And then I remembered my credit card bill; it was high, not from purchases now hanging in my closet or on me, but from living life and going on vacation during winter break to visit Kenny's mother and my daughter on the other coast. So I decided I could survive without any new things. And the refrigerator, well, I teach on Tuesday nights after a whole day of teaching, so the leftovers had already been finished. Someone would need to make dinner, and since I’m the only cook in the house, it would be me. Why not make something nice, make the delicious, multi-stepped, Maltese squash pie that Kenny’s mother makes? So there was the supermarket, the cooking, and the cleaning up. Oh, and since I had spent the whole weekend providing feedback on essays for seniors, I hadn’t had time to provide feedback on the essays the freshman had written, I needed to get those done—since I already have a backlog of essays to grade this weekend. So instead of reading, writing or staring into space while I waited for my car to get fixed, I worked.

Still, I managed to get in lunch at a Mexican restaurant, picked for the frozen margarita that could accompany the meal, and the proximity to the house.

And then I went home and napped for an hour and a half.

And I talked with my older daughter out in LA, and my mother in Florida, and I took Poops for a walk in the rain. And I just finished reading a book.

I guess it was as personal a day as I could have.

I’m already anticipating taking another one in March; it’s a month with no days off--too much routine. Personal day. If this is how personal it can be, I say it’s worth it: the combination of me and them, the inability to only tend to myself, or, perhaps, that is utterly what has come to be personal for me.

My Father

My father died on December 21st two years ago.

Since that time the unbelievable happened: we continued to live. It’s not hard to recall the intense pain and loss we experienced—experience. At the time it seemed inconceivable that life could continue when he was no longer with us. How is it that we are here and he is not? The power of that thought was overwhelming and guilt-inducing.

But, life does go on. Millennia of loss with life going on. That joining in with generations of mourners was what made me understand that I, too, can go on.  

I still have the seven-day Yahrzeit candle that was lit when we sat shiva for him. I still have a voice mail message from him—from two months before his death, days before he found out that he was dying of esophageal cancer. And I still have an intense feeling of missing an important component in my life. That’s what comes, I guess, from his having been such a kind, loving man—to his family and everyone he knew. A quiet redhead.

Maybe this sense of him that does not leave me nor can it leave me is the stuff of which ghosts are created. An image of the person—physical and internal—who passed, who was loved and whose loss is always present.

My mother said that he spoke to her in their bedroom after he died.

Death. A part of life. It would be nice if it weren’t so. Thank goodness for internal flashbacks and the recollection of images and words and gestures and even sense of person from days of fullness. Thank goodness, indeed, for my father having been my father.