Posts Tagged Education and Parenting

Building character and acquiring a civil tongue

Published on Hubpages.com

In 1972, comedian George Carlin made headlines with his routine “7 words you can never say on television.” And although the FCC still limits what can be broadcast over the airways, the rise of cable TV long ago ensured that you can say – or hear, or see – just about anything on television.

But even this doesn’t show how much standards of refinement have changed.

Older readers will remember Johnny Carson, the legendary host of the Tonight Show whose 30-year tenure preceded that of Jay Leno. But not so many remember Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Jack Paar, and fewer still will recall why he left the show.

In the opening monologue one night, Mr. Paar uttered the expression “W.C.,” a mostly-forgotten anachronism meaning Water Closet, yet another anachronism meaningbathroom. The censors bleeped the term as profane. Mr. Paar quit the show in protest.

The story strikes as comical, and we can’t help rolling our collective eyes at the overzealous censors who couldn’t tell real profanity from the merely indelicate. But when it comes to values, we can’t escape the inevitable objection: who gets to decide where to draw the line?

And so, too often, no line gets drawn at all. That’s not good for us. And it’s even worse for our children. Because what gets lost with the line is something that was once called character.

Read the whole article here.

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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

 

From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”

 

In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?

 

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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A Matter of Respect

In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.

imagesI was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

“Take off your hat,” my father said.

The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Read the whole article here.

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Why we are unhappy

I have long told my students that people don’t complain because they are unhappy; rather, they are unhappy because they complain.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, publisher of Mishpacha Magazine, found the same message in last week’s Torah reading (Book of Numbers, Chapter 11).  Here are is an excerpted version (with emphasis added):

The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.

The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then  “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”

The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.

What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:

“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut ShimoniBamidbar 732).

Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:

“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”

Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.

Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:

“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”

At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.

The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?

The secret of all this is found in the world chinam – “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.

Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.

Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.

Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.

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The death of education?

In his letter of resignation to the Superintendent of Westhill Central School District in Syracuse, New York, vetern teacher Gerald Conti describes a litany of problems arising from the unwillingness of administrators to defend educational values against the relentless pressure of ideology and political correctness.  But the problem does not begin with administrators; it begins with parents, parents with egos so utterly dependent on the perception of success that they prefer to cripple their children for life rather than hold them accountable for living up to standards that will prepare them for genuinely successful lives and careers.

It is difficult to fathom the lengths to which people will go to tear down educators and their institutions when, by doing so, they can deflect from themselves responsibility for their children’s poor performance, attitudes, or behaviors.  No form of malicious gossip, character assassination, or outright slander is taboo, even from individuals occupying the highest levels of communal leadership.

History offers tragic examples of the damage inflicted on individuals and whole communities through irresponsible speech.  Innuendo, exaggeration, and outright lies, repeated often enough, seep into the consciousness of even the most well-intentioned people, until the damage eventually becomes irreversible.

Read the whole article here.

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What teachers really want to tell parents

Published at CNN.com by Ron Clark, Disney’s Teacher of the Year

This summer, I met a principal who was recently named as the administrator of the year in her state. She was loved and adored by all, but she told me she was leaving the profession.

I screamed, “You can’t leave us,” and she quite bluntly replied, “Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.”

Unfortunately, this sentiment seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. Today, new teachers remain in our profession an average of just 4.5 years, and many of them list “issues with parents” as one of their reasons for throwing in the towel. Word is spreading, and the more negativity teachers receive from parents, the harder it becomes to recruit the best and the brightest out of colleges.

So, what can we do to stem the tide? What do teachers really need parents to understand?

Read the whole article here.

A few choice quotes:

For starters, we are educators, not nannies. We are educated professionals who work with kids every day and often see your child in a different light than you do. If we give you advice, don’t fight it. Take it, and digest it in the same way you would consider advice from a doctor or lawyer.

Trust us… And please don’t ask whether a classmate can confirm what happened or whether another teacher might have been present. It only demeans teachers and weakens the partnership between teacher and parent.

If you don’t want your child to end up 25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips, then stop making excuses for why they aren’t succeeding. Instead, focus on finding solutions.

And parents, you know, it’s OK for your child to get in trouble sometimes. It builds character and teaches life lessons. As teachers, we are vexed by those parents who stand in the way of those lessons; we call them helicopter parents because they want to swoop in and save their child every time something goes wrong.

In all honesty, it’s usually the best teachers who are giving the lowest grades, because they are raising expectations. Yet, when your children receive low scores you want to complain and head to the principal’s office.

Please, take a step back and get a good look at the landscape. Before you challenge those low grades you feel the teacher has “given” your child, you might need to realize your child “earned” those grades and that the teacher you are complaining about is actually the one that is providing the best education.

And please, be a partner instead of a prosecutor. I had a child cheat on a test, and his parents threatened to call a lawyer because I was labeling him a criminal.

Finally, deal with negative situations in a professional manner.

If your child said something happened in the classroom that concerns you, ask to meet with the teacher and approach the situation by saying, “I wanted to let you know something my child said took place in your class, because I know that children can exaggerate and that there are always two sides to every story. I was hoping you could shed some light for me.” If you aren’t happy with the result, then take your concerns to the principal, but above all else, never talk negatively about a teacher in front of your child. If he knows you don’t respect her, he won’t either, and that will lead to a whole host of new problems.

We know you love your children. We love them, too. We just ask — and beg of you — to trust us, support us and work with the system, not against it. We need you to have our backs, and we need you to give us the respect we deserve. Lift us up and make us feel appreciated, and we will work even harder to give your child the best education possible.

That’s a teacher’s promise, from me to you.

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A song of hope

An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:

It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira.  It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.

Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty.  And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.

For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past.  Explains the Sfas Emes:  although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.

And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach.  Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved.  But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete.  Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.

Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach.  For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence.  But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.

We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”

It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate.  But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.

After two decades of trying, by constant teaching and imperfect modeling, to instill in my children the primacy of middos tovos, after laboring to impress upon them by any means that qualities such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, and respect are the foundations of Torah life and Torah society, I thank the Ribono Shel Olam that my son has chosen a young woman whose impeccably fine character testifies to the quality of her parents and her upbringing.  I look with nachas at my own son, whose maturation into a ben Torah and a ba’al middos testifies to the inscrutable power of tefillah.

And looking at them, I feel as the Jews must have felt when they were passing through the Yam Suf  – I want to sing shira.  For as frightened as I am for them and all the challenges they will have to face, they give me hope for the future and inspire me with confidence that very soon we will all merit the final redemption and the coming of  Moshiach.

Originally posted at Beyondbt.com.

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