Letters from parents, teachers, and students as they reflect upon school years past and share their dreams for the one that’s starting
Dear Parents of the Adorable Yingele About to Learn Alef-Beis,
IS your little prince asleep yet? His backpack right next to his bed where he can see it?
I’m sure you’ve talked to him endlessly about going to cheder, about having a rebbi and not a morah, about the davening and learning he’s going to do, and of course about the toys and the slide in the yard.
You may have butterflies. You hope the system won’t be too harsh or strict, that the class isn’t so large he’ll get lost, that the rebbi will be wise and kind, that he’ll even notice him.
I want to tell you what’s happening with your son’s rebbi the night before cheder starts.
Actually, let’s start with what the weeks before look like.
The rebbi made sure he had the student list as soon as it became available. He’s tried to memorize your son’s name and nickname. He’s made countless trips to the classroom to hang up pictures of gedolim, and of course, the alef-beis choo choo train.
He’s gone to stores to replenish toys that have been lost or broken over the course of last year.
He’s made sure to meet with his assistant to go through who is in charge of what at every hour of the day.
He’s come home each day of the last week of vacation exhausted, even before the year has begun, because he’s determined to put one thousand percent into your child’s chinuch.
He’s davening, too, that his classroom be a place of joy and laughter. That no child gets left behind, that he manages to build a rapport with you, the parent.
He’s hoping that there won’t be a child in his class who will need remedial help. That’s a difficult thing to break to parents whose dreams of a prodigy turn sour. He’s bracing himself for the comments and complaints that are inevitable, praying no one ends up with hurt feelings.
But most of all, he’s like you, dear parents. He has a tefillah on his lips and in his heart for each and every one of the precious neshamos he’s going to teach the foundation of all learning they will ever do. He’s davening that Torah be forever sweet on their lips, in their hearts.
I’m joining him, and you, with sincerest wishes for hatzlachah for your yingele,
The Rebbi’s Wife
Dear Special Ed Teacher,
You’re a special teacher by virtue of being my special needs daughter’s teacher. You’re all ready, and we’re all ready. Or maybe it would be better to say — my daughter is more than ready.
It’s been a long vacation.
Still. It’s the beginning of the year, and I’m frightened.
Will my daughter get all the help she needs? All the extra services she’s approved for, but so often doesn’t get unless I’m on top of it?
Will you, her teacher, know how to deal with her? Will you see how she gets startled quickly; how sudden noises shake her equilibrium?
We’ve spoken on the phone, of course, but seeing her in real isn’t the same as hearing about her.
Will there be enough staff to help you? Dealing with all the students and their different needs will demand a lot of effort from you — maybe more than you have available.
But most of all, dear special teacher, as the one overseeing my daughter’s care most of the day,… will you judge me?
I’ve been judged in the past and found wanting.
This is what I’m worried you’ll judge me for:
Not spending enough time meeting you in person over the course of the year.
Not taking my daughter on a three-hour trip for a specialist’s evaluation for a therapy modality you suggested.
Not spending an hour, seven days of the week, working on the program with her that you feel would be most beneficial for her progress.
Not dropping everything and coming down to school at zero notice because a famous speech therapist is visiting, and you think she really has a lot to offer.
Here’s the thing — my daughter isn’t an only child. Nor is she five years old any more.
Here’s another thing — you will get to know my daughter very, very well over the coming year. But you won’t know me or my family’s needs.
You’ll put your heart and soul into making my daughter’s year a success. And it will feel like a betrayal, or a belittling of all the work you put into her when it seems you don’t have my cooperation.
I appreciate every single second of thought you put in, I really do!
This is your job, and you throw yourself into it with a single-minded dedication that I don’t trivialize for one second.
Here, though, is what I want you to know.
I’ve been raising my daughter for years and years. I’ve been to countless specialists and therapists, and traveled the length and breadth of the country looking for answers. I’ve thrown endless money chasing after hopes and dreams that have disappeared in a puff of smoke.
At this stage, I need to step back a bit and focus on my other children’s needs. I have their health and well-being to take into account, too!
And all of them need a mommy who isn’t falling apart, who isn’t completely tied down with taking care of the one child who needs more than all of them put together.
I don’t say this easily, dearest special teacher, but I’m doing my best. And you have my sincerest, deepest wishes and prayers for success as you do your best.
Your Student’s Mommy
I wanted to welcome you to our family.
I know, you already have a family of your own. You’re not looking for a new one. But whether you plan to or not, you’re going to be a big part of our lives this year. Our entire family is going to feel your presence. We’re going to feel the ripples of your moods when our Shmuli comes home smiling, or sullen, or drooping with defeat.
I’m sure you feel powerful when you walk into the classroom and see all those eager little faces. What you might not realize is that your power extends all the way to our kitchen table. So much of Shmuli’s self-image is shaped by what goes on in your classroom. So much of his feeling for Yiddishkeit depends on the atmosphere you create. Even his appetite for supper is affected by you.
It’s probably unfair of us to pin so much on you. You’re just a teacher, and just for one year, and not even for the whole day. But by virtue of your position, you hold outsized power to shape Shmuli’s definition of himself. “Rebbi says” or “rebbi thinks” carries much, much more weight than “the neighbor says” or “my friend thinks.” That’s just the way it is, and I hope you appreciate the power you have.
Heads up: No matter how things go this year, we’re going to tell Shmuli how much you like him and how much you want him to succeed. I’m sure it’s true. (He’s very likeable!) That’s what we did last year, after the first disastrous week when Rebbi X had to punish him multiple times so that the class could “see who’s boss.” B’chasdei Shamayim and also thanks to some treats, Shmuli believed us enough to sit nicely and pay attention the second week, and soon enough the rebbi really did like him. (Friendly tip: Of course you’re the boss, but I think the whole process can probably be expedited by cutting out the punishments this time around.)
Something else we’re going to tell Shmuli is that he’s a great kid. There were years when that was the only thing we ever could tell him, because he absorbed so much negativity in school that we had to do our best to build him back up when he came home. It’s tough, as a parent, knowing that you can’t even exercise that 20 percent of “smol docheh” necessary for chinuch, because your child just can’t handle any more negativity. Because by the time he walks through the front door, he’s been the outcast or the troublemaker for so many waking hours, he can only afford undiluted goodness until he goes to bed. That means that if he takes out his frustration on his siblings, we parents might not be able to administer any discipline. How much negativity can a kid take?
But you’re not like that — of course you’re not. You went into this field because you believe in the sweetness that we see in Shmuli every night as he drifts off to sleep, or when he plays so gently and lovingly with his baby sister. And we believe in you, too — we’re grateful to have had rebbeim who nurtured and nourished our kids in the best and most positive ways.
We want you to know that we’re partners in this endeavor. We won’t badmouth you in front of our children, even if we question your judgment. We’ll reserve any questions for private conversations without kids listening in. We’ll do our best to give Shmuli any help or resources he needs. We’ll try to make sure he always has three sharpened pencils in his pencil case, that he does his homework, and that he eats breakfast. (Trying doesn’t mean always succeeding, as you probably know; you have kids, too.)
We also understand that you’re human, that you have your own worries and concerns and issues, and that only superhuman people can consistently broadcast positivity every single moment of every single day. We’re living with the same challenge, and we hope you extend us the same understanding.
We know that you’re trying really hard, and we appreciate how much you give to our boys. We know that you see this as a calling, that you invest your talent and neshamah into their chinuch. We know that you aren’t paid much, considering how hard you work and how vital your job is. And we appreciate everything you do.
So welcome to our family. Good luck with the year ahead. We’re rooting for Shmuli, and we’re rooting for you.
WEall make mistakes — even teachers. And like many teachers, I have regrets: the smile I didn’t have time to smile, a statement that might have been too harsh, the anger that was really unnecessary.
Then there are the mistakes that keep me awake at night, that hurt even years afterward. I made one of those mistakes with you.
You were my student in first grade. You didn’t like to daven. A student who doesn’t like to daven? I tried stickers and then candies. When you started humming aloud to yourself while the rest of the class davened, I was really angry. (The anger didn’t help, of course. It never does.)
Then you started drawing during davening time! You took out a sheet of paper and your crayons and drew. The girl sitting beside you, who’d davened with such enthusiasm until that moment, put down her siddur and concentrated on your drawings instead.
I didn’t stop to think but went straight into punishment mode. I sent you to sit at the back of classroom. I confiscated your drawings.
That night at home, I found your drawing in my bag. I looked at it and felt uneasy: the worlds you drew were full of dark, slashing lines. The people all looked angry. I asked my friend, a well-known child psychologist, to take a look.
The next day I bought you a treat and sat next to you in the school yard. I asked you if you knew how to make a brachah. To my astonishment, you said: “I don’t like to make brachos.” Such a strange statement from a first grader.
I innocently asked you why.
“In my house, when we don’t daven nicely or forget to make a brachah, Tatty punishes us,” you explained. “He makes us drink schnapps or something else that burns our mouth. One time, my brother Baruch fainted from it. Now I don’t like to daven.”
Your story shocked me. I reported it to the principal, and she was in touch with the necessary authorities. I don’t know all of the details, but I know professionals were involved. You stayed in my classroom, where I allowed you to sit in the back during davening, to just say, “Good morning, Hashem” in your own words.
Chani, it’s been years, but I want you to know that I think of you each year as I start the school year anew. You see, you taught me such an important lesson. Little children want to behave. They don’t want to be defiant. When I see a child refuse to do something, if a child disobeys me or flaunts the rules, that’s a red flag. Coming down harshly isn’t the correct response. Gentle probing into what’s causing the behavior is.
I’m so sorry I was so strict with you. But thank you for teaching me this lesson.
Your First Grade Teacher
For many kids, probably still most, the last day of school feels like a jailbreak. But for some kids, kids like me, it feels like the beginning of a ten-and-a-half-week prison sentence.
It can be a beautiful thing when school can be a place of refuge, and we can feel at home somewhere; we’re certainly not at home at the place we’re expected to call home.
But I want you to know this. There will always be those kids who don’t want to go home at the end of the day. There will always be those kids who will flinch, if only internally, at certain questions or assumptions about their families. There will always be those kids who (you’ll notice if you pay close attention) will be more surprised than you expect upon hearing certain basic things about relationships or the picture of family dynamics that the Torah paints for us. There will always be those kids who dread school vacations.
You can’t change it for us. But you have the power to be sensitive to us, and to nurture us for as long as we’re still in your care. It may not seem like much, but believe me, every warm comment, every bit of attention, every piece of chizuk gets carefully tucked away, and reaccessed when we need it most. You may not be able to wish away the darkness in our lives, but every bit of wax you contribute to our candles gives us a little more light.
Summer was hard for us. But now we’re back in school, and we can smile again.
Please know: for students like us, your warmth makes all the difference.
Please, I’m begging you, look out for us.
Your (Invisibly) Struggling Student
It’s hard to believe that 17 years have flown by and that you’ll soon be embarking on the experience of a lifetime: your year in seminary. The partnership between our family and your Bais Yaakov education has provided you with solid hashkafos and a chashivus haTorah. Now you’re eagerly anticipating a chance to solidify that foundation.
While your high school years were a time of immense personal growth, there was always a background tension. We’ve tried to impress on you the importance of penimuyus over chitzoniyus and how the outside world has influenced our community’s gashmiyus standards. Over the years you’ve always tried to surround yourself with like-minded friends, but the whispers of Michele watches and Tiffany bracelets seemed to always lurk in the background. We’ve spoken at length about the importance of differentiating between needs and wants, and the value of spending within your means, while acknowledging the need of teenage girls to “fit in.”
As your year in seminary draws closer, I can see a certain pressure engulf you. You tell me that regardless of which seminary a girl goes to and whether you’re from in town or out of town, there are certain must-haves for a seminary girl today — family means aside. There’s an unwritten, informal uniform of accessories to wear alongside the bekavodik long black seminary skirt, black sweater, and collared shirt. There are the black Vince shoes with their signature thick white soles for school days and Tasman Uggs slippers for nighttime relaxation. There are Lululemon fanny packs and high-end sneakers for tiyulim. The list goes on and on.
I wish all young women would appreciate the supreme sacrifice we parents are making to gift you with this wonderful year, which very few can actually afford. Besides tuition, there’s airfare (including a return ticket for Pesach a mere six weeks before seminary ends). And of course, parents must visit their daughters and treat their friends to a night-out-to-eat. I hear of girls going for frequent meals out and the must-have iced coffees.
There seems to be no end to the social pressures, which as far as I can see, exist across the financial spectrum. I can see you struggling between the values we’ve tried to instill in you, and the desire to fit in, when you will be far from home without a shoulder to lean on. I’m trying valiantly to support you in this struggle. As much as I wish all mothers would unite against this insanity, I know that I’m only one person. We can’t change societal expectations overnight: I can only try to guide the young people who are under my wings.
Please be strong. Realize that as you work through these struggles you’re building resilience for the future. The social and financial pressures don’t seem to be abating — the hairbands of your youth are the Michele watches of today and will be the fancy strollers and high-end simchahs of tomorrow. While I daven for a time when our community can refocus inward, for now I just hope that you can be true to your values. Even if you do end up feeling the need to give in to social pressure in preparation for seminary, I daven that you do so realizing it’s a means to an end of true growth in life and in Torah.
The story is told of a traveling businessman who upon returning from his travels finds that his city has adopted a new tradition in his absence. When the clock strikes noon, the entire city gathers to throw stones at one of the city walls for no apparent reason. The businessman is fully aware that the behavior he has come home to is absurd, but he realizes he has only two choices — to join everyone in throwing stones, or to move to a new town. He decides he must stay, but every time he picks up a stone to throw at the wall, he says to himself, “I’m not crazy.”
Dear daughter, my message to you is that even if you have to pick up some of those stones, always remember why you’re doing so and remain rooted in the values we have taught you.
To My Dear Three Cheder Boys,
After a summer of having you five little kids home all day — after dealing with the chaos, the heat, and preparing food, food, and more food — you’re off to school.
It’s 8.45 a.m., and the house is blessedly quiet. I breathe deeply, listening to the hum of the air conditioner, the rumble of the refrigerator, the honking and beeping of the early morning traffic. I get busy sweeping, spraying, wiping, and throwing loads of laundry into the machine. My movements are quick and light, weightless.
Then the phone rings. It’s your aunt Shayna, my little sister. She’s just sent her three-year-old on the school bus for the very first time.
“Chana?” she asks me. “Do you remember Mrs. T.’s Torah song?”
Mrs. T. was our beloved high school teacher and extra-curricular director. Talented and deep, she’d compose the most beautiful, stirring songs for our school shabbatonim which we’d then sing and sing and sing. Despite the 15 years that have passed since this particular song had been written, I knew right away which song she was referring to. I remembered it clearly.
“Could you sing it for me?” your Aunt Shayna asks.
“Her eyes dream and gaze,” I begin, the words and tune that I’d sung and heard so many times rolling off my tongue easily. “There’s a yearning on her face, as she holds and she pats the little yingele on her lap.”
I tune in to the words and my singing slows down. “Kum zis neshomele, in cheder arein, your hand I hold, kush di mezuzale, as we walk across this threshold….”
“Go on, go on,” Aunt Shayna urges me. “What’s the chorus? Do you remember the chorus?”
Of course I remember the chorus, but by now my eyes are watering, and it takes me a moment to compose myself. “Ich daven du zulst shtendig shteigen, rein un ehrlich eibig bleiben.”
My voice is shaky and then catches in my throat as I stop mid-word. On the other end of the phone line, Aunt Shayna is very quiet, and I know she understands. We’re both crying, and then laughing that we’re crying, and then crying again.
“Please Chana, continue, you have to finish it,” she says.
But I can’t.
I hang up the phone and continue puttering ‘round our clean, quiet house. But there’s a weight on my heart and a lump in my throat. And when the beds are all made, the floor sparkling, and not a dish left in the sink, I pull out my siddur: Ki malachav yetzaveh lach, lishmorcha b’chol derachecha. May He send his angels to guard you, my precious children, in all of your ways. May He protect and guard your goings and comings, now and forever…. May the Torah you learn be engraved on your soul with sweetness and love, complete, true and whole, lighting your eyes, holy and pure, guiding your lives, steady and sure. V’haarev na Hashem Elokeinu….
And when you children skip off the bus and bound through the door, shirts untucked, peyos flying, with streams of words and shouts rising and falling above one another, filling our peaceful quiet house with your banter and noise, I wrap your little bodies in my waiting arms, and holding you tight, I whisper into each of your ears, “I missed you, zeeskeit, I’m so glad you’re home.”
With love forever,
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 858)
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