Thursday, September 3, 2009

“I learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from my students.” – Yehuda Hanasi, Babylonian Talmud

New York City is incredible. I haven't actually lived here since high school, and now that I am finally back, it feels like a completely different place. Of course, I am the one who has changed. My own confidence and happiness seems to match the upbeat pulse of the city streets. I've been walking a lot lately, trying to soak in what's left of summer, and reacquaint myself with the sights, smells, and sounds of the sidewalks and subways (man, I LOVE alliteration). Today I had the misfortune of leaving my cell phone at home, which led to my walking a mile and a half through Harlem to reach an empty bowling alley, where I was supposed to meet a group of coworkers. They had cancelled the outing, and I, phoneless, walked 30 blocks unnecessarily. Another day I might have been bothered, but this particular day happened to be gorgeous, and I've never really spent much time up in Harlem, so I took it as an opportunity to immerse myself in my surroundings. I walked slowly, calmly. I kept my head and eyes moving, so I could take in every detail. I passed a chicken minding its own business in a church community garden. I passed a woman in full African garb, pushing a half-broken grocery cart uphill. I passed murals depicting bright young faces on ratty brick walls, and empty chain-link fenced playgrounds with basketball courts below surface level. The scent of hot dogs mixed with incense (pot?) and the occasional hint of urine accompanied me for blocks, and it all somehow blended together to form a perfect backdrop. I walked in step to the beats of the blasting radios I passed, and I weaved my way through 20 police cars vertically aligned against a building. I smiled at strangers, though not enough to invite trouble. I noticed architecture, and sidewalk chalkings, and the way a little girl's hair had been expertly braided into a masterpiece of texture and design. Even in a culture so different form my own, I felt oddly at home. I truly enjoyed every second of it. I truly love this city.

So, yes, I am back from Israel, and though the extreme cultural differences may occasionally overwhelm, I am generally quite content. I miss Jerusalem, of course. Like last time, I feel a sense of loss, let-down, even emptiness at times. I miss learning Torah with my friends, and feeling like every moment was soaked full of meaning and beauty. But nothing lasts forever, and I know that I will find meaning in beauty in new ways back here in the states – such as on a random walk through Harlem.

The past month has been packed full of events and experiences – my cousin's bar mitzvah in Seattle, a trip to Cape Cod with Ezra's family, hanging out with my siblings, parents, and incredibly cute niece, attending two weddings, and of course, starting my new job as a teacher at Beit Rabban Day School, and registering for graduate school at Bank Street College.

I'm a teacher! Well, not yet, technically. The kids don't arrive until next week. But work started last Monday, and so far, I've met a group of wonderful coworkers, as well as made a lot of headway setting up my classroom. We've been doing various workshops on teaching, classroom management, school environment, and other topics. These are extremely helpful to me, as I've never been a full time teacher before, and I am scared as anything. My co-teacher is a very nice girl named Mary, who worked at the school last year, and who also has a degree from Bank Street College, where I will be working towards my masters in general and special education starting this Fall. She has been extremely helpful in orienting me to the school, and showing me the ropes. It's hard to be a new member of the team, but almost everyone who works there is quite young, so I don't feel too out of place. I've learned so much already, and I'm sure that once the kids arrive, everything will go into overdrive. I will be teaching Kindergarten and first grade (the grades are combined, as part of the school's philosophy that learning should go by level rather than age) as well as the advanced Kindergarten math level (the whole school is broken into math levels, so that a very bright first grader might end up in a group with a slower third grader…interesting stuff). The school itself is very unique, and highly progressive. Their whole philosophy is that everything we do should have a reason, and this manifests itself in even the most minute (MS Word says it's "minutest" and not "most minute". I like mine better.) details. According to a book I am reading about the school, (Vision at Work: The Theory and Practice of Beit Rabban) even something as mundane as sitting in a circle must be accompanied by a reason or explanation: "let's all sit in a circle now, so that we can see and speak to one another". The kids are encouraged to think critically about everything we do, and are very involved in every aspect of their learning experience, from helping to come up with the class rules, to having a say in which topics they'd like to cover and investigate. Our two big interdisciplinary units this year will be food/plants, and subways, and we will be using those subjects to teach anything from math to social studies to art to history to science…to everything. It's a nice way to contextualize what they learn in real-world situations (apparently). Anyway, so far everything is still theory for me, so as soon as the kids walk in the door, I'll be able to actually speak about what the teaching is like. For now, I'm still learning how to put up bulletin board paper without leaving bubbles underneath. Which is a very big deal.

As for grad school – I registered for my first Bank Street class yesterday! Today was orientation, and I met a bunch of my classmates. They all seem very nice, and I noticed such a difference in the way it feels to meet them from how it felt to meet people on the first day of undergrad. Everyone is just much more….real. I guess that's maturity for you. Or maybe it's just me. Either way, I definitely enjoyed the atmosphere there, and I can't wait to get started. I'll only be taking one class this semester – Child Development - simply because I am afraid of juggling work with school, at least in the beginning.

In other news…Ezra is back in Israel, learning away in Yeshiva. It's definitely tough to be away from him again. But I feel that we've made the right decision in terms of following our own paths for now. Everyone needs time and space to think, grow, and prepare for what's ahead. Besides, what with work, school, and hopefully some type of social life, I'll barely have any time at all. I think that will help keep me distracted, though of course it will always be painful when I think of how many miles apart we are. Hopefully he enjoys his time in Israel, and we both gain a lot from the coming months.

Lastly, I should make mention of the fact that it is currently the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is…intense, in a word. It's the month leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and is the time when we are supposed to reflect on the year, do tshuvah (literally, "return" [to your true self, to righteousness, to G-d, to whatever,] though "repent" is the colloquial English word for it,) and really prepare ourselves for the upcoming year. I've been trying my best to keep this in mind as I run around, and focus as much as I can on considering everything I've gone through this year, as well as everything I may have done to hurt myself or others. I have a few Elul-based classes on my ipod that I've been listening to on my subway rides to and from work, and today I actually made a list (while I waited for 20 minutes at the empty bowling alley in Harlem – a fine backdrop for self-reflection,) of things I regret having done, as well as things I want to improve upon. This is harder to do than one might think, if you take it seriously enough. I ended up with a knot in my chest as I read down my list afterwards. I included everything from the accidental (waking up my mother when I came home late one night, which, incidentally, Judaism considers a type of stealing,) to the purposeful (borrowing a book without asking, which, incidentally, Judaism also considers a type of stealing,) and from the tiny (acting grumpy in the morning towards people,) to the immense (saying mean things about someone behind their back – and yes, that one is immense). Of course, anything I've done to another person I now have to go apologize for if I haven't already, as well as ask for forgiveness. A daunting task, but hey, that's what Elul is for. Surmounting the daunting, reflecting, and returning to a level of being and relating that I can be proud of. I'm not going to ask for blanket forgiveness from people who read this post, because that's just silly and pointless. I guess I just wanted to put it out there that this is a good time to think about these kinds of things, and to actually resolve to make changes if need be. I certainly have a lot to work on. We'll see how well it goes.

I'm completely exhausted now, though it's a good kind of exhaustion. I worked hard today, I walked a ton, I came home and ate dinner with a glass of wine by the window, and I'm just about ready to watch the last episode of Weeds and fall asleep. Life is good…and keeps getting better.

Love, Shira