In exploration of the factors that impact individuals from infancy to adulthood, I have asked dozens of my peers a question:

“Have you ever had an educator who deeply impacted your life for the better?”

It’s not surprising that the vast majority of people respond in the affirmative: most, (no matter how traumatic of an education they had), can recall that one. That teacher who left a lasting positive imprint on their lives. What is a surprise are the given reasons as to how the chosen instructor obtained that status.  

There seems to be a theme for what causes the children of yesterday to credit someone as a contributor to the development of the grown-ups of today. It has no correlation to the number of degrees or qualifications. A teacher’s mastery of the subject at hand is never really mentioned.

Every single person who has answered this question in the affirmative has explained their choice with a small story about a small word or a small gesture. They have each told a story of a time when a teacher acknowledged the student’s humanity. Their individualism. When the instructor took a moment to express concern. Or praise. Or belief.

Each of these chosen educators saw their students as unique personalities who were desperately striving to figure out both themselves and life in its entirety.  

The tales focused on teachers who endeavored to communicate two interwoven messages to their pupils:

1) This subject is intensely powerful 2) You are intensely powerful.

I have been blessed to have had a number of such teachers.

But one stands out in my mind.

When I transferred from a North Carolinian Jewish Day school to a Yeshiva high school system, I was miles behind in both Judaic knowledge and technical skills. I was in 9th grade, with a special throne next to the chumash teacher, struggling to pass a 4th grade curriculum. I was tutored twice a week in conversational Hebrew, and three times a week in Chumash, all in order to facilitate my learning of the basics.

… My learning of before the basics.

I was thrust into a status of being – not only the bottom of the class – but elementary.

I felt unintelligent, unskilled. Incapable. (And the words with which I labeled myself in my head were nowhere near as kind).

My chumash tutor was subjected to my self-directed aggravation multiple times a week. I spent hours banging my head against his dining room table. Frustrated, angry, disappointed. Until, one evening, I just… I couldn’t anymore.

I began crying.

“I’m never going to be able to do this. I’m never going to catch up.” I remember saying.

He let there be a pause. He left space for space.

And I can’t recall his exact words, but I remember that he told me to hold my chumash, open in two hands.

He explained that the chumash had the answer to my distress.  That it held the lessons of life. He reminded me that we read Hebrew from right to left. And when we hold open a Hebrew book in our hands, we hold all that we’ve already read in our right hand – the majority of the worlds’ dominant hand, and all that we have yet to read in our left hand.

He explained that while it’s important to keep in mind all that there is left to learn (what is yet to come in my left hand), it is even more important to focus on how far we’ve come and accomplished (the material already covered in my right hand).

And while it is vital to both expect future progress, and acknowledge past growth, there is a third element. A principle one.  

The page we’re on right at this moment.

Our eyes, our minds – should be immersed in exactly where we are.

This lesson has remained with me and informed much of my life perspective. Because the truth is, while I may have eventually caught up to the rest of my class in Chumash, there will always be more for me to learn. I will always have room to grow in my chosen career, in my writing, in my self knowledge, in my generosity…  

And often, when I am hard on myself, I imagine that open Chumash.

Push for the future growth, Praise past development, Engage with the present.

After asking individuals whether they have a teacher who made a lasting impact, I always follow my initial inquiry with another question:

Have you ever told this teacher how much they meant to you? Have you let them know how often you have thought about that day, that hour, that story? How much it has informed your practice, your behaviors, years into the future?

What’s stopping you?

Because we all know how amazing it feels to hear positive feedback. That response encourages future actions, passion, and drive towards our causes.

Do you have an educator who changed your life? An adult who believed in you when you couldn’t? Someone who showed you kindness on a day when kindness was most needed?

Tell them.  

Originally Published in Ami Magazine. Photo by Dmitry Ratushny

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