Thoughts for the first day of school

The Talmud teaches us that with anger, one forgets his learning. Can one learn while stoking anger within?

FIRST DAY BACK at Tel Aviv’s Gabrieli Carmel School, September 1, 2020 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
FIRST DAY BACK at Tel Aviv’s Gabrieli Carmel School, September 1, 2020
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Welcoming kids to school on the first day is nothing new for me. I have been doing it for 40 years. This year, we are taking every child’s temperature upon arrival. I always have done that.
Not their body temperature, but the child’s temperament temperature. Children are transparent: by looking closely, they broadcast remotely their state of mind.
If you look, it is easy to notice the student getting out of a car having been put down or demeaned; others arrive with a boost of confidence, sent off with a “can-do” sense of themselves. These are the temperatures I take upon arrival to school.
Overhearing Mom loudly complain at home “Look at the class list! How dare the principal place my child with the losers” gets replicated within the child’s emotional system with decimating impact. The heat burns from the eyes of the arriving student. In private schools, there are also the guilty ones, with parents complaining all summer about spending so much money on tuition. These kids arrive guilty as charged, knowing that the family happiness has been sacrificed on the altar of the child’s growth. Others add the mantra “why don’t the rich give all the funding so that no tuition is charged? They have money to spare.”
The reverberations of this unrest spread within our children, disrupt their well-being, and have grown to become an international pandemic. Imagine all the boys and girls being dropped off to school by parents convinced that they suffer under tyranny, that for generations they have been victimized by society, unfair economic systems, telling children that now is finally time for payback. And just as disrupting is the angry resolve of those who are out to defend a way of life they see as under attack, looking over fences at others they deem to be barbarians at the gate.
Look into your child’s eyes, check their inner temperature, and assess their readiness to learn from within a bubble of alienation, suspicion, anger and humiliation. When there is no readiness, there can be no progress.
I lead a Jewish school, and if I felt committed to keep up with my woke and angered fellow Californians, there would be one tradition I would cancel: the Seder. Jews sit together and recount being enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, even visualizing the desperation of our oppression. Then we sing praise and thanksgiving for having been redeemed and set free. We endorse “Next Year in Jerusalem” as a destination ever closer, satisfied that it is arriving soon.
It is this final stage that would need to be torn down and replaced. To stay in accord with the legislated ethnic studies curriculum of California, we would need to open our doors and pour into the streets protesting angrily, descend on Sacramento demanding reparations and make certain everyone we encounter is primed to provide us a present advantage in deference to the chips on our shoulders.
It is accurate to say that even after redemption and freedom, the Jewish people’s long walk through history has not been an easy one. Yet the conclusion of the Seder remains joyous and thankful.
The Talmud teaches us that with anger, one forgets his learning. Can one learn while stoking anger within?
We take physical temperatures upon arrival to school out of concern for our children and how they might make others sick. Let’s not be so superficial as to ignore their inner heat. More thoughtful, cooler heads can speak with them so that we can see them flourish.
We agree in wanting our children to do better than us in making the world a more equitable and more loving community for humankind. We take our obligation to protect their health and well-being diligently so that they will be able to fulfill this vision. There is an ocean of idealism within us parents, yearning to raise children to live great lives. Let’s take their temperature often, and think again about how we protect their health.

The writer, a rabbi, is head of school of the Orthodox community’s San Diego Hebrew Day School, a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.