17 February 2012
24 Shevat 5772
In the movie, Race to Nowhere, which I wrote about in this space last week, a high school student commented, “The worst thing a parent can ask a high school student is, ‘And . . .? And what else are you doing . . .?’” The student was alluding to the pressure put on students from even very young ages to do so much and to achieve so much in so many areas, to always be resume-building in order to get into a great college. Last October The New York Times ran a powerful story about this subject in an op-ed entitled “Super People.”
For this student, the word “And . . .?” represents a seemingly unanswerable question and the impossibility of meeting the expectations of her parents and of society. It sends the message, “You are not doing enough” or, potentially worse, “You are not enough.” What a stark reminder that how we talk to our children, the questions we ask them, and the tone in which we ask say everything about what we value and how we judge them.
To me, the “and” in the Race to Nowhere stands in sharp contrast to the “and” at the opening of this week’s parsha “Mishpatim”: “V’eleh hamishpatim – And these are the laws and statutes . . .” The very first word of the parsha is the Hebrew letter vav, which means “and” and links the transformational experience of Sinai to a detailed set of laws about various aspects of everyday life and human interactions, such as money lending and how to restore damages caused to another person or his property. The Torah’s “and” teaches us that Sinai—our most powerful spiritual experiences and core values—lives in the mundane transactions of our everyday lives. Translated into question form, this “and” would mean “And . . . are you living out your spiritual and ethical ideals on a day-to-day basis? Are the ways you conduct yourself and how you treat others consistent with your vision of the person you want to be?”
Gann students consistently inspire me with their intellect, drive, and accomplishments. However, most inspiring are those moments when they show, through words or actions, their understanding that there is more to success than thinking or doing and that their character and the character of their community are shaped by their being, by the Jews and the people they are, and by the ways they treat each other. “And . . .? I’m so proud of the grade you got on that test. And were you respectful to your teachers today? And were you careful about your speech today? And did you work hard today? And what brought you joy today? And how did you bring joy to someone else today?”
These kinds of “and . . .” questions send the message to our students that we value things other than their becoming “super people” and that we see school and everyday life not as a competition to be won or lost but rather as a laboratory for their learning and growth as people and as Jews. This actually may be one small step toward transforming our schools and our society from a “race to nowhere” into a “journey to somewhere.”
Rabbi Marc Baker