Day 23: Thanking My Teachers Near and Far

Dear Readers,

Sorry, I didn’t have time to add pics. And this is  a bit long. But here you go. A bit from Israel and my college days and years.

I was at the end of 4th grade, on May 8th, when my family left the US and immigrated to Israel (also known as making Aliya; a word in Hebrew which means  to go up. We landed dazed, confused, jet lagged and wearing matching denim jackets circa 1976. It was hot.

We lived on an Ulpan on a kibbutz. My Hebrew teacher on the Ulpan on the kibbutz (a focused period of immersion into Israeli  culture and language for new immigrants designed to help one get over culture shock, learn the language). Plus  the experience was  supposed to help my parents decide if we want to live on a kibbutz permanently. I was ten when we arrived. I knew maybe two words in Hebrew. My teacher was patient and kind. Many kids were cruel to us, but when the teacher was around, I felt safe.

We ended up moving to Jerusalem after six months on the kibbutz. I started 5th grade in Jerusalem. My teacher was lovely. Welcoming, supportive, gentle with me. I was “adopted” by a group of kids who taught me how to speak Hebrew without an American accent. They walked me to and from school. They helped me learn how to be an Israeli. I was the only English speaker in my class. I had to learn the language fast, and I did, as children do. No one tested me. I was treated with kindness and generosity. I was given time and endless patience.

In high school I had one extraordinary teacher for  Hebrew Literature, Raya. She was beautiful, tall, with dark olive skin, shiny, long black hair, and she wore the coolest clothes. I wanted to be like her. Composed, graceful, smart. Hers was an  advanced level class.   I loved it and did well. She was intelligent,  tough, and challenged us to push beyond what we thought we could do. She believed in me. In my ability to write, to be a reader, to understand literature, or life.

When I was around 16 or 17, the year before I’d graduate, family problems left me deeply troubled and I dropped out of school. She reached out to me repeatedly, and finally one day she offered to take to me to lunch, and I accepted. We spoke at length. She said, “You have a gift of a good left and right brain. I cannot let you waste that. I can’t let you   waste your mind. I’ll  help you catch up. You need to come back to school so you can graduate. I promise to help you.” I decided to go back. And she was good on her word and helped me. I spent hours going to her house where she tutored me in the months of material I’d missed. I caught up.  I got to my senior year and I graduated and passed everything except Math.

When I went to college in the US starting at the age of 22, after the army, after traveling in Europe, I enrolled at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. I went using Pell Grants, student loans, and a few odd jobs. I was also broke.  I was a theater major/ dance minor. I took a remedial math class (great teacher) and passed. I had a few excellent teachers there. When I was going through a rough patch my dance teacher held my shoulders in her hands, looked me in the eye and  said, “You’re  going to come out of this on the other side and you’re going to be OK.” It was soul restoring.

I couldn’t keep going to school full time, pay rent, and eat, so  since I had to support myself, I quit school when I finished that semester in order to  work full-time. My theater professor and I had become friends.  Dan always encouraged me, writing me excellent recommendation letters whenever I needed them. A champion. He said “You’re a great student.” It meant the world to me.

A few years later, while working at Sesame Workshop (then Children’s Television Workshop), I got full staff benefits which included tuition reimbursement for undergrad course study related to my job or company. I signed up for part-time classes towards my B.A. at The New School for Social Research. I did one year there and then my job was cut and I had to drop out again. I had a great screenwriting teacher and got good grades, which I had to do keep at a certain level in order to qualify for  the tuition help.

In 2002, I went back to school for one final try, and at age 38, I finally graduated from SUNY Empire State College, the Manhattan Center in NYC. There, I had the great pleasure of working with an outstanding teacher and mentor, Shirley. She literally held my hand and helped me figure it all out. She was also my lit and writing teacher and her classes were a complete joy. The two years I worked to complete my degree were some of the most fulfilling and rewarding. I wrote all the time. I was   in the most incredible writing groups with amazing writers who I became friends with.   I did this with the generous support of my husband. Because of him, I was able to work  part-time and focus on school without fear of losing financial security, food, or shelter. It was a revelation. I graduated in 2004 with a B.A. in Creative Writing and the Performing Arts. My   lifelong dream of graduating from college came true. It remains  one of my proudest accomplishments. I couldn’t have done it without the moral and financial support of my husband.

I would not be standing (or sitting) here without the many teachers who I’ve had throughout my life. I would be remiss  not to mention my gifted improv teacher, Christine. One of the funniest people on the planet. She helped me return to my roots of improv (first done when I was 15 and in Israel), after I had a crisis of confidence and was going to quit performing all together somewhere around 2004-2005. The fun and laughs and growth I experienced with a group of hilarious people  was pure magic. Needless to say, there were no tests and I didn’t need advanced math skills. For the record, I can balance a checkbook, stick to a budget, and can compute sale percentages and mortgage calculations. Up to a point anyway.

Good teachers give their students things that cannot be measured on a standardized test. The  ones who reach down to pull a student up from the depths of despair are doing a job that is life saving. No one can tell me that the teachers I learned from didn’t save me. They all did. The believed in me before I  believed in myself. When I believed in myself they pushed me harder.   I believe in the power of teachers to transform the lives of their students and I want their respect and autonomy restored. I want them to be allowed to teach and be themselves. The good ones save people on a daily basis.  I know they saved me. My gratitude for that will never end.

Good night, good morning, and thank you!

Elana