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Day 29: The intangibles and my time in the desert with students

Dear Readers,

This  post by Frank Nappi from The Badass Teachers Association  is fantastic! I  relate to it in a few ways.  A long time ago, I was an educator /counselor in the Israeli army education branch (Gadna) of the IDF in 1985-1987 for my two-year service. I worked in a poor and disadvantaged rural community in the Northern Negev. Many of the children I worked with had illiterate parents with minimal grade school or no education of their own. They were some of the most warm, welcoming, caring, and generous people I’ve ever met. And they were also suspicious of me, the army, and outsiders in general.  They held patriarchal, conservative,  religious, and superstitious views of society. Women’s roles were  defined as wives, mothers, caregivers, food makers, house cleaners–traditional, old world views that were entrenched in their lives and viewpoints which they had brought with them from the social norms of the day in various Middle Eastern countries.

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They had been placed in these remote settlements, in my opinion, wrongfully set aside and marginalized by the establishment of the country. They felt ignored and for good reason. They made the best of their situation as they had no choice. One family grew flowers. One had fields of radishes. Their homes were small but very clean. They made delicious food and hung laundry on clothes lines outside.

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The women  seemed to work harder than the men, and they showed it in their  bodies which appeared older than their ages, always serving others. They were tired, but never stopped. They always wanted the best for their children.

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When  I entered their homes, I was  treated with respect and the well-known, Middle Eastern hospitality; immediate offers to sit down, and an abundance of food and drink placed before me in an instant. It was considered an insult to refuse and I learned quickly to always accept tea, water, a delicious pastry–something. The children I worked with ranged from elementary school to high school and beyond. I taught in classrooms, in fields, in bomb shelters, around kitchen tables,  on the side of dirt roads, etc. It took a while to gain their trust. To do that,  I made house calls. One house at a time, meeting the parents and grandparents, explaining why I was there. Showing them that even though I was a woman and in the army (which they generally disapproved of), that I was a decent person, that I meant no harm, that I was there to help their children. I  listened to their stories.

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I realized early on that the children primarily needed attention and love along with help channeling aggression and frustration. They needed me to show up and wait for our group meetings even though no one came at first. I told them when I’d be there and I waited. Eventually, they started coming. Just a few, then more, then all the kids that could. We played theater games and role played situations to help them deal with all kinds of issues and problems. I did art projects with them and we played for hours. I had a general curriculum we were expected to follow, but within that, I had a lot of flexibility to do whatever worked with my group. I made sure to follow what was prescribed to us, but I made it as fun as I could, and I often added my own topics or ways of delivery.

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One of the older students was the leader and all the others followed her. She was smart,  funny,  cheeky, and gave me the hardest time. I started bringing a camera to my meetings and visits. I started photographing the children and showing them the pictures. Many suffered from  low self-esteem, so I decided that showing them how I perceived them, how I saw their surroundings (they thought it was ugly, but I saw beauty in it), would maybe help them start seeing themselves as worthy and beautiful human beings.

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It worked.  It also gave me chance to hand my camera to the students themselves,  and I showed them how to use the camera. A camera was not something most of them had, so it was a novelty. My father gave me one of his Nikon cameras to use. That was kind of big deal. I was always afraid it would get ruined by the sand and dust that was everywhere, but it survived just fine.

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The students had a blast posing for the camera and thought it was silly that I kept telling them, Just do your thing and I’ll grab the pictures. You don’t have to pose. But pose they did. Showing off bike tricks, running, “Look what we can do!” I praised them for their strengths and abilities and offered support and help where they lacked confidence or knowledge. I often helped them with homework, never doing it for them, but tutoring and helping them arrive at their own answers. The most difficult student came around to me. She loved the camera and taking pictures. Once she accepted me and started changing her attitude, the rest followed suit.

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Long after I finished my army service, I learned that she had become a photographer. It was a truly gratifying moment.  I wondered if  my work with her had anything to do with her choice to pursue photography. I’ll never know for sure, but it could be, and that’s enough to think about how much one person can influence another when you’re able to  teach in the best possible way. No tests or punishments. Just love,  attention,  communication, and learning to develop a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. The information and academics followed from that and were weaved in between the games, playing, conversations about things that mattered to the students. All the topics got covered, but first the work was about building relationships. They had to trust me first. I had to meet them where they were.

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As was written in The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Love and peace,

Elana

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

Day 15: Father’s Day & the Revolution

Dear Readers,

Whew. The Revolution has begun! So much going on and I’m prepping for the next BOE meeting on Monday.  Hoping to get a big turn out of parents and community.

And tomorrow is Father’s Day.  For anyone  celebrating, I hope you have a wonderful day. Here’s to all the dads who make our children’s world go around.

Mine taught me how to be a rabble-rouser; to speak up and protest when I see injustice. He taught me how to read  starting when I was   a toddler. He used antique printing blocks to teach me letters and words. We had an old printing press for woodcuts (made by my mother) and signs and did all kinds of hand printing work, too. He helped me publish my first “book.” He showed me how make art; how to capture a moment in photography;  how to look for  light or shadows and really see them.  Among many other things, he’s been a   Civil Rights , social, and environmental justice activist for decades, and to this very day.

Thank you, Dad.

Remember this?

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photo credit copyright Jerry Halberstadt

Decisions

Dear Readers,

IMG_9108I adore Mary Oliver and her poem, “I Have Decided” (from A Thousand Mornings, Poems). When I read this  (or much of her other work), I feel understood. Yes, that’s  what I mean to say  —what I think  —what I believe —want to believe… Yes, I’m following you. This is a precise capturing of  complicated thoughts and feelings  distilled into what feels to me like having the best ice cream sundae with a cherry on top on a  sunny day where everything is clear and you’re with your favorite people.

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I love that such big ideas are expressed in so few words. There’s nothing like reading something that resonates and feels true at exactly the moment I need to receive those words. They swirl around in my head, reaching into things I need or want to think about, or work on. They inspire me and answer questions I have and raise more questions, too. Gratitude to Mary Oliver.

Love and peace,

Elana

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Remembering the Holocaust

Dear Readers,

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On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m reposting a piece I wrote last year. You can also find it in the archives of this site filed under April 2012.

This post is dedicated to Hinda Feinboim (z”l), my great great grandmother, and to the memory of the Six Million Jews and  all the victims who perished at the hands of the German Nazis, their collaborators and  followers. It is also dedicated to the Righteous Ones, peace lovers and humanitarians, and those who continue to work tirelessly and at great risk to their own lives for human and civil rights, justice and  freedom worldwide. 

Love and peace,

Elana

Love and Marriage Equality

Dear Readers,

Happy Passover to all who are celebrating.

The shortest way I can think of to explain Passover is to say: it’s about freedom. About slaves becoming free, liberation from tyranny and awfulness. To celebrate,  we tell the story of Passover and eat a variety of foods which take a lifetime to get used to, but if you start with matzoh ball soup, and go easy on the  matzoh, you’ll be fine.

As we tell a story from so long ago, we also connect it to struggles of today.

From Garden State Equality posted yesterday  (3/25/13) on Facebook:

“Passover begins tonight, and we wish our Jewish brothers and sisters a Pesach Sameach! We know that those celebrating will not be able to attend the marriage equality rallies at the Supreme Court tomorrow, but we ask as you are conducting your Seders and retelling the struggle for freedom, that you include a prayer for the Supreme Court Justices to hear our plea to be free from second class status and grant all citizens the freedom to marry those they love.”

Channeling my yenta Jewish lady character  with a bissel Yiddish: “I’m kvelling over our family. Who are these meshugana putzs who don’t want equality? Meh. Everyone should just be happy and healthy. Love is love. Who needs this shpilkes? Let everyone get married who wants to. Everyone should have the same rights.  Plus that IRS married filing jointly deduction. I tell you. No joke. So, people against marriage equality are fakakta and should keep their narishkeit and hateful  punims away. Oy! Pass the wine. We need to keep schlepping along.

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Today was a big day at the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read more about it here.

Our cousins Jeff, Andrew, and Josh inspire me with their love of life and family and  their ongoing, tireless work for justice. Equality should be theirs, too. You can read more about their story here and here.

I’m proud  to stand up for my  friends and family, for Marriage Equality for ALL.  I hope the Supreme Court makes the right decision about Prop 8. and DOMA.

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Lastly, check out this very short video from the ADL. Imagine.

Love+Love=Love

Elana

Just Outside My Window

Dear Readers,

Hi. It’s been too long. Rather than tell you  a lot  about January and February (nutshell: there’s been sickness, all non life threatening, yet relentless), I’ll jump in with right now.

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Looking outside my window at the tree which has started to bud and rain that hasn’t stopped since this morning. The droplets of water on the tree branches are shiny crystals.

I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls

—“Kathy’s Song, Simon & Garfunkel.

It’s a quiet, grey day. It reminds of a day when I helped my father with a photography project in Northern Israel (late 1980s). There were olive tree groves we walked through after it rained, cows munching on grass, wildflowers growing like crazy in the green fields (red, purple, yellow), and people. We took pictures of the trees, cows, wildflowers, and people. My view is different today, but a rainy day like this brings back memories. Is the field still there? The people?

I’m sending you hearts, because I’ve got files of posts I wrote and abandoned. I figure since it’s been so long I’ll start by sending love to you for reading this and for being out there, for doing whatever it is you’re doing.  Image

Maybe you’re digging out from under your own piles or sickness or winter or memories? Maybe you’re looking out a window and you’re remembering something from long ago, and you don’t have pictures, just fragments of color, the scent of rain and dirt, flashes that come to your brain when you’re alone. When you’re alone and you face your window or your mirror or the page.

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The piles are in every room; toys, clothes, shoes. I could easily spend my day just opening old mail which needs to be shredded, recycled, or tossed. Time passes too quickly so that isn’t happening today.

Not  saying much, just recovering after a few deaths of people I knew and loved (in particular, my friend’s mother in Israel, my  far away, always and forever friends, like family.  Is 36 years a long time? It’s gone so fast). And also birthdays, mine, and many others in my family. What do they call this? Transitions. I call it, people die and it hurts. We’re one year older. Things are always changing and staying the same.

Max said this about death recently:

“When someone you love dies, a piece of your soul dies.”

Inspiration is slow finding it’s way to me. It’s being unpacked, uncovered, dusted off. Yes, there’s the occasional shred-fest, clean up, and wonderful throwing out of nonsense, old, old, stuff that doesn’t do anything but clutter (in the rooms and in my mind). But not today. Not in any big  rush, barely slivers of tiny moments of noticing, being, like fog clearing. From, “I can’t see the forest for the trees ” to “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel” to: the light is dim but it’s there and watch for other things that sparkle and shine, because they do exist, and yes they’re there even on the grey days but it’s also true that sometimes you can’t see  bright light. I imagine if every day was bright, we’d get blinded by it, or we’d complain it’s way too hot. Or too bright. I do love a rainy day with muted colors and flashes of sparkle on the trees.

To wake up from a winter hibernation of sorts (but with not nearly enough napping), a hungry bear, ready to work.

The Man Who Has Many Answers from A Thousand Mornings Poems by Mary Oliver

“The man who has many answers

is often found

in the theaters of information

where he offers, graciously,

his deep findings.

While the man who has only questions,

to comfort himself, makes music.”

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Deciding to write and then actually writing. Planning to paint and then actually painting, and all without knowing how any of it will turn out. This carving out, claiming  time for the work. I will write and/or paint today between 10am-2pm and I’ll be happy if it ends up being two hours or one hour, or ten minutes as long as the words get out of my head and some paint comes out of the tube and ends up on a surface because I have sat at the computer and typed and saved, written in the notebook, or lifted my brushes and dipped them in paint and made a mark on the canvas or paper— not just wished I was doing that, but in fact did that.  Creating the time in little bits requires stopping the outside noise, radio, TV, going offline, ringers must be turned down or off, doors closed, window blinds open.

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Gathering the supplies, ink, brushes, tubes, rags, paper, notes written on scraps and stickies and ideas posted on my wall. Pick one idea.  Do it.  Today, not tomorrow. Start small. One tiny thing.

I’ve started writing a children’s book. Daffodils are coming up. Max made this and called it “Spring.”

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Everything is terrifying. Everything is wonderful. Everything is in between.

I hope you’re well.

Back again soon.

all words and images by Elana A. Halberstadt except where noted otherwise.