Teaching Hebrew to 12-year-olds is probably my favorite thing to do in all the world. And when you add the whole blind-teacher-uses-Hebrew-Braille-while-her-sighted-students-are-using-print-Hebrew thing, lessons become even more interesting and encompass much more than three letter roots.
Why is that?
Maybe it’s because I “see” each of my students in a different way. Maybe they have fewer visual distractions since, unfortunately, beautifying bulletin boards and walls is not my forte. Maybe it’s my guide dog Ari who greets them happily as they enter the classroom and snores blissfully at our feet during class.
Oh, sure, there is the occasional hiccup. For a few weeks last year the whiteboard may have even featured more Japanese vocabulary than Hebrew, thanks to my student Amy’s enthusiasm for the subject.
But while a couple of minor things have gotten past me, and facial expressions will always elude me, the needs of the students don’t. And 10 years of experience have taught me that when I focus on what the students need, everyone is more focused on learning.
Take Evan, for example.
Sometime back our school experimented with pairing Hebrew students by ability for more intensive one-on-one time with the teacher. Evan was one of those kids, and our weekly sessions proved to be quite instructive for both of us. He delighted in the creaks and squeals he could derive from his chair, as well as in snatching my Braille text from the table and holding it just out of my reach. I delighted in laughing at his taunts, “How should I know where your book is, hmmmm?”
When I was younger, this kind of interaction would have no doubt left me feeling frustrated and somewhat hurt. But raising my own children has taught me that dwelling too much on nonessential matters drains energy from what’s really important.
So at such times, I continued the lesson by memory as if nothing had changed. “Ahh, well, let’s move on to the next part on page 299. See where it starts with ‘Atah gibor’?” After that, Evan never failed to follow my lead. Soon after, my text would mysteriously reappear, causing him to exclaim, “Oh, here’s your book! How did it get over there?”
“Why thank you, Evan. I appreciate your help in finding it.”
After our two years together, Evan masterfully celebrated his bar mitzvah. He is 17 now and greets me with kindness and respect whenever we meet at shul.
Like Evan, every year my class learns what is needed in terms of Hebrew, and the group becomes a pretty nice little community.
And as with Evan, lessons are really about making connections. We connect with Jewish tradition and values, with Hebrew as the language of prayer, and most important of all, with one another. So during class, I check in with these young study mates frequently—you know, verifying that the connection is still intact.
“OK, who is up for leading ‘Mi Chamocha’ this time around?”
“Sasha will,” Sasha responds, identifying herself as I request my students to do each September.
But when kids don’t readily volunteer because they are shy, lack
confidence, or are too “sleepy,” I reach out again:
“Ahem…is anyone out there?”
Their giggles mean that we are reconnected as a group and ease any sense of tension. “All right then, let’s just go around the table. Alex, you start.”
And off they go—reading aloud, or singing aloud, occasionally losing the place on the page and finding it again with the help of a classmate.
Does that happen because they must take turns being my scribe for board work? Or maybe we have simply come to recognize our mutual vulnerability and interdependence, that we need each other in order to learn. Whatever the reason, they always come through for me. And, better still, they always come through for each other.
It’s all about connections. Just as “to teach” and “to learn” emerge from the same Hebrew root, each and all of us are bound together in the most mysterious and significant way.
And as Ari knows, you just might learn that in Hebrew class.