Nearly two weeks ago, I received a phone call from my son’s kindergarten teacher that has stayed with me. My first thought upon seeing the school’s number on caller ID was “Uh-oh, who did what now?” Though I am generally a positive person and I have been blessed with children who, for the most part, seem to thrive in school, for some reason, a call from that number always makes me think the worst.
Even after the teacher reassured me that, “Everything is OK,” I still found myself holding my breath, anxious to hear what was coming next. I was pleasantly surprised when she said that she was calling because my son had done something in class that brought her, the other teachers, and the rabbi great nachas—the Hebrew word for pride.
What she said next surprised me even more. She was calling to tell me that my son had asked a thoughtful question when the rabbi came into the classroom to teach the children the story of Noah. (So as not to leave you hanging, the question was, “Did God have to create the world all over again after the flood?”) The teacher then told me that my son’s question was met with great enthusiasm and the rabbi was delighted by the opportunity to answer my son and engage the class in further discussion.
This brief, unexpected phone call was a strong affirmation that my husband and I had selected the right school for my children—a school that celebrates the asking of questions, not just the knowing of answers. A school that praises children for their curiosity, so much so that an insightful question from a young child warrants a phone call home.
More important than the affirmation that I felt, though, is the impact that this experience—one which could easily have been considered a typical classroom exchange, but was instead elevated by a teacher’s praise—has had on my child. As I was putting my son to bed the evening of the phone call, he proudly told me, “Asking questions is a way to learn new things.” The following day, the first thing that he told me as he ran off the school bus was that he asked the rabbi another question. This time he wanted to know, “Who created HaShem (God)?” It is clear that the joy and encouragement with which his initial question was received have prompted him to continue asking—and through such asking, he will continue learning.
Judaism has long encouraged the asking of questions. In the Talmud, debates where rabbis question and challenge one another can go on for pages. We learn in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that “A person who is [too] shy [to ask questions] will never learn.” In more modern times, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” While I always appreciated the Jewish value of asking questions about and even wrestling with our texts and tradition, until last week’s phone call, that appreciation was largely theoretical. Now my appreciation is entirely more tangible, for I have seen what happens when that value is applied to everyday life.
Imagine if every child went to school understanding that he or she would receive praise for asking great questions—as opposed to receiving praise for getting correct answers. Think of how much more vibrant our classrooms would be.
Back at home, my son’s questioning continues. Highlights include, “Where was I when you were a little girl?” and “When moshiach (the messiah) comes, Abba will have a daddy again, right?”
And though I am often not sure how to answer, I will take a page out of his school’s book and celebrate the asking—and then together, he and I will go and learn.