Links in the chain

Links in the chain

A teacher looks back at the year — and other years before this one

Esther Kook is surrounded by the children in one of her reading groups.
Esther Kook is surrounded by the children in one of her reading groups.

I’m surrounded by a symphony of sounds in school.

When I walk through the Yavneh Academy’s halls to the various places where I meet with students for my reading groups, I hear teachers in their classrooms demonstrating their lessons. There’s davening, singing, children chatting with friends on the way to classes, and announcements pouring through intercoms. Teachers greet their colleagues with some pre-class catch-ups.

Important connections happen in those halls. Each day our goals as teachers are to educate students in grade level curricula, but it’s our interpersonal connections that sustain us emotionally throughout the year.

For me, the adorable gap-toothed smiles and greetings of early childhood students are most endearing.

“Hi, Mrs. Kook! Look, I lost another tooth!”

Entire discussions can revolve about baby teeth. How recently lost teeth fell out, or wiggly teeth are about to come out, are popular rites of passage with younger students.

The other day a student confided, “I haven’t lost ANY of my teeth yet.”

“Maybe over the summer,” I responded, trying to reassure her.

I’m reminded of all the seasons and holidays in school. When the shofar blasts resound, that means the chagim — the High Holy Days — are around the corner. In early winter, the burnt smell of oil and latkes permeates the school during the week of Chanukah, and then the songs of Passover model seders spill out of classrooms later in the year. Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israeli Independence Day — is my favorite. The entire school faculty and students sing “Hatikvah” and dance outside, creating an Israeli slice of life right in Paramus.

Now it’s the end of another school year, and the warm school white noise will be replaced by the eerie sounds of silence after the final bell. When we enter those halls in the summer for meetings and to set up our spaces, it always feels unnatural without the familiar buzz.

This is a bulletin board for young readers.

Bidding farewell to our students, our kids for the year, always is bittersweet. We pass them on to the next link in the educational chain. We have to let go. We will no longer be an integral part of their school experience. Next year, we may get a smile, a hello, or even some information on new teeth.

Maybe they’ll even come back to visit. But it won’t be the same.

When I first began teaching, I’d lapse into what Oprah dubbed “the ugly cry” at the end of the year when I said goodbye to my students. Now, after almost 20 years, I’ve internalized the teaching cycle. There is a beginning, middle, and end to each year.

But I’m still ferklempt saying goodbye to my students.

“I don’t want to leave you,” one of my students said to me just the other day.

The sweetness is in the knowledge that we’ve taken them on this finite journey. Now it’s time to move on, and hopefully we will see them in September.

Teachers’ imprint on students is everlasting. My own teachers are an amalgamation of my personal history, as I incorporate bits and pieces of their teaching styles, making them my own. We never forget those teachers who made a difference in our lives. Mrs. Ellish, my first-grade teacher, taught me how to read in her softspoken manner and instilled a love of English. Mrs. O’Connell, my eighth-grade teacher, was Irish Catholic, and she was fascinated by our Shabbat. Mrs. O’Connell assigned our class essays to write about how our families celebrated it. I was proud when she chose me to read my essay about Shabbat as an example.

Recently, Morah Rachel Blumenstyk made that kind of imprint on our students and faculty alike. When she died a few months ago, the reverberations were felt throughout the school.

Morah Rachel was an extraordinary educator and an inspiring woman. She had been the principal of the Glen Rock Jewish Center Hebrew school for many years, and then she retired. But Morah Rachel decided that retirement wasn’t quite for her. She returned to education as an associate teacher in Judaic studies at Yavneh Academy, working closely with Morah Yael Sokol in second grade. They developed a very close bond, and Yael shared her reflections of Rachel.

“‘How long can you go for lunch and play cards with your friends?’” Yael recalled Rachel telling her. “Rachel was so inspirational, with deep wisdom and love to give to her students,” she continued. “She had so much more to contribute, and always saw the best in students.”

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to work with Rachel, but got to know her on a personal level through our school interactions. She was a proud Israeli, and she encouraged me to speak Hebrew and never corrected my grammatical mistakes.

Her loving presence is missed by all.

As I continue to watch from the sidelines as my former students develop and mature along the educational chain, seeing them eventually owning the school halls is truly joyful. Just the other day, a group of eighth-grade graduates, whom I had taught in early childhood, came by asking me to sign their yearbooks. They possessed that eighth-grade swagger and sense of bravado in spades. And a few weeks ago, a former student, who is now entering college, was in school to visit and popped into my room to say hello.

These are special connections, and each teacher possesses a link in the chain.

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus and a freelance writer.

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