For many years, I was embarrassed to admit where I went to college. I didn’t feel that way during my college years. In fact, I loved my time there. I was close with professors and became curious about the world. I made some of my closest friends there. I started school as a follower and left as an emotionally and intellectually confident leader. I graduated from Hofstra University (Long Island, New York).
My pride for my alma mater shifted when I began rabbinic school, years later. For the first time, I encountered the Ivy League. I thought for irrational reasons, I was not as intellectually equipped. I am embarrassed to admit, when asked where I attended college, I would answer, “Hofstra University”, with the quick caveat: “my father was a professor there and, well you know, it was the right price.”
My irrational embarrassment came to an apex about six years into my rabbinate. I was an associate rabbi for a prestigious Manhattan congregation which was in the midst of a substantial capital campaign. My first assignment was a member who was in the top ten of the hierarchy of one of the famous and successful investment banks on Wall Street.
The meeting went better than I could have imagined. The family offered double the contribution I had asked. Just as I was about to leave their home, the woman asked, “By the way, Matt, where did you go to college?” Sheepishly, I answered, “Hofstra University. I quickly added my well rehearsed caveat, … “my father was a professor…the price was right.”
My insightful congregant knew something was up and challenged, “Matt, are you embarrassed that you went to Hofstra?” I shrugged and admitted as much.
She laughed and asked, “Do you know where I went to school? I went to the University of Minnesota. It is ranked a complete tier lower than Hofstra. Don’t ever be embarrassed. I am now one of the top people at one of the best financial firms in the world. You are the Associate Rabbi at one of the most prestigious Temples in the country. Talk proudly of your alma matter and where it is that you landed. You and I worked our way up with grit and determination. We may have bloomed later than our respective colleagues. But we are starters now.”
I learned a lot in that moment, but it didn’t all come into proper perspective until I was teaching a group of 10th graders a few years later. I was trying to put into spiritual perspective, for my students, the year we had just experienced. That was the year of the devastating earth quake in Japan; accompanying tsunamis and nuclear fallout; a shooting of a US Congresswoman; the beginning of the Arab Spring; a jobless recovery and the sobering potential of a double-dip recession.
I did not want to waste their time, so I asked, “How many of you have already discussed this in school?”
I was dismayed; of twenty teenagers, maybe a hand and a half went up.
Incredulous, I asked, “You have not talked about any of this?”
They shrugged and one of them said, “Well, my teacher sort of mentioned that thing in Egypt.”
“Why not”? I asked. None of them could answer.
It nagged at me, so I called teachers, principals and superintendents. The most straight-forward answer I received went something like this: “We didn’t teach about these events because they were not in the curriculum. We are mandated by the state to teach specified material. These were not on the list.”
In our technological age of television and Smart Boards, how was this possible? When revolutions happened in my childhood, all we could do was imagine. Now, we have reporters embedded in the Squares of freedom. What else besides history unfolding in real time would pique a student’s interest?
As my oldest child gets close to finishing middle school, my wife and I wonder and worry. In our country, we give more homework than most. At the same time, we give less time for lunch and recess. In return? We are ranked 24th in achievement in math and science. Of the 23 countries, ahead, all but two give approximately half the homework we assign.
We are exceptional at the ritual of robotizing our students. However, what our kids do with the information; how they synthesize it; ask questions about it; deconstruct it; mold it; that process feels like it is disappearing.
I was raised by two teachers who wanted their children to do well, but for whom education was about curiosity; about getting to the concrete, only when we had exhausted our search of the ethereal.
I fear we are becoming less curious and putting undue strain on our children. Teenage stress is at an all time high; bullying is at an all time high. Eighty percent of high school students admit that they have cheated on at least one exam. Perhaps, more frightening, teachers, principals and superintendents, across our nation, have been fired because they themselves have been found assisting their students in cheating. And, the most alarming number on the rise is that of teenage suicide.
The pressures are enormous. I sometimes feel that the imperative our kids feel to achieve perfection is gnawing at their spirits and demising their sense of imagination.
An educator recently said, “The essential trait of grit is no longer being taught as an equal value to intellect. Successful students in the current system are actually sometimes being set up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, they have not been taught the capacity to adapt and recreate. They don’t just need the metrics of algebra, but also that of perseverance, empathy and optimism. They can’t just learn how to crunch numbers; they also need to learn of bravery, citizenship and fairness. They shouldn’t merely learn of scientific equations, they need as well to learn of integrity, humor and appreciation of beauty.”
Ironically, what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. I don’t mean challenges like hunger or homelessness, but enough of a challenging experience that they can find their sense of resilience and depth of character.
I feel like our children are racing to achieve and their positive results don’t necessarily reflect the skills they will need when life doesn’t go their way.
In retrospect, I was lucky to have started a bit slower than some of my colleagues. Life dealt me certain setbacks that made me hungry to strive for more and work harder. I really believe that each of us is born with the stuff that leads us where we need to get in life. The challenge is that we need to be nurtured and encouraged to find out what that “it” is. More, the goal might be for us to have to figure out how to find that “it” without it being handed to us with a perfectly figured out map.
Life is not perfect. We are not perfect. The balance between the strata of imperfection is found in our grit and determination to be our very best and somehow enjoy the journey getting there.
I graduated from Hofstra University in 1989. How lucky I was to have such an extraordinary experience which has shaped and given birth to a blessed life.
Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.