I will never forget watching my elementary school principal pick food out of the trash and thinking: I hope he doesn’t find my lunch. I was a picky eater (I still am) and the principal was a Holocaust survivor.
He was a principal that did not use classroom management techniques to get our attention because he did not need to. He had a short white beard, a limp from an injury he sustained shortly before liberation, a steely stare and a commanding voice with a strong accent. If he so much as looked at you, you were immediately quiet. When he walked into the room, you did not have to be told to stand up out of respect.
And as a man who nearly starved to death at Auschwitz and other camps, he did not tolerate wasting food.
He would walk up to the microphone with a half-eaten sandwich in hand and demand, “Who does this belong to”? The guilty party would walk to the front of the room on shaky legs and retrieve their sandwich along with a strict admonishment not to waste food. And after being called out like that, you learned your lesson: you did not waste food.
Kids aren’t like that anymore. Neither are principals.
In the eight years between the time I graduated elementary school in 1995 to the time I entered the classroom as a teacher in 2003, it seemed things had changed. Teachers were no longer “always right.” And kids were no longer afraid of teachers, principals or parents.
Perhaps it was the advancement of technology – cell phones barely existed when I was in 8th grade; when I walked into my first 8th grade classroom as a teacher, nearly every student had one. When I was in school, if you dared use chutzpa with a teacher, you sweated all day, knowing the teacher would call your parents and that you would be in hot water when you got home. Now, when every kid has a cell phone in school, they can often call their parents to complain about the “unfair teacher” so that by the time the teacher can get near a phone at the end of the school day to discuss the child’s inappropriate behavior, the parent has already called the principal to complain about the teacher.
It seems accountability is no longer a word that is stressed in homes and schools, and the plague of self-entitlement has resulted in its stead. And this is not the fault of our children and students, but rather the fault lies with us – the parents and educators.
Over the past day, a leading story on major news sites has been the decision by an airline to kick 100 teenagers off a flight. Reports explain how 100 Jewish students from the Orthodox school, Yeshiva of Flatbush (a great school and my mother’s alma mater) were kicked off a flight on a way to a school trip, due to “rowdy behavior.” When you look at different articles, it appears there are different accounts of what actually happened on that flight and whether or not the decision of the airline was warranted. Whatever actually took place, it is clear that some of those students were not acting appropriately on the flight. By all accounts, some did not put their phones away when they were asked to and had to be told to sit down. I would argue that this behavior is typical of a group of teens flying on a school trip. I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that they are Jewish.
However, anyone who read this news story probably had the same thought I had: what a chillul Hashem – a desecration of G-d’s name. And for me, it brought to mind a memory of Rabbi Friedman.
Before every school trip, from first grade to when he retired when I was in sixth grade, Rabbi Friedman got onto the school bus before we departed and gave us the same speech. “You are Jewish boys and girls. Everywhere you go, people will know that you are Jews. They will be watching you to see how you behave. You have the choice to make kiddush Hashem [sanctification of G-d’s name] or to make a Chillul Hashem” and then giving us no choice but to obey, he fixed us with his steely glance and said, “Make sure you make a kiddush Hashem.”
The speech made an impression every single time. And it was a speech I repeated to my students when we went on trips. It’s a speech I’ve repeated to my own children when we go places.
Children are children. Children and teens will get overexcited and misbehave. But we need to realize that the world does not look at Jewish children as children. They look at them as Jewish children. One need only look at the comments (several of which are blatantly anti-Semitic) below the MSNBC story to see that this is the truth. It’s a message that we as administrators, teachers and parents don’t always take to heart. In an era of self-expression, when everything has to be “fair,” we are not always as strict as we ought to be. I am not blaming the administration or chaperons of Yeshiva of Flatbush for these students’ behavior, and again, I think it could happen to any school, Jewish or not. And as I don’t have all the details, I am in no place to point blame. But I do think this is a teaching moment for us as leaders. How do we educate our children?
There is no question that schools have advanced in terms of teaching techniques and educational technology in comparison to the days when I was in school. But perhaps in some ways, we might be wise to revisit some of the ways of the past in hopes of reintroducing respect to our students.