Checking students’ inner temperature

Welcoming kids on the first day of school is nothing new for me. I have been doing it for 40 years. This year, we are taking every child’s temperature upon arrival. I have always done that.

Not their body temperature, but the child’s temperament temperature. Children are transparent: by looking closely they broadcast remotely their state of mind.

If you look, it is easy to notice the student getting out of a car having been put down or demeaned; others arrive with a boost of confidence, sent off with a “can-do” sense of themselves. These are the temperatures I take upon arrival to school.

Overhearing Mom loudly complain at home “Look at the class list! How dare the principal place my child with the losers” gets replicated within the child’s emotional system with decimating impact. The heat burns from the eyes of the arriving student. In private schools, there are also the guilty ones, with parents complaining all summer about spending so much money on tuition. These kids arrive guilty as charged, knowing that the family happiness has been sacrificed on the altar of the child’s growth. Others add the mantra, “Why don’t the rich give all the funding so that no tuition is charged? They have money to spare.”

The reverberations of this unrest spread within our children, disrupt their wellbeing, and have grown to become an international pandemic. Imagine all the boys and girls being dropped off to school by parents convinced that they suffer under tyranny, that for generations they have been victimized by society, unfair economic systems, telling children that now is finally time for payback. And just as disrupting is the angry resolve of those who are out to defend a way of life they see as under attack, looking over fences at others they deem to be barbarians at the gate.

Look into your child’s eyes, check their inner temperature, and assess readiness to learn from within a bubble of alienation, suspicion, anger, and humiliation. When there is no readiness, there can be no progress.

I lead a Jewish school, and when I think of how we can effectively and meaningfully start this school year during a time of unprecedented chaos and division in the world, the tradition that comes to mind is the Passover Seder. Jews sit together and recount being enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, and even describe the desperation of our oppression. Then we sing praise and thanksgiving for having been redeemed and set free. We endorse “Next Year in Jerusalem” as a destination ever closer, satisfied that it is arriving soon.

Even after redemption and freedom, the Jewish people’s long walk through history has not been an easy one. Yet the conclusion of the Passover Seder remains joyous and thankful. In today’s climate of cancel culture, should Jewish communities embrace their feelings of anger over the pain of Jewish history and cancel the upbeat portion that ends the Passover Seder? The Talmud teaches us that with anger, one forgets his learning. Now, school leaders must ask: Can one learn with anger burning within?

We take physical temperatures upon arrival to school out of concern for our children and how they might make others sick. Let’s not be so superficial as to ignore their inner heat. More thoughtful, cooler heads can speak with them so that we can enjoy their flourishing.

We agree in wanting our children to do better than us in making the world a more equitable and more loving community of humankind. We take our obligation to protect their health and wellbeing diligently so that they will be able to fulfill this vision. There is an ocean of idealism within us parents, yearning to raise children to live great lives. Let’s take their temperature often, and think again about how we protect their health.

About the Author
Rabbi Simcha Weiser is Head of School at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School.
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