Parents, Teachers and the Image of G-d (Ideas #134)

The great American writer James Baldwin once wrote how it was actually his public school math teacher who planted the seeds of his creative work.


Mr. Porter soon gave up any attempt to teach me math. I had been born, apparently, with some kind of deformity that resulted in a total inability to count. From arithmetic to geometry, I never passed a single test. Porter took his failure very well and compensated for it by helping me run the school magazine. He assigned me a story about Harlem for this magazine, a story that he insisted demanded serious research. Porter took me downtown to the main branch of the public library at

Forty-second Street
and waited for me while I began my research. He was very proud of the story I eventually turned in. But I was so terrified that afternoon that I vomited all over his shoes in the subway.


One thing that strikes me immediately is the completely extracurricular connection that this extraordinary teacher made with Baldwin. Today, a teacher might be called to task for such “unprofessional” behavior. But one need not worry, since nowadays even the most committed teachers can’t seem to find the time to endeavor such a connection. And while it is true that our lives are perhaps more busy than teachers in the 1920’s and 30’s, the greatest reason that teachers don’t have time to help students outside of school is that it is not important enough to them. Put succinctly, we are less willing to have children vomit on our shoes. We are even less willing to go with them from Harlem to

42nd Street
and spend a whole afternoon at a library when we have so many other things that we “need” to do. I am aware that there are still rare exceptions to this but one gets the sense that they are a vanishing breed.


It gets worse. It is not just for teachers that children have less importance. On some level, teachers are really surrogate parents. The rabbis teach us that someone who teaches a child Torah is as if he brought them into the world. And yet even natural parents, to whom teachers are only compared, also seem to be able to find less and less time to devote to their children. I wonder if we don’t actually welcome the incredible amount of music, sport and other after-school programming that we allow our children mostly because it buys us more time away from them. No doubt, much of it can be very valuable but only if doesn’t prevent us from being our children’s mentors.


It works the other way as well. If teachers are surrogate parents, a good parent is also a surrogate teacher. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch tells us that in the ideal, the parent is to be his child’s teacher. The reason for this is that Jewish tradition expects the teacher to be a mentor – to guide and to truly shape the child, and to be with them both inside and outside of the proverbial classroom.


Being such a tall order, it is only the very few who will be willing to truly mentor other people’s children. There is another unfortunately topical advantage to the mentorship of a parent over that of a stranger. The true intimacy created between the mentor and his protégé creates emotional ambiguity that is far less of an issue between parent and child. Intimacy can be confusing when not clearly defined by certain standardized roles.


I was fortunate in that my first teacher was my mother z’l. Since she was vocationally a teacher, among many other things, she provided me with mentorship about mentorship itself. All children love to go to their parents’ work place, but seeing my mother in action was a particular treat. There were two things one immediately felt in her classroom. The first was the aspirations that she had for her students. Anyone who signed up for her classes knew that you were expected to achieve. It was clear that she would not settle for mediocrity and that no one else should either. Taking work seriously was a manifestation of being created in the image of G-d, a G-d which she would often mention to us, her children. But to her students, she didn’t have to mention Him. Saying things is often less educational than the creation of a reality. In her case, her clearly internalized reality was passed on to her students by a type of educational osmosis.


The other thing one felt in my mother’s classroom was her connectedness with her students. Though she exposed her students to the dignity of being human, she also knew when to laugh. Academic tension was mixed in with a light touch that most clearly conveyed her interest in the young people in front of her. As a result, bonds were created that often lasted for years after her students graduated.


Contemporary educational thinker Parker Palmer makes the related observation:


One young woman told me she couldn't possibly describe her good teachers because they were all so different from each other, but she could easily describe her bad teachers because they were all the same.

I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "With my bad teachers, their words float somewhere in front of their faces like the balloon speech in cartoons."

I thought this was an extraordinary image, and I said, "Do you mean that somehow with bad teaching, there is a disconnect between the stuff being taught and the self who is teaching it?" And she said, "Absolutely."

There is a distance, a coldness, a lack of community because in a secularized academy, we don't have the connective tissue of the sacred to hold this apparent fragmentation and chaos together….  But if you go deep, the way you go when you seek that which is sacred, you find …. the community that a good teacher evokes and invites students into, that somehow weaves and reweaves life together.


Palmer is right that it is awareness of the sacred that allows for mentorship. Whether the community is made up of two or thirty is not critical. Rather, critical is the sense that anyone created in the image of G-d is wholly worthwhile. Though time, ability and other limitations prevent us from doing everything we would like to do for them, we should never be limited by the sense that our charges are not important. Again Jewish tradition informs us that each individual is worthy of the creation of the entire world. At first glance, this seems to beextreme hyperbole. Perhaps it is so hard for us to really accept because the vast majority of people are so far from fulfilling their potential. But is that not because they weren’t inspired by their parents and teachers to believe in that potential?