Remarks from the 2018 Limud Award Honoree, Jessica Solomon.
My story starts with some disbelief that I am actually standing here prepared to talk about my life as a teacher. I was NEVER meant to be a teacher; at least, it was not a part of any plans that I made for my future. Instead, the idea was proposed to me in seventh grade after I took over Judith Chapel’s Latin class on a morning when she was running late. Though she eventually arrived, she simply took note of me in front of the room, and then took a seat in the back of the room, allowing me to continue conjugating verbs with my classmates. These were the days of the chalkboard, and I can still feel the chalk I was holding in my hands.
I had a healthy respect for teaching as a profession, and for Judith Chapel in particular as an educator, but when the bell rang and she suggested that I consider a career in the classroom, I raised an eyebrow and I laughed, because it just was never going to happen. But then…life! As we all know, it often has a way of bulldozing us towards a different narrative than the one we once imagined, and so here we are tonight, honoring teaching and learning, and teachers and students, and colleagues and family and friends…because really, they’re one and the same.
I’ve listened for stories all of my life, knowing that they are there and hoping for them to come out. I’ve reflected on their insights and metaphors, in search of truth and some semblance of understanding about the universe because I trust that stories provide reality with some form. Over the course of many years, I began to recognize myself in the stories I encountered…to see that I am an integral part of them…but it took me a long time to perceive that I also have a say in their telling…that I am an author in my own right. It was a huge and important revelation, because the stories that we tell ourselves and each other create the world. This means that if we want to change the world, we need to change our stories.
Although tonight we celebrate the Hebrew word “limud”, which means learning, we are also celebrating the institution of education…and, in honor of Judtih Chapel, I want to share with you that there are two distinct Latin roots of the English word education. One is “educare,” which means to train or to mold, and the other is “educere,” which means to lead out. The two roots have significantly different implications for a school system, yet they’ve been assigned equal representation in “education,” and it’s been left to the educators to muddle it all out.
In the end, I sort of fell into teaching the way I’ve fallen into everything that I love; I sensed something within it that was sacred. However, what I know now is that teachers sanctify the classroom NOT through devotion to stories we revise and enact on our own, but through listening…deeply…for the untold stories students carry within themselves. This provides us with direct access to their thoughts and feelings, and we begin to imagine ourselves capable of creating a world with them in which their personal narratives are championed. These narratives are the beginning of every conversation we have the classroom.
This is not to say that I don’t tell a good story. I do. I’ve been known to take students far from intended lesson plans, on tangents even I couldn’t have predicted, not only because I love a captive audience, but because a tale that I tell might take up residence in a student’s soul, in that very place that propels them towards an unrealized, but sure-to-be-amazing mystery. And my best stories always catch us off guard because they come from spontaneous moments of learning, those that enable us to recognize that everything is connected. In September, the third grade students observe the lunar cycle, and when they do, the moon shares with them its story. During foliage season, the third graders collect and identify leaves on the trails of Newbridge, and when they do the deciduous trees tells them their story. When they develop facility with numbers, those numbers reveal the story of their days: the time they wake up, the speed with which they move from their house to school, the energy they expend at recess, and the statistics that remind them how fortunate they are to have clothes to wear and a bed to sleep in at night. In Language Arts, they see lines and shapes become letters, and letters become words, and words become poems and essays and books. And when we “educere” them…when we lead them out towards their own lives…they learn that those same words become thoughts, and that thoughts gather to form the beliefs they hold true about the world and themselves. Everything we do, every decision we make…it’s ALL a part of the story we’re telling, and we write it at every moment. The only true job that I have…that any teacher has… is to help students cultivate the skills that all accomplished writers must practice to hone their craft. Creativity, candor, and an authentic voice. The wisdom to seek feedback, the grit required to persist through blocks, the courage required to sit with a story as it unfolds, and the daring required to ask questions, for it’s the questions we’re willing to ask ourselves that determine the course of our lives.
In Mary Oliver’s poem Sometimes, she writes, “Instructions for living a life: pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” When I knew I’d speak at tonight’s celebration, I had to ask, “Why, really, have we gathered together, at this particular moment in time?” This night is not about me and my particular story; it’s about all of us, coming together to share the narrative of who we are as a community and the stories that are taking the shape of children whom we love and we cherish. I am one member of a family of educators, and I stand here so incredibly overwhelmed and humbled. My colleagues are inspired artists and academics and advocates and characters. It is an honor to be here with you tonight, to acknowledge and pay tribute to them as they lead the way towards a future in which the world will be changed for the better because teachers are changing the storytellers for the better.