The World Outside the Classroom
From Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American, 53-57. Copyright ©2019 by Ilana Blumberg. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.
As we study buildings, our minds turn to the wider subject of “homes.” In 1993, the year I graduated from Barnard, Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor of New York City on the platform of improving the quality of life for New Yorkers. He redescribed drunks, panhandlers, squeegee men and peddlers as the “taxes” paid by law-abiding citizens of the city in the post-recession years. They were nothing but a blot on our vision and experience—an impediment to our pursuit of happiness. As he took office, the numbers of homeless one saw daily diminished notably, forcing the question of where they had all gone.
Still, in mid-1993, the Upper West Side numbered many homeless. On 86th Street and Columbus Avenue, sometimes Amsterdam, there was regularly a gray-haired man in jeans on the street corner by the diner. I passed him nearly every day, as did most of the Beit Rabban students. We passed him the day we went out observing the architecture of the neighborhood, and we passed him at times on the way to or from Central Park. Many of the kids knew him by name and waved or said hello. He was homeless.
Early in the year, the students had constructed a container to collect the coins of tzedakah they brought each Friday. We tried to allocate it monthly but in this case, a few months had gone by. Now, near the end of the year, we piled it up in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, and worked together to count it. It amounted to about forty dollars. When we raised the question of allocation, the majority of the kids thought immediately of taking it to Andy on the corner.
Collecting money was only one part of the school’s community service program. Each week, we sat together on the rug, and children and teachers would raise concerns about things they saw in the world or things we saw in the world that needed our attention. Together we cultivated the habit of noticing where help was needed—our help.
Community service with kids is a sensitive thing. It unfolds in live time, right here where we are; there is less of a protective buffer than in other forms of study. And what community service concerns most often is suffering and trouble. It focuses on things that should really be otherwise, that aren’t fair or aren’t just, or are simply very sad.
If you are a kid who comes from a community that stresses our responsibilities to others, you are likely to spot such trouble in the world fairly quickly. This is doubly true if you are a city kid, especially one who has been allowed and encouraged to notice rather than ignore or sidestep what surrounds him or her. And once you see what is before you, whether you are a child or an adult, it is at times natural to be drawn into despair, listlessness, fear, even terror.
Sitting together on the rug, and in discussion with Devora Steinmetz, Beit Rabban’s founder and head of school, I learned that the job was twofold: to help children see and feel the palpable claims upon us, which meant sometimes feeling sad and confused, and at the same time, to see and to feel that we could do something meaningful to help, which meant cultivating a sense of purpose and energy, and putting our minds to work creatively.
To cultivate such energy was much easier in company. We had each other. But we were not alone either. We joined forces with other organizations that were already working in the city and helped them a few times a year: We made cards, packed packages, and worked with seniors at Project Dorot for the elderly (where I also volunteered weekly throughout my college education); we visited the Jewish Home and Hospital and sang with its residents; we learned about Project ORE for poor, homeless and mentally ill Jews, and met with kids from a school for the blind.
We had visitors come to talk with us about the work they were doing in the community. One man had founded an organization called New York Cares, and he came and sat in our classroom on a chair much too small for his long legs, and asked the kids, with all the kindness in the world, to think about what homeless people need. What would it be like to live between places, not to have a place to call home? He described a coat drive he ran yearly before the winter set in and the work of collecting coats: deciding where in the city to place containers, how to gather and sort the donations, and how to distribute the coats. I remember one child asking about how homeless people would take care of their teeth because where would they keep their toothbrushes? I remember discussing the problem of food because it is much more expensive to buy food already prepared, like a sandwich or a hot meal. Homeless people don’t have a kitchen where they can store containers or a loaf of bread and utensils to prepare their own food, so how can they afford to keep eating? And where do they wash their hands if they get messy while eating?
Meeting that tall, gentle man from New York Cares prompted many practical ideas among the kids, including a book drive they organized the next year for a homeless shelter. Didn’t homeless people need books too?
But I remember thinking, beyond the immediate outcome of our meeting, that now the possibilities for what one could be when one grew up had just expanded to include “founder of a volunteer association.” Fireman, ballerina, teacher, lawyer, doctor . . . community service organizer.
And I remember thinking as I considered this circle of children that perhaps you find yourself wanting to take on such work later in life because you have tried to imagine how hard it is to be homeless and then, finding that imagination takes you only so far, you have actually investigated it, and then you have an idea of both its trials and of what it might take to limit or obviate them. Maybe you take on such work because in your experiment of wondering what it feels like to be homeless or through your investigation, you realize that the person who is homeless is not only homeless, but is also a person. Maybe you feel the energy to take on such work because you know that people are not only the condition in which they find themselves but possess reserves untapped and often undetected. They are more than homeless or hungry. Maybe you enter such work or maybe you find time for volunteering even if you have other work because when you were a child, the adults around you suggested that they would help you. Maybe you take on such work, part-time or full-time, because your education has reflected to you a respect for all human beings that is acted out in the everyday life of your classroom.
The ways you are taught to listen and speak to others no matter who they are, what they look like, where they come from, how they speak. The ways you are taught to ask about what you don’t know, to recognize that you don’t know, to look to others and to books or other sources to learn more. You feel a need to investigate. Your teachers help you cultivate the tendency to see both evident and unexpected connections, and to respond to what you have found or made with the desire to deepen or improve it.
Every day in school, you see and accept as natural that kids learn at different paces and in different ways. Competition, self-defeat or self-congratulations ideally beside the point, a distraction from the real tasks at hand.
What you need, and what your teachers want to help you find, is the poise to go about your own work independently, with purpose, interest and hope. Your own work goes on with or alongside others and you help them when they need it or seek their help when you need it. And always, always, there is the reality that the learning one does in school exceeds school; it concerns the world beyond the classroom. The learning one does outside of school can be brought back in, tested, affirmed and refined in the company of teachers and friends.
These assumptions and the practices they give rise to are the infrastructure of learning, that is, the “building” and “home” of the kind of learning that might improve our world. This is the kind of learning that might help shape a human being who, we have reason to hope, will look beyond him- or herself.
Here, in a small classroom in New York City, we have tried to convey these beliefs to a group of young children. But I know, and later I see it proven true, that these beliefs and practices can inform a much larger classroom and can speak to older students, too. To be respected, to respect: so much comes from this.