Pressure to Perform, Space to Connect

Adolescence is rough. We have all been there, and we all survived the confusing hormonal tumult of rapid development, both physical and intellectual, with greater or lesser coefficients of personal friction throughout those years. We are all veterans of those awkward years, and seeing a new crop of young people marching inexorably into the fray might evoke visceral memories of one’s own stint in the trenches of puberty.

Through my teaching fellowship, I have had the privilege of observing a cohort of about a dozen seventh and eighth graders navigate the difficult terrain of the late tween, early teen years. They are as diverse as the various movements in North American Jewish life that have been the subject of our studies together this year. Some are engaged and invested in putting together the pieces that will build the foundation for further Jewish study in high school and beyond. Others are firm in their stated preference to be almost anywhere else on a Sunday morning, and they find methods both overt and subtle to express their druthers.

I am a human being possessed of the human ego, so it does sting when a student of mine does not find the material as self-evidently fascinating, relevant, and useful as I do. I try to let the usual adolescent boundary pushing bounce off me, but, even deep into the school year, I was still occasionally taken aback by some who were putting a new twist on the customary acting up. Is it truly so difficult to pay attention and do a little Jewish learning for a couple of hours?

I realize that I am viewing these students through a soda straw, given that I see them in the classroom only for two hours each Sunday. Two hours is about 1.2% of the week. What knowledge I have of the other 98.8% of their time has come out in fits and starts in random snatches of conversation between activities and during last December’s weekend retreat. Even my incomplete, somewhat haphazard mental picture of these seventh and eighth graders’ lives is marked by a startling array of expectations coming from all quarters: parents, teachers, friends, and the students themselves.

I hear my students talk about their middle school classes—there seem to be many, and the stakes seem to be a great deal higher than when I was making my way through school. On top of that, a number of them play musical instruments at a level that appears to involve high-stress auditions. One of my students is on a robotics team and studies Mandarin Chinese. Another is passionate about languages in general and appears determined to master Japanese and Russian simultaneously. Some excel at sports. Some are already talking about what they will need to accomplish in high school in order to get into college five or six years from now. They are twelve and thirteen years old—five or six years is almost half their lifetime to date.

These kids are also no strangers to religious expectations. Most of them either just became Bar or Bat Mitzvah or will very shortly. All the pressure to function in a difficult language and to perform on the bimah necessitates hours of study on top of an already overflowing academic and extracurricular schedule. No wonder a few of them find it difficult to grant their full attention in the supplementary religious school environment. That “couple of hours” in my classroom is squeezed into all the rest of their increasingly congested schedules.

In those moments of frustration at not being able to forge an effective connection between content and student, I try to take a deep breath. I remind myself that, while one of the goals of Rockdale Temple’s Kehal Kodesh Religious School is certainly to impart knowledge of their faith and heritage to its students, ensuring that each youthful noggin is stuffed with a predetermined arsenal of Jewish facts to be regurgitated on command is far from its only objective. The very choice of a name for the religious school, קהל קודש, provides an important clue to the true measure of success in a Jewish classroom: to foster a sacred community. Although they attend different schools during the week and commit their time to disparate activities, each and every one of these kids belongs to a Jewish community that cares about them. It is humbling to realize that as their teacher, even one who feels her awkwardness as a fledgling educator as keenly as any adolescent, I have a sacred responsibility to help build a sense of fellowship that will bolster them in the exciting, sometimes bewildering years to come.

Annalisa Stryer served as a TJF Fellow teaching seventh and eighth graders at Rockdale Temple’s Kehal Kodesh Religious School.

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