In Pirke Avot, the question is asked, "Who is Wise?"
And then it's immediately answered, "One who learns from others..."
When I'm asked to ponder who I've learned from, the influences they've made on my life and my outlook, It's actually easy to come up with a list. But more importantly, it's easy to remember exactly WHY I remember their lessons today. So I've decided to compile a list here. Some of these people are in my life today, while others I haven't seen in many years. While so many teachers have come to me throughout my life, these are the ones whose lessons guide me regularly, and who remind me to stay curious and open t What Comes Next.
Anna-Marie Jones: My 6th grade band director. I arrived at East Gresham Grade School halfway through 6th grade, after having played in school bands in the Bay Area. Mrs. Jones was happy to have a drummer in 6th grade band, especially one who could read music, but she had no drum part for the primer and no budget to buy one. So she instructed me to look at a 3rd trumpet book and improvise a "suitable" accompaniment using snare drum. She taught me to think on my feet and to listen carefully.
John Trullinger and Doug Bish: my band directors at McCarty Middle School and Gresham High, respectively. Both instilled in me a strong work ethic, a sense of humor and a desire for excellence. They also taught me that, in spite of how hard it can be sometimes, it's important to be yourself and have faith that eventually, you'll find your people.
Deanne Stanley: my English teacher at McCarty Middle School and one of the coolest people in the universe. Miss Stanley was a large woman with a wicked grin and an acerbic wit who rescued me from the boredom of a dumbed-down curriculum by giving me extra stuff to do. In exchange for helping her grade beginning writing papers (of other classes, not the one I was in), I got to hang out with her after school and she taught me how to read old English so I could read some of the Canterbury Tales in the original. She was also the yearbook advisor and snagged me to be the art director when she saw my pen-and-ink sketches in the margins of my notes. Finally, when my mother was hospitalized over winter break with Hepatitis (it pretty serious and she stayed there for two weeks), Miss Stanley took me out for cheap dinner several nights so I'd have at least one hot meal a day (this was in 1977 when such things didn't arouse the suspicion of helicopter parents. Because there were no helicopter parents back then.) She also took me along on her pre-Christmas shopping errands, and when she learned that I didn't have my own Menorah, she took me to Shaarie Torah in downtown Portland and bought me a little Menorah of my own. I still have it today.
She had a sweet, scruffy little dog named Whitetrash, and she was a brilliant visual artist who encouraged me to stay creative and curious. She became a member of my extended family and urged me to take the long view so my boredom wouldn't destroy me academically. I stayed in touch throughout high school, even going back for occasional visits to say hi. In college, I got a phone call from a former classmate who told me that Miss Stanley had taken a leave of absence for health reasons, and I lost track of her after that. I can't say enough about Miss Stanley, except that I wish I knew where she was today so I could thank her for everything.
Jon Mandaville: my Middle East Studies advisor at Portland State, he was a convert to Islam who smoked three packs a day and encouraged me to take not just an elective class in Middle East history, but to go for a certificate in the area. He liked my writing and invited me to take one of his grad classes as an undergrad independent study. His office hours appointments were spent critiquing my multiple rough drafts, demanding improvement with each effort. When my term paper for that course got published in a peer review journal (something that I learned doesn't happen to undergrads), no one was prouder of me than he was. When I asked him if there was a "Reform" version of Islam, he shook his head no. I'll never forget the way he smiled so sadly as he did.
Cantor Sharon Kohn, Congregation B'nai Jehudah, OVerland Park, KS: She has taught me by quiet, loving example the importance of staying true to one's self while still walking a path of integrity. It's hard, but doable.
My Rabbis (yes, you can have more than one):
Joey Wolf, Havurah Shalom, Portland, OR: Fire-breathing radical for social justice and peace, career bookworm and eternal student. He has taught me over and over again that being curious is one of the greatest virtues, and can lead to some of life's most interesting adventures. He also has taught me not to listen so hard to what others say about you, because living on others' opinions can paralyze you and keep you from doing what you're put here to do.
Art Nemitoff, Congregation B'nai Jehudah: A visionary. Steeped in the tradition, he wants more and better for his community, and for the Jewish people, and thinks outside the box to find the way to that betterness. He's also good at finding excellent people to help him realize his vision. He approaches his rabbinate with a deep love balanced with a hard-nosed practicality.
Alex Shuval-Weiner, Temple Beth Tikvah, Roswell, GA: Alex was my employer at Beth Israel years ago, and the person who recruited me into Jewish education and music. She's also a fellow Hotel Brat (like being an army brat but with better food). I know of almost no one who loves learning as much as she does, and who lives a life devoted to learning and growth on so many levels. Her gentleness, kindness and zest for life inform all that she does as a teacher and now, as a senior rabbi. I miss her and look forward to a time when she and I might study and learn together again.
Who are YOUR teachers? If you could speak to them today, what would you say? What would you thank them for? How do you pay forward their gifts? Discuss.