What If…?

Eitan goes to bed fairly consistently at some point between 6:30 and 7:30 each night. He plays hard at school and barely slows down once he gets home, so he’s usually pretty tired by the time he finishes dinner. Trudy bathes him and Shayna, reads Eitan a story, sings to him and then he falls asleep (or, if I’m home, I take care of the bedtime routine).

Shayna is slightly less reliable in that respect. It depends on the day she has had; if she hasn’t had an afternoon nap and it’s been fairly busy (which it often is), she’ll nurse and fall asleep right after Eitan. If she has napped in the afternoon, or if the day has been quieter, she may decide she wants to stay up and play longer. I can’t really blame her; that’s her only real chance to play with both of her parents without her big brother getting in the way.

Trudy and I were playing with Shayna on one such night last week after Eitan had fallen asleep. Shayna has just started taking her first tentative steps without holding on so Trudy and I were passing her back and forth and cheering whenever she managed a few steps instead of plopping back down on the floor. She was only wearing her diaper; she had been snacking on blueberries earlier and we hadn’t put on clean pajamas yet. We figured she could use the freedom and the feeling of her bare feet on the carpet to keep developing her walking skills instead of forcing her to get dressed immediately.

As Shayna made one of her trips between Trudy and me, we noticed a bump on her stomach.

It was small, a slight protrusion from the rest of her belly, about two inches above her navel. We tried lying her down to feel it but it seemed to go away when she lay on her back so we stood her back up and it reappeared. It wasn’t a pimple or a mosquito bite; it was under the skin, but it was definitely… something.

Trudy began asking me what I thought it was. “Is it just swelling? Is it something with her organs? Maybe it’s a hernia. Or maybe it’s a tumor.”

I suppressed my immediate reflex to respond as Arnold Schwarzenegger, largely because I had quickly started wondering if that was actually the case and nothing about the situation seemed funny. Against my better judgment, I started doing Google image searches for “abdominal hernia in baby,” “lump in stomach one year old baby” and “baby stomach tumor.” Trudy called the pediatrician and he said that it was probably just muscular but that we should bring Shayna into the office in the morning.

I tried to tell myself – and Trudy – that it wasn’t a tumor; it was probably nothing. Or it was probably something that could be easily corrected. In my head, though, I had moved from Kindergarten Cop to Toy Story:

In most difficult situations, especially at my job, I’m the human embodiment of Buzz Lightyear: calm, cool and collected, ready to figure out a plan and execute it. But in that moment, my brain had gone full-on Sheriff Woody.

What if it is a tumor? Okay, it’s probably not, but what if it is? And even if it’s not, even if it’s “just” a hernia or something, that’s still going to need to be repaired, right? Doesn’t that mean surgery? Shayna just turned a year last month; she can’t have surgery. But what if she needs it? Doesn’t that mean anesthesia? How can I watch my little girl get prepped for surgery? She’s going to be so scared! It can’t be a tumor. But what if it is?

And, of course, since I’m usually Buzz Lightyear, I didn’t say any of this out loud. All I said – and kept saying – to Trudy was that the doctor was probably right about it being muscular and that we would find out for sure in the morning.

Later that evening, I thought back to my mindset during Trudy’s pregnancies. I tried to remember times when I had asked what-if questions about my yet-to-be-born children but I couldn’t come up with any. This wasn’t a major shock; I tend to focus on the matter at hand in most cases and worry about what-if scenarios when they actually arise. But now I was facing a major what-if and I found myself thinking about how no one ever explains that part to expectant parents. People don’t often talk about the fact that terrible things happen to babies from time to time; that they get sick or they’re born with birth defects or genetic conditions. There are plenty of instructions for how to be a new parent, from how to change a diaper to different breastfeeding techniques to the best sleep-training methods. There are no manuals for how to hold yourself together when your child may be sick.

I’ve written before about my reactions when my kids get sick. The feeling of helplessness is the worst part; there is very little I can do in the moment to fix the problem. One thing I’ve learned is that having more information makes a significant difference. The what-if questions that send my brain into the Sheriff Woody frenzy were spurred by the fact that I didn’t know what was happening to my daughter. I didn’t know whether or not she was in pain or whether I would be able to keep her safe. Lack of information meant I couldn’t set up a plan, which meant I couldn’t find any control over the situation (which is what it means when a person is panicking).

This story actually has a happy-ish ending. We found out that the bump is, in fact, a hernia that will need to be repaired surgically but not for another year or two. The main thing is that Shayna doesn’t seem to be in pain, so we just have to monitor her in the meantime to make sure nothing changes.1 The key was finding out more about the diagnosis. Once Trudy and I knew what we were facing and what to expect, we were able to calm those what-if questions, put our parenting helmets back on (instead of our sheriff hats) and return our focus to keeping Shayna happy and helping her grow.

 


1. It also means I can think about that Kindergarten Cop line and this clip from Friends without feeling guilty.↩

A Portrait of the Artist As an Old(er) Man

I got checked out by a woman when I went out a couple weekends ago.

Hang on, it’s not what you think.

It was around 9:30 on Saturday evening. I wouldn’t say that the streets were packed, but it seemed like a busy evening. There were groups of people milling about outside the restaurants and more making their ways through the streets, plus a few who seemed to just be standing and listening to the music echoing from the concert at the stadium nearby. I had stopped at an intersection to wait for the light to change when she walked by.

She looked to be in her early 20s. She had done her hair and was wearing a dark jacket and jeans. I had been watching the oncoming traffic when I heard her heels clacking against the sidewalk. I looked up just in time to see her smile and quickly return her attention to watching herself in her phone as she ran her fingers through her hair.

Actually, it was really more of a smirk than a smile.

The differences between us couldn’t have been clearer. She was talking to someone on the phone as she walked; I was standing alone. She was going “out;” I was going to Target. She was young, I was old (…er). She had clearly put effort into her appearance; I was wearing this:

img_0754

I’m fairly certain I’ve had these exact clothes since I was in college.

She wasn’t checking me out because she thought I was attractive; she was laughing at me.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear: I was not insulted. I remember being 20-something and feeling like the world was at my fingertips. That’s how 20-somethings are supposed to feel. They are supposed to think that the world is full of possibilities and that they are at the center of it all. They are supposed to think, at least to a certain degree, that they know everything; at least, certainly more than anyone who is old (…er!) or who doesn’t fit into their social circle.

There I was, standing on a street corner, two days shy of my 34th birthday, with two finally sleeping children and an exhausted wife at home. I looked less like an gainfully employed adult supporting a family than I did like a college student taking out the garbage in the hallway of his dorm.

I found myself asking two questions. The first, obviously, had to do with what other people were thinking as I walked by. My feelings were clear: I was under-dressed to even be making a quick run to CVS, let alone moving among people who were out for a night on the town. I felt conspicuous, as though every person who saw me was immediately thinking of some sort of judgment about me. “Look at that guy,” I could practically hear them saying to their friends. “He’s got the drawstrings hanging out of the front of his shorts, he’s wearing flip-flops in 50-degree weather and he’s probably had that sweatshirt since he was actually in college. That must have been like twenty years ago.”1 My usual impulse to play the contrarian role seemed to have less will behind it on that particular evening.

The second was, “Why should I care what they’re thinking?” By most typical measures of success in life,2 I have it made. As I mentioned, I had two beautiful sleeping children and an unbelievable wife – who was not yet sleeping – at home. I have multiple jobs, including a private therapy practice, a post-graduate education and a savings account. What do I have to feel uncomfortable about? Am I really that insecure or was I just temporarily yearning for the times when I was young(…er)?

I decided that what I was feeling was normal. I imagine that, to a certain extent, everyone longs for a time when they had fewer responsibilities and had the luxury of putting their effort into spending time with their friends or going to parties instead of making late night runs to the drug store. On a more basic level, I imagine that many adults at least think about the difference between first going out at 9:30 at night and having been wearing one’s pajamas for twenty minutes by the time 9:30 comes. It wasn’t about the girl or my clothes or the fact that my glasses and the stubble on my face from not having shaved combined to spell “exhaustion” across my forehead. It was about being reminded of where I am in my life and being happy with what I have.

I’m thankful for the fact that I’m employed, even if it feels like the work never ends. I appreciate the fact that I’m able to support my family financially so that my wife can stay home with our children. I’m lucky to have access to resources and the awareness that I’m significantly privileged so that Trudy and I can impart the same awareness to our kids as they get older. There are some challenges in my life, to be sure, but they’re not nearly as severe as those than many other people face on a daily basis. I wouldn’t change a thing.


1. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2005. It was twelve years ago.

2. Including The Game of Life, where the very object of the game is to get married, raise a family, make a whole bunch of money and retire. This game may end up being the subject of a future blog post.

Speaking My Mind

It was just short of a year ago that I wrote a post about keeping my political opinions to myself.  I wrote that I had no interest in publicizing my views of governmental policies or the personalities that were advocating for them, largely because doing so felt like screaming at the wind. It seemed futile to publish articles about foreign policy or health care or education reform because I never felt like my voice would have any effect. I’m only one person, of course, and it is always hard to tell if anyone is listening. I pictured myself publishing a blog post and my words dissipating into the ether of cyberspace, without any response or recognition. Or, if there were recognition, I imagined it manifesting in the form of internet trolls hurling insults at me from the protection of Twitter egg avatars, rather than challenging my argument with an opposing opinion and engaging me in honest discourse. It’s not even that I’m looking for recognition with this blog;1 but if I’m going to write about something as important as the state of our government, I want to be able to make a difference.

The other issue was that I felt disappointed in the political conversations I was watching between actual politicians. I published the post in June 2016, at the end of the presidential primary election schedule. My biggest complaint was that the debates had become “nothing more than candidates throwing insults back and forth at each other while the political issues get pushed to the side… [All] platitudes and sound bites with no substance.” I was looking for leaders to describe their plans for moving our country forward but I was given reality television drama instead.

That brings me to today.

As I was deciding how I wanted to approach my stance to the events that have transpired over the past few months, I realized what has been bothering me the most about our President’s administration. It is not just my vehement disagreement with his choices for cabinet posts, as I outlined in my letter to the President on Inauguration Day. It is not just that I take exception to the blind defense that most Republican members of Congress provide in response to the President’s executive orders that are clear examples of discrimination. It is not even just my anger about the GOP’s celebration of a health care bill whose purpose is to offset tax cuts for the super-rich, rather than provide actual health care to U.S. citizens.

The most concerning and frustrating aspect of the American government since our President took office has been the fact that the supposed leader of the free world does not seem to care about the people he is said to be leading or the institutions of the country of which he is supposed to be in charge.

The President makes open displays of disdain for those he feels are beneath him and speaks negatively about foreign leaders without hesitation.2 Many of the President’s words seem to be uttered without any consideration as to their potential consequences. He appears incapable of admitting that he is mistaken (at best) or that he has lied outright (at worst). His disregard for the weight of his position and the related importance of his comments has shattered any last shred of integrity that might have remained with him.

To put it simply: I don’t trust him.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that an educated American citizen feels like his Commander-in-Chief cannot be relied upon to accomplish simple administrative tasks. It is also unfortunate that his staff is forced to bend over backwards trying to defend his actions and comments, even if doing so forces them into their own political gaffes. However, neither of these are as depressing as the refusal of Republican members of Congress to deviate from party lines in order to speak out against behavior that is harmful to the American public or, in some cases, borders on treason. Our representatives in government should be held responsible if their actions do not benefit their constituents. If they vote in favor of bills that have a direct connection to negative results for the citizens in their districts, they should not be re-elected. If those in power take action to remove people from office who are investigating potential ties to corruption and foreign interference in our governmental procedures, they should be held accountable.

It is not worth remaining quiet about one’s views in our current political climate simply because the desire for open and honest political discussion is hard to find. It has been people’s complacence and comfort with silence that has led to the mess that has become our government. People need to speak about their ideas, whether the audience is apparent or not. We need to write letters to editors and op-ed pieces, make phone calls to our elected officials and attend rallies and marches in person. If it feels like Washington is not listening to us, we need to speak louder, reminding our representatives and senators that they work for us and not the other way around.

However, and perhaps this is even more important, we also need to listen. While it feels empowering to join with those who feel the same way we do, it is incumbent upon us to engage those who disagree with us so that we can understand their position and become more informed about the circumstances that brought them to their opinions. Such discourse continues to be critical for our nation’s progress because open conversation is the only path toward compromise. Even if we succeed in replacing the politicians who have brought us to this point, a lack of appropriate and mindful follow-up would land us right back at square one in the future. Without it, the population will continue to reinforce the current divide along party lines, resulting in the same white noise that has brought us to where we are today.


1. Which is good, considering the blog’s fairly meager following.

2. And those were our allies!

Featured image courtesy of Mediamodifier.

Awesome Clouds

My eyes scanned the ground as I walked, mapping out each step so that I could avoid the muddy patches near the walkway and the awkward separations between the sections of concrete. It was somewhat slow going; I kept having to pause so that I could pick the blanket up and re-wrap it around Shayna’s body that was huddled against me. I gave her a little smile but she didn’t respond. Her eyes held my gaze for a moment before turning back to the nearby trees swaying with the breeze.

“I know, Shin, I’m sorry,” I said quietly as I tugged the blanket up again and tucked in the corners.1 “I don’t really want to be here either.”

I stayed back behind the gathering, not wanting to disturb anyone if Shayna started to object to being out in the cold. The people kept shuffling in, squeezing together to make room for everyone. The cold began painting faint roses on their faces, some of which still showed the faint streaks of dried tears. I bounced Shayna slightly to keep her quiet and to keep my legs moving, trying to ignore the biting air and the reason we were all outside in the first place.

The rabbi began singing softly. Her voice was pleasant enough, though I found myself holding a grudge against her for making mistakes in her speech earlier in the day. She could have checked on the dates with any number of people, I thought. Of all days, she should have gotten it right today. The song ended and I let out a resigned sigh. The rabbi began speaking but I was too far away to make out the words.

My mind wandered as she spoke, desperate for distraction. The sky was a spectacular shade of blue, like a crayon that ends up getting blunted from overuse because of its appeal. A handful of white cotton candy clouds hung in the air, looking almost happy in contrast to the melancholy ritual taking place below. As I glanced at the names on the nearby headstones, I wondered who the people had been and why there were more small rocks piled on top of some of the graves as opposed to others.

A sudden gust of wind sent a chill through my legs. I turned to shield Shayna from the breeze and adjusted the blanket. Her head kept turning from side to side, as though there were too many things in the world to see and she couldn’t decide where to focus her attention.

“What are you looking at?” I asked quietly. “Is it the trees? The sky? The awesome clouds?”

Shayna turned her head once or twice more. When she finally settled on one direction, I looked up and saw what had finally caught her.

A large bird had taken flight in the distance. It glided back and forth, tracing circles and figure-eights through the air. “That looks like a hawk,” I whispered to Shayna. “He’s probably looking for–”

I stopped short, remembering where I was and for whom. I began to think of him and the moments we had shared together. I pictured us watching our sons play soccer in the courtyard of his apartment and tearing slices of pizza into little pieces for them at Nick’s. I thought of us drinking beer while we played arcade games at our friend’s birthday party and him making fun of me for leaving the party early. I thought of sitting with him at the bar as we watched the Philadelphia Eagles, his second love after his family. I remembered feeling simultaneously amused by his ongoing complaints about his team’s mistakes and embarrassed by his badgering of the waitress because the television showing the game kept cutting out. I thought of the love he felt for his team, which was why his disappointment in their performance was so intense.

Then I thought of his family again. I thought of his wife, who had been one of the first real mom-friends that Trudy had made after Eitan was born. I thought of his son, who is three weeks younger than Eitan, and his daughter, who is a month older than Shayna. I thought of how much being a husband and a father meant to him and how his children seemed to fill him with purpose. I thought of the connection he felt with his football team and how it paled in comparison with the passion he felt for his family.

I looked up again at the bird, still circling among the clouds.

“I changed my mind, Shin,” I whispered again. “That’s not a hawk; it’s an eagle.”

 


1. Shin is the first letter in Shayna’s Hebrew name.

The Force Will Be With You… When You’re Older

Eitan loves Star Wars.

He has masks of Darth Vader and Captain Phasma that he uses when playing dress-up. When Trudy bought him new pairs of pajamas to wear to school for pajama day he chose the Darth Vader set over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles set.1 He has a pre-reader book of Star Wars stories and loves pointing out Chewbacca, Han “Sola” and the “Stormtrippers.” He starts laughing anytime he sees C-3PO and R2-D2 and, once in a while, I’ll catch him glancing at the Yoda toy sitting on his dresser that he got from my father. When he was a baby, I would throw him up in the air while singing the Star Wars theme song and I would take his echoing toy microphone and say in my deepest voice, “Eitan… I am your father.”2 We recently had to hide his “light-savers” so he wouldn’t use them in the house because things like this kept happening:

 

There’s one little problem with Eitan’s love of Star Wars, though:

He’s never actually seen it.

Eitan hasn’t watched any of the movies. He hasn’t seen any of the television shows. He knows most of the names and characters but I don’t think he would recognize Luke Skywalker if twenty-year-old Mark Hammill walked into the room. I’m actually not even sure he would recognize the name Luke Skywalker because characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca are marketed so much more frequently.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t even think Eitan knows what the Force is.

Most of this is by design, of course. I could have put Star Wars on for Eitan so he could watch it during any number of rainy days. The biggest reason I haven’t done so yet is because I think it would scare him. Chewbacca is a giant teddy bear at heart, but there are a bunch of aliens in the cantina on Tatooine that are not nearly as cuddly. Emperor Palpatine’s eyes and voice are incredibly creepy and Darth Vader… well, Vader is just terrifying. He’s strong, he’s dressed in black, you never see the face behind his mask and he appears to be unstoppable.

Aside from the fear factor is my hesitation about pushing Eitan’s interests in the direction of conflicts that are sometimes quite violent. The light saber fights are exciting and the special effects of the various gun fights are incredible to watch, especially as a child seeing them for the first time. The problem is that weapons, in real life, are incredibly dangerous and are specifically designed to cause harm to others. Even though Eitan has (unfortunately) had some experience with death and is old enough to understand the concept, at least in a basic sense, I worry about the idea of encouraging his interest in a movie so replete with acts of violence.

I should add, for the record, that my unease isn’t limited to Star Wars. I have the same concerns about pushing Eitan to become more interested in super heroes for the same reason. Eitan “likes” Batman and Superman the same way he likes Star Wars; he has some toys, clothes and books, but he doesn’t know too much of the characters’ backgrounds. Even if Eitan is well acquainted with character deaths from Disney movies – Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, take your pick – the idea of him becoming desensitized to shootings and sword fights just doesn’t sit well with me.

I realize that the desensitization is probably inevitable. Kids act out what they see on television and in movies, whether it’s Daniel Tiger learning coping skills, Blaze the Monster Truck speeding past volcanoes to teach fair play or super heroes fighting off bad guys. I suppose my hope is primarily that I can delay Eitan’s interest in guns so that he stays more of an innocent young child in my mind for at least a little longer before the negative influences of the rest of the world really start to creep in.

Look, Eitan will see Star Wars. It’s one of my all time favorite movies and I can’t wait to introduce Eitan to the stories and characters that I’ve loved since I was a child. The movies teach about magic, teamwork and a sense of wonder that I believe are so much more important than any references to violence, which is exactly how I will present the movies to Eitan. He is also finally getting to the age where I can really start sharing my interests with him in ways he can understand. I can tell he is looking forward to it, if only based on his enthusiasm for a movie he’s never seen and doesn’t even really understand. But I would rather wait another year or so, partially so that I can be more confident that the movie won’t scare Eitan too much, but also so that he understands more about the consequences of physical violence and the differences between fact and fiction.

 


1. Eitan made his choice fairly easily, but five-year-old me would have really grappled with that decision. Seven-year-old me would have had an even harder time.

2. I don’t do this anymore now. I’m scared he’s going to have that plot point spoiled for him before I can show him the movie and there’s no way I’m going to be the one to do it.

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I’m going to begin by offering you congratulations on your inauguration today. You may not have won my vote, or even the votes of the majority of U.S. citizens, but you did win the votes you needed to win the election, which is why you’re standing where you are today. As I told my students after the election was over, “Whether you were happy with the results of the election or not, the system worked the way it was supposed to.” And so, I will congratulate you.

I must tell you, though, Mr. President, I am nervous about your upcoming administration.

I am concerned about the people you have appointed to your cabinet posts. Senator Jeff Sessions, whom you have selected as your attorney general, has a political history replete with racist actions and statements; your Secretary of State appointment, Rex Tillerson, has close ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin; and your nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, not only has no formal experience working in schools, she struggles to understand the basic policies of our education system. I’m not saying that you have to be an expert in these areas or that you should be running these political and economic systems yourself, but your appointments of people to positions who are on record as being biased against the agencies they are about to oversee are, as I said, concerning.

I’m also concerned about the connections between your supporters and acts of violence, acts which seemed to happen fairly frequently during your campaign. I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that these incidents may not have been quite as prevalent as they seemed because of the publicity they received in the media. That being said, however, I would argue that even one act of violence on your behalf should be deemed deplorable, rather than minimized. It would also be comforting to hear you condemn acts of violence against women, people of color or even just people who disagree with you, rather than simply distancing yourself from those attacks, if you address them at all.

The root of my unease, Mr. President, is that I have difficulty believing that you have the well-being of our nation as your top priority. If my concerns stemmed simply from an inherent difference of political opinion, I would not be happy about your actions and cabinet appointments, but I would accept them. The problem is that every action you have taken, both during your campaign and since the election, has appeared to be self-serving, from maintaining ties to your businesses after being elected to appointing Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, a position neither of you understood. Even if it is not necessarily the case, it appears to me you are more focused on your own interests than on how you will achieve your goal of making America great again.

Mr. President, you have the most unique of opportunities before you. Today you are becoming our Commander-in-Chief and our representative to the rest of the world. It is a position of great power, to be sure; but, as we learned from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If I may be so bold, I would like to give you some advice as you begin your new position. You don’t have to listen to it but I sincerely hope that you will at least consider it. You seem to put so much stock in what other people think of you, taking to Twitter to post angry responses, whether you feel you’ve been slighted by CNN, Saturday Night Live or Meryl Streep. I believe that one of the reasons why many people – including me – have been so outwardly negative about your election victory is that we do not feel like you see yourself as our leader. As I said earlier, your actions seem to indicate you have only your own interests in mind. It appears as though you plan to lead the members of your own socioeconomic group and the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves.

My advice is this: lead all of us. Answer our questions, rather than suppressing the voices that imply that you might be wrong. Explain the rationales behind your actions and support your arguments with facts. Reassure us that you are thinking about the consequences of your comments and that you are listening to advisers who have some political experience as opposed to just your business buddies. Assuage our fears by demonstrating that you’re not just making decisions because “you feel like it.” Be more transparent about your thought process and engage in true political discourse, rather than simply insulting the people who contradict you.

We may not be happy with your policies or your political actions. You still may not get our agreement. But you may get our respect.

Congratulations again, Mr. President.

Sincerely,

Aaron

Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion

This week I had one of those fantastic moments in class where I blew a student’s mind.

The class was made up of students in sixth and seventh grades. The broader lesson revolved around interfaith relationships and focused particularly on the degree to which we, as Jews, should be educated about other religions. I’m on record with my students as saying that it is not only a good idea to learn about other religions and cultures, it is critical for Judaism’s survival that we learn about the people around us so that we can find ways to coexist peacefully. Judaism has never existed in a vacuum and part of my lesson was imparting the message that we need to understand the beliefs of others in order to maintain healthy relationships with them. It is a matter of keeping the peace and being good neighbors, to be sure; but, for a nation that has been attacked and persecuted as long as it has existed, it is also a matter of survival.

During Tuesday’s class, there was a moment when we were discussing some of the basic distinctions between Judaism and Christianity. I chose to contrast the concept of the Holy Trinity against Judaism’s singular God to drive that point home: not only does Judaism reject the notion that God would appear in human form, the idea that there can be three “versions”1 of God runs directly contrary to the Jewish belief in one God. The students were familiar with Judaism’s stance from reciting the Shema but had some difficulty understanding the Trinity. They asked questions like, “How can God be in three parts but also have each part be God?” Also, “Is one of the parts higher than the others? Like, is the Father the ‘real’ God and then the Son and the Holy Spirit are below him?” And, the more basic, “Are the Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost the same thing?”

I might have considered the class a success at that point, if only because I had engaged the students and pushed them to grapple with foreign and challenging concepts. They were trying and they were taking the material seriously, which is all I usually care about. But then I used an analogy I had heard from my father, a Jewish educator in his own right, to help them along a bit more. I wrote the words “vapor,” “water” and “ice” on the board2 and said, “These are all the same matter, just in different forms. The temperature and the environment affect the way the matter appears but its basic nature never really changes.” The students nodded in agreement.

Then I asked, “Now, of water, vapor and ice, who can tell me which one is the real one?”

A couple students immediately blurted out, “Water!” One of their classmates corrected them and said that they were all real because nothing except their appearance was changing. A moment or two passed as the students kept going back and forth and another student started to ask me how the analogy connected to the Trinity. I started to explain that, just as there is no “real” form of water, vapor or ice, there is no “real” form of God in the Trinity, because God is both made up of the three parts and each one is God on its own. I was about halfway through my explanation when one girl, who had been sitting and listening quietly in the back, suddenly sat straight up in her chair and clapped her hands to the sides of her head.

“Whoa!” she yelled. “I think my brain just exploded!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Her eyes had gone wide as dinner plates and she began stammering, trying to find the words to articulate what had just happened. She was eventually able to string together a few coherent sentences and some of her classmates began to show similar understanding smiles, though there were no more exclamations.

Those are the moments I strive for. The sudden awakenings of understanding where everything somehow slides into place; the proverbial “light bulb” moments. It sometimes feels like my students are already so jaded that I wonder how much of an impact I’m really having on them. In many ways, these twelve and thirteen-year-olds have seen much more of the world than I had at their age because of their access to the internet, so I have to work harder to grab their attention (the social and political events of the last few months have been quite helpful in that regard). When those moments do come, though, whether they lead to smiles or laughter or gray matter getting metaphorically splattered around the room, I feel like my effort has been validated. Not only are my students learning, they are enjoying the process, which means I’m doing my job right.


1. I put “versions” in quotation marks because it’s a difficult concept to explain. As I understand it, the three beings combine to make up God, while God is also simultaneously fully present in each of them. So we’ll go with “versions” and accept that it’s a difficult concept to explain. (Thanks again, Sam, for help with the phrasing.)

2. Technically, first I wrote “steam” and then changed it to vapor when one of my students informed me that steam and water vapor are two different things. It was just one more instance of me learning as much from my students as they learn from me.