By Dr. David Lazerson for COLlive.com
After a few months during my very first year of teaching in the public school system in Buffalo, NY, my students got completely used to me uttering some words before and after eating.
In fact, students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute often asked me to read the blessings on food out loud, as opposed to whispering, and to employ greater concentration.
But I was even more amazed when my class of 10 young teenage boys –all with learning and behavioral disorders– began defending me to fellow students and even to teachers in the school.
Other students in the school, after noticing my head covering, would confront me in the hallways or the playground with the following question: “You a Black Muslim?”
The question always amused me.
It was as if I came across more like a black person than my skin color suggested. In my own high school days they called me the “reverse Oreo” – as in Oreo cookie: White on the outside but black on the inside!
In my new job, I decided to put the “Reverse Oreo” style back in action at this tough school by becoming a Jewish guy that broke through all the negative stereotypes. I pumped weights, played ball with them. And took them on pretty rugged outdoor excursions, including kayaking, hiking, and overnight camping trips.
If one of my students would hear that question about my identity, he’d speak up. “Naw,” he’d say, cocking his chin up in the air and to the side. “Not black Muslim. He’s Jewish!”
The tone in their voices spoke more loudly than their words. In effect, it said, ‘What’cha gonna do about it?’
The day before Thanksgiving vacation, I was escorting my motley crew back to the classroom after we did an extra period of floor hockey in the school gym. As we were walking down the school hallway, the school librarian confronted me.
The two of us were pretty visible in school as she always wore a large cross necklace. Me? Let’s just say I stood out on a few different levels.
First, and surprisingly so, I was one of the few male teachers in the building. Second, was being Caucasian. And thirdly, I came with all the “Moses” trimmings – beard, kippah and my tzitzis hanging at my side. I looked much more like a rabbi ready for a Yeshiva, than a special education teacher in a public school system.
The teacher-librarian and I often had deep discussions about religion and she never let me off the hook. To her credit, she wasn’t interested in the usual small talk. She often said it was her job to “save souls” and for her, perhaps, I represented a serious catch.
Despite our philosophical differences, she had a deep respect for Israel and the Jewish people. Still, she always felt frustrated that I hadn’t accepted her beliefs. As the holiday season approached, she always became more intense. Thanksgiving was no exception, especially since all the winter holiday decorations were up all over Buffalo.
As she saw my class heading down the hallway, she quickly caught up to us and stopped right in front of me and our fairly quiet line came to an abrupt halt.
“Do Jews believe in Thanksgiving?” she asked, then put her hands on her hips as if to say, ‘ahhh, I finally got ya!’
Before I could formulate an appropriate answer, one of my defenders jumped in.
It was none other than Phil. He was one of my toughest students. One of his brothers was a drug dealer and another gifted him a personal gun. Phil lived in a condemned home. He was short in stature, but he never ever backed down from a fight. I saved his life many a time. But for him, he’d rather lose his physical face than lose face.
Phil jumped in between the two of us teachers –the member of the church choir and the rabbi-looking teacher– and looked her straight into the eyes.
“Shoot, everyday is Thanksgiving to Dr. Laz,” he declared. “He says a blessing over everything he eats. Every day! Every time!”
I was flabbergasted. I was about to dig up some deep intellectual response, but it could not have been expressed any better than that.
“Thanks for your answer,” the librarian replied looking down at Phil. “You’re one hundred percent right!”
Without another sound, she quickly turned around and disappeared down the hallway. Like that, the discussion had started and was over. Answer accepted. No need for further elaboration.
Yes, we do indeed believe in Thanksgiving. But more than belief, we practice it. And on a daily basis. It’s time to pause and reflect on the many amazing blessings we have in our lives.
Yes, we all have challenges but my special students throughout the years (36 and just getting warmed up here!) have shown me time and time again that each moment is a gift. That’s why it’s called the “present.” And thus the sense of gratitude goes deeper than food and drink.
We offer thanks to G-d Almighty for each moment we can breathe, walk, talk, sleep and wake, laugh, see the beauty of nature, for our friends and family, and a zillion other things. It seems there’s a blessing for nearly anything and everything we come into contact with throughout the day and throughout the years.
“Wow!” I said out loud, putting an arm around Phil’s shoulders. “I owe you one buddy. Big time.”
Thanksgiving is indeed a 24/7 holiday.
–Dr. David Lazerson, commonly known as Dr. Laz, is an accomplished teacher and musician who has been innovating in education for over 36 years. Dr. Laz uses both assistive technology and the expressive arts with his students who have profound special needs and, in 2008, he was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.