Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Bernard Madoff Came to My College English Composition Class

            I am a college English teacher, one of the thousands of adjunct lecturers, untenured, dedicated, and harassed, who commute from college to university to community college all over this great nation, to make certain that the youth of today are able to write, or at least attempt, a Simple Declarative Sentence, albeit not as well as Hemingway or Raymond Carver.
For thirty years, I was a fulltime pulpit rabbi, leading services, counseling people, teaching Hebrew School, and conducting lifecycle events, but I got tired of the 24/7 on-call nature of the work. The final straw was learning that, in order to avoid being called back to do a funeral (“Because, Rabbi, no one does a funeral like you do, and no one knew Mr. X as well as you”), I had to take my vacations at least two hours away, with the result being that my wife and I ended up relaxing in Providence, RI—not exactly the vacation capital of the world—because MapQuest measured it as being exactly 2 hrs. and 2 min. from our home in New Hampshire. I still rabbi on weekends here in Florida, speaking before a lively, intellectually-stimulating and involved senior congregation, and running two discussion groups, one on Jewish Current Events (I’m preparing for one now, downloading articles from the Web), and the other on Great Jewish Thinkers and Books, following services on Shabbat.
            But I love what I do: my students are mostly South Florida typical: African-American and Hispanic; they are young, most of them frightened and uncertain over what the future may hold, many of them the first in their families to attend college, and nervous about being in an environment of higher learning, after the knockabout, assembly-line education they received, or did not, in the public school system—which is not a snide put-down at my high-school-teaching colleagues: my sister taught high school for decades, and it’s not easy. Teaching is a difficult art, and it’s always easy to blame teachers when society fails our youth.
            Besides teaching my students how to write, I consider it a sacred trust to share with them my ethnicity, my religion. Because I am usually the first and only Jew they are ever likely to meet up close, I want to break down stereotypes.
            “College is not a sausage factory,” I tell them, “We are not stuffing you full of knowledge and launching you out into the world. This is (or ought to be) a community of scholars. You are learning how to write because, one day, you may discover something that will improve or develop your own particular area of study. You will need to know how to express yourselves clearly in English, so that you can write an article describing what you have found.”
            I tell them that I am Jewish. I tell them that I am a rabbi, a Jewish minister, despite not having sidecurls, wearing a big hat, or even covering my head at all times. I am dedicated to the American Ideal that all people in this country are, indeed, equal, and that everyone deserves a shot at a college education. I tell them about my Zayde, my Grandfather Jacob, who came to this country from Poland in 1905, a youth of 18, because he didn’t want to fight the Japanese for the Czar, whom I call the king of Russia. I tell them how their decisions, no matter how minor they might seem at the time, will have untold repercussions for future generations—whom they decide to marry or live with, whether they decide to have children or not—and many of them have children already; some are single parents.
“My father was the only one in his family to go to college,” I say, “and he went on to get his Master’s degree. I only hope the same for you. You can do this thing. I have faith in you. I am here to help you succeed. You must ask me if you have any questions. Do not fade away, back there in the classroom.”
Slowly, these young people lose what I call their “ghetto faces,” the masks of artificial toughness that they have created to survive in their world, and they warm up to this strange, loud, old white man, who gesticulates as he talks, paces around their desks, and tries to make the world of words and books come alive for them. The other day, while discussing an essay of Maya Angelou’s, I mention why she named one of her autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—she was memorializing the nearly-forgotten master poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), whose life and poetical career were stunted and nearly broken by the intense racism he encountered during his life. I give them extra credit, despite this being a composition course, for our reading his poems “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask.” We discuss them; they are what I call “Descriptive Essays in Poetical Form.”
            Bernard Madoff came to my class because English Comp textbooks try mightily to be trendy and, at the time that this particular one was written, Madoff was all over the news—but now, about a year since his downfall and well-deserved incarceration, he has faded into a well-deserved oblivion, though his name is still recognizable. There is an essay about him in the text—not my first choice, but necessary.
            “Who was Bernie Madoff?” I query. They do recognize his name. “He was Jewish,” I press them further. “He was rich. Are all Jews rich?” Two students respond, “Yes.”
            “No,” I reply, soberly, “Not all Jews are rich. That’s a stereotype.” I go on from there, to describe how and why Madoff preferred to approach his own people when looking for suckers—how he even took money from Elie Wiesel’s foundation dedicated to helping Holocaust survivors. I stress that every people has suffered their own form of genocide—the African-Americans going back to Columbus, for the 200-year-long experience of slavery; Irish-Americans, during the Potato Famine of the early 19th Century, which drove thousands of them to America, and, of course, my people’s Jewish Holocaust.
            “Why did Madoff favor cheating people from his own people, his own tribe?” I ask. I explain that people from your own race, ethnic group, color, are more likely to trust you. I tell them how a pyramid scheme works, how it’s named after an Italian-American, Charles Ponzi, and what he did in 1920.
            “If a get-rich-quick idea sounds too good to be true,” I say, “it probably is.”
            These young people are streetwise in their own, limited way, but they are preparing to enter a larger world, where the temptations will be greater and the dangers more subtle. My mission is to show them how to survive in this bigger world: their language and writing must be up for the task. And, more importantly, my job is to break down stereotypes, to teach them to take people as individuals.

            It is an honor, a burden, and a privilege.