Cursed &mdash and blessed &mdash to be a teacher

I am not a superstitious person, but believe me when I tell you, I was cursed at the age of 10.

Sitting at my small wooden desk in Mrs. Kennedy’s fourth grade class, I had just finished showing Jessica Butler how to do long addition and was tidying up my papers before going out to recess.

A dark shadow spread over my desk and I looked up into the chins, yes chins, of my teacher. I couldn’t help but notice the wiry black hair that seemed so out of place on a chin. Embarrassed, I looked down into her sturdy, sensible shoes. Was I in trouble for helping Jessica? Did she think I cheated on our spelling test?

“Amy, I’ve been watching you all year,” she began, “and I am convinced that you should become a teacher, like me. You’re a natural for it,” she concluded, patting my head with her chalky fingertips.

I wasn’t sure at the time if this was a compliment or an insult, seeing as in addition to the chins and the shoes, Mrs. Kennedy had big, drapery-like arms that swayed when she wrote on the black board.

That curse haunted me all through college and law school. Every time I turned around, someone asked me to teach. The local synagogue wanted me to teach Hebrew school. My kids’ teachers wanted me to do the Jewish holidays. And then I got a phone call from the owner of a real estate school who wanted me to teach contract law to real estate agents. It sounded like fun and a good way to build my law practice, so I said yes.

I entered the classroom a bit nervous, more about the possibility that a stray chin hair might pop out than the likelihood that I wouldn’t keep the agents engaged for the next three hours. It didn’t take more than a few months, however, to realize that Mrs. Kennedy was right. I absolutely loved being a teacher.

Several years into teaching, I had an epiphany while lecturing about the intricacies of contract-default provisions and boiler-plate clauses. How would it be to teach something I really, truly cared about? What would it be like to talk about matters of substance and really explore them with my students? The idea pulled at me and wouldn’t let go.

Three years and a major illness later, I enrolled in a master’s degree program in Jewish studies, a decision that has changed my adult life more than any other choice I have made.

Over the past decade, I have had the privilege and the pleasure of teaching adults, children and college students about subjects and issues that truly matter to me: Topics of great concern and importance for me as a Jewish woman, mother, wife, daughter, professional and community member. From Jewish ethics, spirituality and law to Jewish rituals, holidays and lifecycle events, there is nothing I teach that doesn’t speak to me directly and personally. Each time I prepare for a class, whether it is a course on Jewish literature or one about the Jewish views on organ donation, I am energized and inspired by the Jewish texts that inform me as a teacher and guide me as an adult.

The one thing that Mrs. Kennedy never told me is how important my students would become to me — that they would not only become my friends but my teachers. I am inspired by the different ways they think, question, analyze and respond to the material I present. I am challenged by their critiques and questions, and motivated by their interests and concerns.

My students have done more collectively to expand my set of assumptions and worldviews than any one teacher I have ever had.

My appreciation for my students is not unique. In fact, it is very Jewish. Over 2,000 years ago, the sages recognized the significance of the role that a student plays in the life of his or her teacher when they said: “Much wisdom I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but from my pupils, most of all.”

I was cursed at the age of 10 to be a teacher, but in that role I am truly blessed.

Amy Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, author, and Jewish educator based in Tucson.