Monday, December 11, 2017

Where Are You?

I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance.  It is a memoir that describes the decline of white working class Americans, mixing personal experiences with studies and statistics.  The author's family are hillbillies from Kentucky.  He is one of the few in his community to get a college education (Yale Law School, no less) and change his cultural and social class.  His book got me thinking about my own life story.  How does anyone get to where they are in life?

I think of our lives as partnerships with G-d.  He gives us gifts over which we have no control:  where, when, and to whom we are born; our siblings and birth order; our physical characteristics; our individual temperaments; our natural intelligence.  Our role in this partnership is what we do with what we're given; the choices we make that ultimately determine who we become.  Parts of our lives are cultural or familial inheritance.  But the time comes when we need to make our own decisions and assume responsibility for who we want to be.

I would often look at a class of students and wonder what life circumstances and adult decisions brought them to this place at this time. Why is this particular child in this class? Who are his parents and grandparents?  Where did they come from?  What brought them to this school? What can I learn from this child?  What can I teach him?  The decisions we make as adults become part of the uncontrollable factors in a child's life.  For good or for bad, our words and actions will have a lasting impact. 

The picture above is of my paternal grandparents, Anthony and Jenny Cariello, with my oldest child, my Risa.  My grandfather emigrated from Naples, Italy when he was a young boy.  My grandmother came over as a baby with her family from Sicily.  At the time of this photograph, Risa and I were not yet Jewish.   I converted shortly before her third birthday. My husband and I raised a family of fully observant and committed Jewish children. I went on to a career in Jewish education.  Risa has dedicated her life to Jewish outreach and is raising seven children of her own.  Together, we have touched the lives of hundreds, probably more, of Jewish families.

So how does a little Italian baby grow up to teach Jews about Judaism?  In my case, I had a thirst for knowledge and a strong connection to G-d at an early age.  I was the first in my family to graduate college, earning a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish.  I met my husband in undergraduate school. We were married by a Judge after we had both graduated.   I discovered Judaism when our first two daughters were still babies and I embraced it fully.  I  fell into early childhood education by doing some family daycare when my youngest two children were babies.  I went back to school for a second masters degree, this time in early childhood education, and was offered a job as director at a local yeshiva.  I loved my work and continued to grow professionally for many years.

Many of my friends and family never went to college.  Where would I be now if I had decided to get a job right out of high school?  Or even if I had stayed at Iona College, where I studied my freshman year, and not transferred to Binghamton?  It's unlikely that I would have met my husband.  I might have returned to the Catholic church, but cannot imagine that I would have considered Judaism.  And suppose I returned to teaching high school Spanish instead of starting a family daycare?  I probably wouldn’t have pursued a career in early childhood education.  My decisions as a young adult determined the course of my life.  And I think that's true of all of us.

Take some time to think about your own life story.  Where do you come from?  What life decisions brought you to where you are today?  How might your current decisions impact your children's future?  If you're a teacher, recognize that each student brings with her the life stories of her family.  Understand that you have the power to affect her in ways you may not even imagine.  

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