My doorstop-sized Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines ephemera as “a genus of mayfly with shining transparent wings and strong functional legs.” But ephemera also refers to transitory printed material not intended to be preserved. Would letters from teachers to their students’ parents fall under that definition? Not in my family.
I recently came across my old report cards. They were inside an envelope that was inside a shopping bag, one of the two shopping bags I carried back to Vermont 13 years ago, when my siblings and I sorted the contents of our childhood home. The bags were stuffed with old letters and children’s drawings and marked-up drafts of documents and other papers I’d gleaned from my parents’ desks — as well as a crumbling cardboard folder I’d found in my parents’ attic, filled with the brittle, yellowed drafts of newspaper columns, funny poems and song lyrics my mother had rescued 40 years earlier from the desk in my grandfather’s dental office.
But about those report cards. They run from kindergarten through high school, 1962-1975, and come from three different school systems – the public schools in Montclair, New Jersey; the Hebrew School at Temple Shomrei Emunah; and the UNESCO-run Ecole Active Bilingue in Paris, where we lived from 1964 to 1966. That’s a lot of different teachers weighing in on my past. Their judgments are notably consistent.
I was a good student, but not great. Not surprisingly, I did best in reading and writing – although my spelling and handwriting were reliably terrible. I don’t remember Miss Wadman giving me that failing grade in Health Ed in the fall of 7th grade, and that’s a pity, because it probably makes a good story.
One story that does come through loud and clear, so to speak, is my behavior.
“Talkative in class!” my English teacher in France comments in October, 1965.
“A very pleasant student but still very talkative,” she notes one month later.
That same month, my main classroom teacher warns, “Attention aux bavardages!” – pay attention to chit-chat.
Back in the States, under “habits and attitudes,” I get top marks for things like good posture and working well with others. But I fall down on “practices self-control.”
“Although Ruth is doing highly satisfactory work at this time, I feel she should be more attentive and practice better self-control,” writes Mr. Chartofillis, my 5th-grade teacher at Nishuane School.
“Ruth is a bright girl who could easily be an outstanding student. It is regrettable that she doesn’t apply her abilities to her studies,” writes Mr. Schwartzmer, my 6th-grade Hebrew School teacher. He lists four actions my parents should take to bring me up to snuff, including, “Encourage to behave better in class – not to talk too much. Particularly not to talk back to teacher.”
“Ruth would do well to avoid sitting next to anyone she feels she may want to talk with,” writes my 7th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Plavin.
Oh, what a pain I must have been! I was so much more excited about so many things besides what was happening at the blackboard.
But it wasn’t all bad. In the early elementary school years, the word “imaginative” comes up a lot. My 4th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Bordowitz, actually says that my “genial personality and sense of humor add to the pleasure of teaching” me. Thank you, Mr. Bordowitz! I think I loved you.
But the comments that make me happiest, all these years later, are from my 5th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Asekoff. First he says how smart and creative I am (what’s not to love there?), and he mentions my progress in Hebrew and history. Then he says this:
She participates quite actively in classroom discussions, quite often making important and insightful remarks. She is interested in the material dealt with, and often makes provocative remarks that influence both the other students and me.
What makes these comments different from all other comments? This is Hebrew School, remember. We’re discussing the Bible. And here is a teacher who obviously encourages discussion. Questioning. Exactly the sort of active engagement that brought me back to Judaism as an adult – the same attitude I tried to foster when I taught Torah at my shul in Vermont, when my own kids were well past the 5th grade. I had long forgotten Mr. Asekoff. But what I learned in his classroom must have stayed with me.
So who is this teacher? His note is signed with his full name: Stanley L. Asekoff. Most of our teachers at Shomrei Emunah were rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Guessing that he was from this group, I googled “Rabbi Stanley Asekoff.” And there he was – as of last year, the emeritus rabbi at B’nai Shalom, a “contemporary conservative” synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey. A few clicks later, I had his email address, and within a few minutes I had sent him a message.
Were you my Hebrew School teacher? I wrote in the subject line. Then I explained who I was, and quoted from the comments on that report card. I concluded, I want to thank the person who wrote this. I have mostly bad memories of Hebrew School, but have gone on to be active in my congregations in Vermont, and now in Providence. I can only think that someone who encouraged me to question and discuss religious matters when I was a kid must have planted the seed for my loving engagement with Judaism today.
I received a very gracious reply. Although he doesn’t remember me any better than I remember him, I had found the right person, and he appreciated my note, and was touched to learn that some of the seeds he had planted, taking it on faith that one day they would lead to good results, had had that result.
What do I take from all this? That one person’s ephemera may be someone else’s permanent archive. So choose your words with care. And that even a creature as transient as a mayfly may have shining wings and strong functional legs.