David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

Rabbi Bun was a scholar. When he died at an early age, Rabbi Zera spoke highly of his scholarly labors, comparing him to a worker in a king’s vineyard who worked hard for two or three hours. The king called the worker to him, and they walked together. At the end of the day, the king paid all his laborers, including the man who had worked for only a few hours, the same wage. The others complained, saying that they had worked for the entire day, and asking, “Is it right that he should receive the same wages we do?” The king responded, “Why are you angry? This man has done as much work in two or three hours as the rest of you have done in a whole day.” And so, Rabbi Zera said, “Thus, too, Rabbi Bun has accomplished more in the realm of the Torah during his 28 years than a diligent student could ordinarily accomplish in 100 years.”

Kevin Jennings, the founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), was one of the United States’ first gay teachers to come out of the closet. In school, he wore a marriage ring because he and his partner had exchanged rings. His students asked about the ring, and he told the truth. However, afterward his students kept his response a secret, as if he had said something bad about himself. This bothered Mr. Jennings, so he made a speech to the entire school and came out publicly. The response was incredibly positive. Students hugged him, and he says, “I felt like a celebrity.” Unfortunately, his life as a student in high school was quite different. As the school “fag,” he was called names and occasionally beaten up.

As a youth, Wilson Mizner was an upper-class delinquent, so his family sent him to a school with a reputation for straightening out unruly youths: Santa Clara College. While there, Mr. Mizner developed a strong dislike for one particular educator, so he heated a cannonball in a fire for several hours, then he used a shovel to carry the red-hot cannonball to the building where the educator had an office. Mr. Mizner rolled the cannonball down the hall, the educator stopped the cannonball with his bare hands, getting badly burned in the process, and Mr. Mizner was quickly expelled from school.

When gay author Michael Thomas Ford was invited to his high school reunion, he thought about how miserable his classmates had made him feel as the class queer, and he wrote back, “Michael Thomas Ford is very proud to announce that he is still queer, despite the best attempts of his schoolmates to convince him that it is an unacceptable lifestyle. He would also like to take this opportunity to tell everyone he went to school with that he is happier, more successful, and a great deal more attractive than they are.”

R’ Yitzchak Meir of Gur once asked a young chasid, “Do you know the Torah?” How to answer such a question was perplexing. On the one hand, if he said he knew a lot of Torah, he would appear to be boasting, and after all, R’ Yitzchak Meir knew much more than he. On the other hand, he would be lying if he were to say that knew nothing of the Torah. Therefore, he answered, “I know a little.” R’ Yitzchak Meir replied, “And who knows more than a little?”

Kate Barnhart became an activist for AIDS at a young age. As a member of ACT UP, she has even been arrested a few times. When she applied for admission for college, she was asked to write an essay on her “most positive educational experience,” and instead of writing about such things as a favorite biology course, she wrote about her experiences as an activist. Ms. Barnhart says, “I was rejected by ten schools. But I figured I didn’t want to go to any school that wouldn’t accept me for who I am.”

A man once asked Rabbi Israel Salanter for advice. He explained that he had only 15 minutes a day to devote to study, and so he asked whether he should devote that 15 minutes to studying the Torah and Talmud or to studying a mussar (that is, pietistic) text. Rabbi Salanter advised, “Study the mussar text, and it will soon make you realize that something is terribly wrong with your life if you have only 15 minutes a day to study.”

As a mathematics professor at Princeton, John von Neumann acquired a reputation among his students for writing numbers on the board, then erasing them before the students were able to copy them. He was also known for driving poorly. in fact, he had so many auto accidents at one particular corner that it became informally known as the “Von Neumann Corner.”

Mathilde Marchesi, the voice teacher of Francis Alda, could be temperamental. Once, she angrily told Ms. Alda to leave at once: “And don’t come back. I will teach you no more.” Ms. Alda believed her, but the following afternoon Ms. Marchesi’s valet stopped by Ms. Alda’s apartment to ask her why she hadn’t shown up for her usual morning voice lesson.

Some dance students are very loyal to their teachers. José Limón once overheard a couple of students at the Bennington College of Dance talking together after witnessing a performance of a dance choreographed by Doris Humphrey. One woman said to the other, “I don’t know how she can compose so well. She never took lessons from my teacher.”

Shirley Temple did a lot of tap dancing in her movies. Whenever one of her movies came out, parents would see it, then enroll their children in classes to learn tap dancing. Gene Kelly used to say that enrollment at his dance schools would nearly quadruple whenever a new Shirley Temple movie came out.

Some students sneakily get religion into public schools. For example, in 1993, the graduating class of River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Michigan, arranged for one student to fake a loud sneeze, then the other graduates yelled in unison, “God bless you!”

Dipa Ma, a meditation teacher, once suggested to Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein that they sit in meditation for two straight days. Ms. Salzberg felt that such an effort was beyond her capabilities, but Dipa Ma, a demanding teacher, told her, “Don’t be lazy.”

Yogi Berra was a great ballplayer but a poor student. On one school test, he missed every question, so his teacher told him, “I don’t believe you know anything.” Yogi replied, “Ma’am, I don’t even suspect anything.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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