I happen to know the exact moment that my life was changed for the better, and it had nothing to do with anything I did or deserved. It was because of Dr. Friedman.
This isn’t your typical inspirational-teacher story. Dr. Friedman wasn’t my English instructor, he didn’t run the school paper, and he didn’t point me down the path of journalism. He was my seventh-grade history teacher, and I wasn’t struggling in his class. That’s what made what happened so unlikely—and so consequential.
In my school, students were introduced to essay tests in junior high. History exams no longer took the form of questions with short answers, but now required one to organize information into a readable argument. This should have been easy for me. As the son of two educators, one of them a former high-school English teacher, I knew how to write and I knew the material. But I kept losing points on the tests.
The difference wasn’t between passing and failing; it was between a 95 and a perfect score. Most teachers would understandably have left me to my own devices and focused their attention on students with bigger problems. But Dr. Friedman noticed. One day, he took me aside after class and essentially asked why I was leaving things out of my essays when he knew that I knew them. I hadn’t expected to be asked, but I did know the answer: I simply couldn’t write fast enough to complete the essay, and so had been strategically omitting material in order to finish within the allotted time. Since I’d first learned to write, I’d experienced cramping and pain if I tried to scribble too quickly by hand. This was why I’d never mastered cursive, and why I’d typed and printed homework assignments since third grade, which was pretty uncommon at that early age. Other students had no problems filling their little blue test books with words; I could barely complete a few pages, even though I knew exactly what I wanted to say.
That’s when Dr. Friedman made the suggestion that changed the course of my life: “Why don’t you just type your tests in the classroom?” Even though we had computers around, I had never considered this. The school network had access to the internet, and I assumed teachers would be concerned about cheating. Dr. Friedman was not, and pointed out that the screen would be facing him at the front of the classroom anyway. We agreed that I would try typing for the next exam, and he explained the novel idea to my confused classmates when we put it into practice. I never lost a point again in that class.
This arrangement didn’t just improve my history grades; it improved all my grades. That’s because it taught me that I could ask for such assistance for all exams—not just in history, and not just in seventh grade, but in every class from high school through college. I was no longer judged by how fast I could handwrite, but by how well I could write.
That simple conversation with a considerate teacher is why you’re reading these words today. It was the difference between good scores and great scores; between a good college and a top-three school; between a résumé that got me a look at major publications in a contracting journalism industry and a résumé that pushed me down another career path entirely.
I learned something about my own life from this inflection point, but I also learned something about everyone else’s. I wondered: How many other students like me were out there who never got the chance I did? How many didn’t have a teacher like Dr. Friedman? How many knew the answers on the test, but were hamstrung by something entirely ancillary to their academic ability—like their capacity to handwrite an essay in 45 minutes, or the unavailability of computers in their classroom, or problems at home that prevented them from showing up in school? The trajectory of my life was altered by things that were entirely outside my control. In my case, the course correction was for the better; in other circumstances, it might have been for the worse.
This is something I think about a lot during this time of year, when Jews celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. During the seven-day festival, many observant Jews eat and even sleep in temporary outdoor huts built for the occasion. Stripped of our creature comforts and the buffers we place between ourselves and the world, we are exposed to the elements and the contingent nature of human existence. We are reminded of how much we don’t control, and how much of our security and success is in the hands of fate or God.
The thin line between flourishing and failure is also a theme of the holiday’s scripture. In synagogue, Jews traditionally read the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, a ponderous and often pessimistic tract that opens with the famous words: “Futility of futilities, everything is futile.” But the original Hebrew holds a secret that is not readily apparent in translation. The Hebrew word for “futility” is havel or הבל. The word for “everything” is hakol or הכל. As you can see from the lettering, the difference between the two words is a single stroke of the scribe’s pen. That’s all it takes to turn “everything” into nothing, utility into futility. Observing this point, the Oxford scholar John Jarick wrote, “we might say that [Ecclesiastes] has crafted the most compact form of parallelism to be found in the Hebrew Bible.” It is as though the biblical author wanted to illustrate how the slightest shift in a life story can completely change its contents.
Jews are particularly familiar with the fickleness of fate, because its exigencies play a commanding role in many of our own family histories. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid likes to make this point by telling the story of two men named Tommy: his father, Tomislav Lampel, and Tamás Lantos. Both men lived in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest. Both survived the Holocaust. Lampel went to Israel, where he became Tommy Lapid and founded a political party; his son eventually became prime minister. Tamás came to America, where he became Representative Tom Lantos, a 27-year Democratic congressman who co-chaired the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
“If we are to move the biographies of our fathers and grandfathers a half inch to the right or to the left, I could be you and you could be me,” he told a group of American Jews in 2012. “I could be you and you could be me, because somewhere down the line of the family history of each and every person who sits in this room, there is a man standing on a pier in a harbor, trying to figure out which direction he is going.” We like to think that we are responsible for who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going, but sometimes, we are just passengers on someone else’s ship, guided to this point by a contingent choice made by an ancestor—or an observant seventh-grade teacher.
Perhaps this is why Sukkot comes after the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those two solemn occasions, observed within the solid four walls of the synagogue, emphasize God’s judgment of human affairs. But the fostered fragility of Sukkot reminds us to temper our judgment of one another, and to understand that our fortunes and misfortunes are not entirely of our own making. When we see others struggling or suffering—whether here in the United States or outside it—we are meant to remember that “I could be you and you could be me,” and that we all have the power to change another person’s circumstances, to turn their havel into hakol.
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