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JewishJournal.com

July 9, 2008

My (early) ‘golden years’

http://www.jewishjournal.com/education/article/my_early_golden_years_20080709

Former religious school teacher Jay Firestone 
is "ready to move on" rather than "give up." 
Photo courtesy of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Former religious school teacher Jay Firestone
is "ready to move on" rather than "give up."
Photo courtesy of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

My nursing home is my mattress, my "stories" are Sunday morning football and my "meals-on-wheels" program is a delivery of Buffalo wings. At 24 years old, this is my retirement -- from teaching religious school.

For the past nine years, I've devoted a portion of my week to educating the minds of youth (a phrase I quickly adopted to justify sacrificing five hours each week). From my days as a wimpy teacher's assistant to those as a dominant education master, I've taught just about every type of student and met just about every kind of Jewish mother. I've forfeited my Saturday nights of endless fun and Sunday mornings of endless slumber.

I owe it to myself to sit back, relax and enjoy my golden years.

But I'm hardly collecting from a 613(k) plan. Instead, I'm receiving benefits of a different kind. It's called sleep, and it's the most valued currency on a Sunday morning.

As great as retirement is, teaching religious school was actually one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life, allowing me to positively influence young Jewish learners much in the way I was influenced at that age. I've learned responsibility and have grown as a person. Most importantly, working with fifth- through seventh-graders has taught me what we all have in common: sacrifice. While I have sacrificed a few things -- namely a social life -- my time in front of the classroom has been invaluable.

But my goals as a teacher were not always so noble, as my motivation gradually transformed throughout my tenure.

Starting out as a rookie teacher's assistant my freshman year in high school, eager to make an extra buck, I stayed on course through my adolescence, once I realized what a racket teaching was. I sat and regurgitated everything I had learned from my own Jewish day school experience. By my senior year in high school, I had finagled the position of "computer specialist," allowing me to familiarize myself with "Solitaire," "Hearts" and every possible variety of "Minesweeper."

I coasted through high school thinking I was pulling a "fast one" on my religious school, but my $40-a-month paycheck was proof that I was the fool.

In college, I cared less about the money as I realized wealth was a foreign concept in this line of work. Teaching a class filled with eager students was profit enough.

As lame as that may sound, I was put to the test each year. A continuous struggle, some students were less diligent than others and progress was not always transparent. Thankfully, patterns of difficulty in reading, difficulty in learning and childish disruption were all traits with which I was familiar. Once upon a time, I too, had attended religious school.

Stooping to the students' level, my goals on Sunday evolved from sticking to the curriculum to satisfying my own amusement. If I had fun, maybe they would as well. Through a lesson plan consumed with snacks, games and practical jokes (fake pop quizzes), I commanded their attention and respect.

Strangely, by lowering my maturity level and connecting with my students, I had achieved some bizarre inner enlightenment. I had become a teacher.

The personal growth also put my complaints of no sleep or football in perspective. Pulling myself out of bed on Sunday mornings was actually a choice. If wanted to, I could quit and lead a life that many of my friends were so accustomed to -- staying out until 5 a.m., adjusting my fantasy football team as I rolled over in bed or not showering until sunset.

After all, I had another job and the money was irrelevant. But for some reason I chose to stay and exercised a freedom my students lived without. While I chose to be in school on Sundays, they were forced to leave the soothing habitat only a mattress and comforter can provide.

But deep down it wasn't religious school we hated; it was going to religious school. Teaching, learning and interacting with each other was a thrill, but physically making the trip from bed to classroom was murder.

Thus, as painful as it was to admit, I felt it was my responsibility to set an example, not only because I had the freedom, but also because I had the responsibility to my students.

And that responsibility is equally true of my decision to retire. I'm not a huge fan of what the word "quitting" implies, and "resignation" reeks of scandal. Retirement alludes to my readiness to move on with my life, instead of simply giving up.

I am ready to move on with my own Jewish education.

One day, when I'm more mature, I'm sure I'll be able to overcome my issues with Saturday night entertainment and Sunday morning sleep. Should I change my mind, I could just as easily chalk this up to a nice long sabbatical. And it's critical to note that I'm only retiring from teaching religion, not from studying it.

For now I need to discover other outlets for my Jewish expression -- outlets that will challenge me in new ways and provide more meaningful rewards. It's time to satisfy my religious craving like a true retired 24-year-old -- through singles events, Kiddush luncheons and maybe an occasional game of shuffleboard.


Jay Firestone worked as a seventh-grade teacher for Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. He lives in Brentwood and spends his Sundays doing nothing.

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