January 3, 2008
Teacher’s impact creates lasting memories and values
Morah Malka will understand.|
She'll get that I am focusing on Alan Rosen because he was my teacher and not because she and the other recipients of the 18th annual Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Awards are any less worthy of notice than Alan, who also received the award last month.
After all, the award, co-sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, is a big deal: Milken Foundation officials present the award to each of the unsuspecting recipients at an all-school assembly. A videotape of those hand-over-mouth moments is later shown at a feel-good luncheon, attended by all the community machers, that honors not only the recipients but the entire enterprise of Jewish education. And each award comes with a $15,000 cash prize, which adds some heft to that thank- you.
This year, Lee Tenerowicz was the first teacher from Wilshire Boulevard Temple's 9-year-old Brawerman Elementary School to win the annual award; Bilha Schechter was credited with bringing a little bit of Israel to her third-and fourth-grade students at Valley Beth Shalom Day School; and Mona Riss, a.k.a. Morah Malka, had the entire luncheon of 235 people alternately cracking up and tearing up at stories about her first-graders at Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. She told one about Eliezer, whom she comforted as he cried under her desk, saying his mother told him a nice Jewish girl would never marry a boy who didn't know how to read Hebrew. Seventeen years later, Morah Malka received his wedding invitation, with a note from his bride thanking her.
That's how I know that Morah Malka, and probably most teachers, will understand why I'm going to talk about Alan. Teachers talk about their students, and students talk about their teachers, because that relationship builds memories, values and lives.
Alan Rosen was my gym teacher throughout elementary and middle school at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since 1989, he's been teaching at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood. That's thousands of students over 35 years. And not just one-year students, but kids he sees for about 40 minutes every day, from kindergarten through eighth grade.
From the chants of "A-lan, A-lan," I heard recently on the Maimonides school yard, I know not much has changed in the way kids love Alan, and Alan loves kids.
In fact, not much at all has changed about Alan. At 62, he's spry and muscular, and he still wears shorts even when it's cold. He still has on that ubiquitous baseball cap and sunglasses and that ever-present grin of contentment, always looking like he's just about to laugh. He is still gentle but intense. He has the stopwatch (digital now), and that whistle around his neck, and a set of magical keys that opens up secret closets and cabinets with handballs, basketballs, jump ropes, medicine balls, stilts and a huge orange parachute. I'm guessing the closets no longer hold the metal, size-adjustable, over-the-shoe roller skates I got to wear as we circled the green-painted rooftop yard at Yavneh.
He can still take on even the biggest eighth-graders in basketball, and when he starts singing and dancing with the kids, he jumps like an ape and sweeps them all into his wake.
Back when I was his student, singing was mostly a rainy day activity down in Room 310. Before we played gaga, Alan would sit us in a row and try out some new songs he was writing. There was "Make a Good Day, Make a Happy Day," and there was one about sweeping the floor and responsibility, and I can hear vague vestiges of something about flying like a cloud.
Now those songs have evolved into a curriculum he calls M-3a -- Movement, Music and Middot (positive characteristics) Awareness, which integrates moral development with physical movement.
"I want to anchor them to a spiritual expectation," Alan says during a sixth-grade boys PE class at Maimonides, his voice barely audible above the squeak of sneakers on the blacktop and the calls of "over here!" "Before class, we almost always start with an anchor. I might have them sing 'Kindness Is Listening to Love,' which is a 30-second song that highlights kindness, and try to create an environment of love toward each other and listening to each other."
It might sound hokey, but because he's Alan, kids listen -- even 11- and 12-year-old boys who have just burst from a classroom, ready for basketball.
"Emotions are the feelings, that live inside my heart," the boys begin on command. "My body is a simcha, I feel it when I play, I strive to keep it holy for the length of my days." When they get to the last part, where they repeat "holy, holy," the boys link arms for a rowdy dance.
Alan doesn't delude himself that these songs change every kid. But alumni have come back to say they remember them, and he can sense, he says, that it impacts how they treat kids who aren't the best athletes, how they deal with a bad call or how they handle a dispute with friends.
Over on the elementary school yard, we walk across 49 words in circles painted all over the rough asphalt.
Speech. Blessings. Sharing. Trust. Determination. Fear. Love. Choice. Allow. Ruach (spirit). Believe. Classes might start with kids standing in a circle. Then Alan might have them do what he calls movement sequences. Each kid strikes a pose that dramatizes the word she's on, then moves to the next circle, creating something of a dance. He has kids run to and read each circle in 60 seconds or dribble on each circle as they read the word. Sometimes, he asks kids to find the virtue that is needed at a certain moment. Stand on patience, stand on listening, stand on derech eretz (respect).
A lot of those Hebrew words weren't painted on the yard I remember, because when Alan was my teacher, he was a young bachelor, and Orthodox Judaism was all pretty foreign to him. Today, he is married with two stepsons and two daughters -- his youngest is in the seventh grade at Maimonides -- and he is observant and constantly learning about Judaism. He realized, he says, the secular humanism he tried to bring to Yavneh in the 1970s was actually rooted in Jewish traditions like Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Father. I find out about his spiritual journey when we sit down in a quiet office, and I ask Alan questions a student can't, but a journalist can.
Alan's mother died of cancer when he was around 7, and his distraught father left Alan, an older brother and two younger sisters in a Milwaukee orphanage. A year later, the four of them were adopted by a European immigrant Jewish couple who owned a Wisconsin dairy farm. The family was loving and solid, but Alan and his siblings worked hard on that farm, getting up early to do chores and continuing after homework was done. After he graduated high school, Alan joined the Marines. He served for nine months in Vietnam and played in the Marine band. He then moved in with an aunt and uncle in Los Angeles and got a degree in physical education from Cal State Northridge. In 1972, he was hired by Yavneh Principal Rabbi Zev Litenatsky, whose son, Menachem, was Alan's student. Like many of Alan's students, Menachem is still his close friend. He sat next to him at the Milken Awards luncheon.
"As a young kid, I was always in trouble, and he never gave up on me," says Menachem, who is now the director of youth and volunteer services at the Etta Israel Center, working with kids with disabilities. "He became like a father, a brother, a mentor, a friend -- he hits all the roles, and I know that I am not the exception. There are thousands and thousands of people who have benefited from knowing Alan."