Thank you Miss Meisterheim
Most of us have probably experienced a flash of recognition at one point or another that we owe someone an immense debt of gratitude for having changed our lives in some significant way. Often times, however, that recognition comes long after the fact – even a half century or more – and it may no longer be possible to express our hakaros hatov.
After a leil Shabbos speech in Philadelphia last November a woman approached me and asked me if I remembered her. She then told me her name. Not only did I remember her, I even remembered her class rank in high school, which says a lot about how competitive our high school was.
In Nancy's case, we not only went to high school together, but college as well, though I doubt we spoke five times throughout college. I did know, however, that she had become shomer Shabbos while still in college.
Nancy and I were in the same Advanced Placement English class in high school. Unlike other classes that reshuffled the deck every year, that group of twenty-five or so remained intact for the last three years of high school and maintained its own tight-knit ethos. "I prefer not to," the watchword of the eponymous hero of Herman Melville's "Bartelby the Scrivener," (which we studied for weeks sophomore year) and Melville's summing up of Bartelby's career in the department of "dead letters" -- "dead letters does it not sound like dead men" -- became identifying shibboleths for class members.
What I had forgotten -- and Nancy reminded me -- was that we were also together in Miss Meisterheim's class for freshman year English. She even remembered that I had written a humorous essay on the trials and tribulations of dealing with hair the rough consistency of a brillo pad.
And it was Miss Meisterheim who had an immense impact on my subsequent life – not because of anything she taught me but because she recommended me for AP English, despite the fact that I not receive an "A" either semester in her class. Nor is there any reason to suspect that she discerned unmistakable writing talent waiting to burst through, for over the next six semesters of high school English I never once received an "A," except for the one semester devoted to public speaking.
Why she did recommend me for AP English will remain a mystery lost forever to the nether realms of history. I would doubt Miss Meisterheim remembered my name by the time I graduated high school, much less almost fifty years later. And my chances of finding her alive today to thank her would be slight indeed.
But because of her I spent three years in high school together with the same group of extremely talented students. And my senior year I fell under the ministrations of Miss Eunice Borman. I will never forget her treatment of my first essay my senior year – one that I had already submitted to Harvard. I imagined that it was a sharp-eyed and witty take on the William Buckley-Gore Vidal confrontations as commentators on the 1968 conventions. Miss Borman was evidently less impressed, as I discovered to my horror when she flunked me on the essay. (Partial support for her judgment came months later in the form of rejections from every school to which I had submitted that essay.)
Though it was not unheard of for me to receive an "A" on content from Miss Borman on the content of a particular essay, the accompanying "C minus" on grammar assured that I never received a final grade of "A" from her. But it did alert me that at some point it would behoove me to learn what a dangling participial phase is and why it should be avoided. Grammar, like manners, has developed over time for good reasons. Without command of grammar one cannot be read, though some of its more arcane rules, such as that against ending a sentence with a preposition, are ones "up which I will not put" to quote Winston Churchill.
Even in high school, we were told that once we had mastered the basics of grammar, such as not beginning sentences with "And" and "But", there would be occasions for deviation. How frequently that exception may be indulged remains a constant source of dispute between my Mishpacha editors and me. Similarly, we were not schooled in such stylistic curlicues as dashes, and that early denial might explain my too great affection for a device that ought to be used sparingly.
After my freshman year in college, I proudly brought a stack of my papers to Miss Borman, and told her that I was receiving straight "A's" at the University of Chicago. She did me the honor of glancing through a number of them before pronouncing judgment, "Jonathan, you don't write any better than you did in high school." Talk about burst bubbles.
The truth is I already suspected as much. At one meeting with my freshmen Humanities professor, he told me that there were only two students in the class who had any command of style. He proceeded to identify them, and neither was named Jonathan Rosenblum.
What stands out looking back is how well I took all these various indications that I wasn't much of a writer. It never occurred to me that Miss Borman or Professor McGann sought to diminish my self-esteem. I assumed they were trying to help me become better. The biggest favor they could have done for me was making clear that I had a long way to go in acquiring this fundamental communication skill.
My critics and I shared an assumption that the ability to write well is not some natural gift with which you are either born or you are not, but rather a skill that can be developed with work. To this day, I can remember almost every writing tip I have ever received and the source of the tip. Thus I'm grateful to Aaron Hoffman, a senior associate in my law firm, for his somewhat idiosyncratic use of "that" instead of "this;" to Miriam Himmelfarb for convincing me that "that" and "which" are not interchangeable and teaching me the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses; Shana Friedman, Mishpacha's editor-in-chief, for her eagleeye for word repetitions in close proximity when synonyms are readily available; and perhaps above all, to Rabbi Chananya Greenwald, who volunteered to edit Reb Yaakov, and who instilled in me an aversion to the passive voice and an internal red alert every time the verb "is" rears its boring head. (Should I add my mother for her early form of spell-checking on letters home from camp?)
Sadly, too many delicate wallflowers today would have broken down in tears upon receiving an essay back covered in red and with an "F" at the bottom: Their self-esteem requires constant bolstering. And their parents would likely harass the teacher and principal to death for humiliating their gifted child in such a cruel fashion – that is, if they did not file suit in federal court. Teachers and professors quickly learn that it is not worth the effort to critique students. As a consequence, grades are continually inflated, even as the quality of work declines.
But today's students will not look back with gratitude, as i do, at all those who showed them what they were doing wrong so that they could one day do it better.
A Life to be Emulated
Our central goal in life is to enter into a vibrant, intense relationship with Hashem, and as parents to facilitate such a relationship for our children. Easier said than done, however.
Love of Hashem depends first on seeing His Creation as good. Contemplation of the wonders of Creation – ma rabu ma'asecha – is one path towards both awe and love of Hashem. Exploring the anthropic principle that the earth's physical constants have been perfectly calibrated to support human life is one aspect of that contemplation.
Focusing on the good of our fellow Jews – on the expression of the tzelem Elokim of those shaped by the Torah – is perhaps the most powerful tool for instilling a sense that Hashem has created a world filled with the potential for good. My most prized compliment (though not intended as such) came from a son who told me that he did not rely on my shidduch investigations because I like everybody and find something admirable about almost everyone. If that is what he experienced growing up, I rejoice.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote about Rabbi Gershon Binyamin Burd, zt"l, after his untimely drowning death on his fortieth birthday. Everyone who knew him (a privileged circle to which our family belonged) was fully aware in his lifetime that he was a very special person. He had a magnetic personality that drew others to him. His dedication to Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah, which he served as executive director, was total. And he maintained an almost superhuman schedule so that he could both learn almost full-day while keeping Bircas HaTorah afloat.
But after Gershon's sudden passing, an entirely new side emerged of countless acts of chesed that he did for people, despite have no substantial resources of his own. Many of these various acts of chesed involved elaborate ruses, such as telling someone who lacked the money for an airline ticket to visit an ailing parent in the States that he had just discovered a new credit card deal that offered enough free points for one trip. Gershon, of course, offered to fill out all the forms.
Many of these acts of chesed, deliberately hidden from the entire world, including his wife, were first revealed in an article by famed author Sara Rigler at Aish.com shortly after Gershon's passing. Entitled "The Secret Life of Gershon Burd" the article quickly went viral.
The original article has now been expanded into a book of the same name. Noted author Yaakov Astor not only details Gershon's remarkable qualities, but the activities of the "Secret Chessed Chaburah" of individuals around the world inspired by Gershon's example to look for opportunities to do chesed and in the most secret fashion possible.
Good begets good. Gershon was often described "as the happiest person I know." And since his passing, hundreds have tapped into the sources of that happiness – the joy of doing good for others without any thought of reward or recognition.
Anyone seeking to heighten their awareness of their fellow Jews' capacity for goodness -- and their own – would be well advised to read The Secret Life of Gershon Burd.