It started simply enough. I believed in modeling the values of lifelong learning. I wanted to stretch myself in ways apart from my profession, and I wanted to be more connected to my religion. I hoped to understand the hymns and prayers in synagogue when I attended or celebrated various life events. Thus, when I saw a Beginning Hebrew program taking place over six Tuesdays at a local Jewish Learning Center, I was delighted — without much effort, I could check this off my “To Do/Should Do” list.
Leading up to the start of the course, I was almost giddy. Eager to learn a new skill — and show it off — I rearranged my schedule and responsibilities so I could give this matter my full attention. I would nail this. I saw the class as an important intellectual exercise, a connection to my newly appreciated faith, and a chance to meet people outside of my comfort zone. SCORE!
As I sauntered the four blocks from my work to the Learning Center in early autumn, I thought about how long it had been since I had taken a class like this. I had participated in conferences and myriad online courses. This time, I felt like a Kindergartener headed to her first day of school. I began visualizing the fun it would be, surprising friends and family at the holidays.
The instructor walked in, a slightly older woman with a thick accent who seemed warm, welcoming, and in a way, intimidating. She said a few words in Hebrew, and to my surprise, several people laughed and nodded in agreement. I looked at the board to see if I had missed an obvious cue. Nothing.
Struggling to Understand
In good time, she sprinkled in English and explained how we would learn this language and how critical repetition would be. She handed out a list of regularly used words and began asking questions, requesting that we answer in full sentences by using the phrases as a resource. She asked if anyone had any background in Hebrew. Every. Hand. Went. Up. Except mine. I quickly looked at the name of the course: B.E.G.I.N.N.I.N.G H.E.B.R.E.W.
She assured us that she would also write all information on the board. She asked if we all understood Alefbet. I would have responded if I had understood any of her questions. Meanwhile, everybody else nodded. She began writing Hebrew on the board, using the Hebrew alphabet, and turned to me, asking in Hebrew if I understood the phrase she pointed to on the board.
I checked my notes and struggled through a-ni lo- me- VIN. (“I do not understand.”) She congratulated me on responding accurately, as a few others laughed gently, then said something else to me in Hebrew. I looked around desperately and repeated, a-ni lo- me- vin. She smiled and moved on. I looked at the clock, my heartbeat in my ears. We had been there for exactly 25 minutes.
Then, quickly, I fell behind the group. Everyone else appeared to be following along, moving ahead. I shifted in my seat and discovered I had just missed another important point. Wait. What?? I looked at the notes of the woman next to me, but she was writing in Alefbet. I wanted to blame the instructor, but in truth she was going at a reasonable pace, checking with us as she went, repeating as needed, and using a variety of “ways in.” It became sickeningly apparent: I was in over my head. I was not where I belonged. Or so I had come to believe in a short period.
My confidence and enthusiasm turned into embarrassment and self-scorn. The more I struggled to catch on, the more alone and inadequate I felt. As I wrapped myself in a cloak of shame, I was troubled by how everyone else was doing so well. Didn’t we all start at the same place some 45 minutes ago? I considered leaving. Suddenly, I fought a need to cough. The gentleman to my left offered me a cough drop, and in utter embarrassment, I left the room to cough and suck the comforting drop in solace. I did not ask permission — I just left. If I were a young student, I would likely have had to ask. As an adult learner, I felt comfort in my power to make my own choices. When I walked back in, I collected my bag, coat, notes, and walked out. I gave up.
An Understanding Emerges
Although I did not learn any Hebrew, I did learn something important. For a moment, I had walked in the shoes of a struggling student who believes she is capable and does not know what has gone wrong. I experienced feeling trapped, knowing deep inside there is nobody to blame, feeling as if there is nobody to help, and believing you may be incapable — knowing in your heart you are not, but having no evidence to the contrary.
Each of the six classes was 90 minutes in length; I gave up halfway through the first session. A few days earlier, I had tried to assure a 9-year-old, “If you are willing to try and ask for help, it will start to fall in place; don’t give up on yourself so easily, look at all the resources here for you. Your teacher believes in you 1,000%. With the right mindset and support, you’ve got this!”
After trying and failing to learn something I had wanted to learn, I have to ask, if I can feel that desperate that quickly as an adult, what must it be like to be a 6-year-old or an 8-year-old, or a 14-year-old, and feel that frustration and have no option but to stick it out and hope for a miracle?
I still do not speak Hebrew. I am loath to try again, and while I am not versed in that magnificent language, I am richer for this experience. I learned a lesson I did not realize I needed. My pep talks were about to become history. We may best support our students’ learning when we have seen the classroom from their eyes. It is why lifelong learning is critical, not only for growth and enrichment, but for empathy and understanding. Without it, Aa-ni lo- me- VIN.