A mother’s Hanukkah lesson leaves a lasting impression

I know it’s not politically correct to say “Easter vacation” or “Christmas break” anymore, but since this is the first time I remember Hanukkah coinciding with Thanksgiving, I vote that we call this week “Hanukkah vacation.” I don’t care if that’s not PC. It’s been a long time coming!

I’m not Jewish but I still remember with fondness Benjamin Block’s mother coming into my third-grade class and cooking latkes in an electric frying pan. My 8-year-old buddies and I were sitting crisscross-applesauce and drooling in anticipation.

Okay, wait a second. I said I wasn’t going to be PC, so I’ll go ahead and say it. We were sitting Indian-style. That’s how you said crisscross-applesauce in the 1980s before people realized it was offensive.

Anyhow, there I was wearing my Esprit shirt and Keds (laces out), listening to Mrs. Block explain the story of Hanukkah. “One day’s supply of oil,” she said, “lasted eight whole nights.” Then she showed us her family’s menorah, and brought out dreidels and chocolate gelt.

It was a big revelation.

There were winter holidays besides Christmas? There were other ways of celebrating hope and light besides Santa Claus? The world was bigger than I thought, and Mrs. Block taught me to understand it better.

Even now, years later, I can’t look at the calendar and see Hanukkah without thinking of that afternoon so many years ago when Mrs. Block illuminated my thinking. I wonder if she knows that the hour she spent volunteering that day made such an impression.

Mrs. Block probably thought she was helping her Jewish son feel OK about being one of the few kids at school who wouldn’t be hanging up a stocking that December. But actually, she was showing three future public school teachers how to respectfully teach about religions in a politically correct way. That’s not easy to do.

This memory also makes me wonder about all the times I’ve helped in my own children’s classrooms. Probably 99 percent of that service was forgettable. But maybe there was one lesson that will remain with a child I barely know for the rest of her life.

That’s the miraculous thing about volunteering with children.

This Thursday when I’m eating turkey, I’ll remember that Thanksgiving is about sharing and gratitude, and I’ll be thankful for all of the inspiring parents who volunteer at schools. The dad who designs a bulletin board, the folks planning Math Night, the mom who’s been stuck at the laminator for three days in serfdom to the kindergarten teachers; all of these people make schools brighter.

To this gentile, parent volunteers seem like a festival of lights. To them I say “Happy Hanukkah vacation.” To Mrs. Block, I say “Thank you.”

Jennifer Bardsley blogs at teachingmybabytoread.com.

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