I remember many of my teachers and often recognize them decades later. Not surprising, because throughout my 20 years of formal education, I probably had fewer than 100 teachers. Plus, I knew them as adults, so even if their hair turned white or disappeared, or they grew a beard, developed a paunch, or lost a couple of inches, my recognizing them isn’t shocking.
On the other side of the coin, many long-term elementary school teachers have taught more than 1,000 children over their careers, and for high school and college teachers, students could number in the five figures. It’s pretty amazing, therefore, that teachers also recognize their students, years after the children have grown into adults.
Andy Rooney had it partially right: “Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”
A personal example is my eighth grade gemarah rebbe, Rabbi Joshua (Yehoshua) Fishman who later became the head of Torah Umesorah (TU). At a family wedding (yeshivish branch), I spotted Rabbi Fishman and went over to say hello. Since it was some 30 or 40 years after we last met, I planned on opening the conversation with “I’m Joseph Kaplan from your 1959-60 HILI gemarah class.” Before I could utter a single word, though, he exclaimed “Yosef Kaplan! (Yosef is my Hebrew name.) “How wonderful to see you.”
A cousin joined the conversation, a bit surprised that I was so friendly with someone in the charedi camp. When I explained our relationship, he said: “You recognized him? I bet his beard wasn’t white back then.” “It certainly wasn’t,” I responded. “He was clean shaven in those days.” I never apologized to Rabbi Fishman for disclosing that secret, and now I won’t be able to because he passed away just a few weeks ago.
Learning that sad news inspired a number of us from his class to email and call each other, swapping warm memories. One was from David A. Adler, the well-known juvenile literature author (Cam Jansen, The House on the Roof, and hundreds more), an elementary school classmate who shares a birthday with me, giving us a special connection. David wanted to use some comic strips from TU’s Olameinu (a magazine for young readers) as illustrations for a book he was writing. He contacted them for permission, but when he said his publisher was the Jewish Publication Society, they refused. (Don’t ask.) He called Rabbi Fishman for help. “Give David Adler whatever he wants,” R. Fishman told his staff.
We never forgot R. Fishman and he never forgot his students.
Another example is Mrs. Bane of HILI. (Did our teachers have first names? I guess all did, but some we never knew.) My friend Alan was in her fifth-grade class, and years later, when he was living in the Midwest, he took a trip to Israel with some friends that included a lengthy layover at JFK. He suggested they visit the nearby elementary school he had attended, which by then had moved to a new location under a new name. Off they went. Walking its halls in a pre-strict school security era, they passed the open door of a limudeie kodesh (religious studies) class.
They peered in and the teacher, Mrs. Bane, looked up, caught Alan’s eye, and exclaimed: “Eliezer Gavriel! What are you doing here?” (Eliezer Gavriel is Alan’s Hebrew name.)
When I heard Alan’s story, I raised him one. I wasn’t in Mrs. Bane’s class. I am a retired lawyer, and once, while I was working on a business deal, I saw the name Bane on some legal documents and had a feeling that it was her. Later, speaking to her on the telephone about the transaction, I asked if she was the HILI Mrs. Bane. “Yes, but you weren’t in my class,” she said. “Your friend Alan was. You were in Rabbi Stepansky’s class.”
Talk about remembering students — and even non-students. And I silently thanked her for reminding me of R. Stepansky, a teacher I particularly loved.
We have memories of general studies teachers as well. I was paying a shiva call on my friend Jack recently, and he referred to a woman sitting in my group as Mrs. Stepelman. Turning to me, he nodded his head and simply whispered “yes.” I immediately turned to her and said, “Your husband was one of my favorite high school teachers. And I was one of his malted students.” Smiling in recognition, she clearly understood. (Explanation: On the first day of geometry class, Mr. Stepelman announced that anyone who scored 100 on the geometry Regents would earn a free malted. It gave us a goal to shoot for. Sure enough, on the first day of our junior year, Mr. Stepelman treated me and three classmates to especially sweet malteds in the greasy spoon across from MTA.)
Back to gemarah for a final story. The Beit Midrash of Teaneck meets at Yeshivat Heichal Hatorah. When I learned that one of its teachers, Rabbi Michoel Parnes, was the son of Rabbi Yehudah Parnes, my favorite high school rebbe, I introduced myself to Rabbi Parnes (the younger) and told him of my connection to, and warm memories of, his father.
While chatting, I mentioned a particular phrase his father used all the time in class. He smiled, motioned to one of his students in the room to join us, and asked: “What do I always say when we’re discussing a complex talmudic concept?” And the student repeated the exact phrase I had just mentioned. I guess there’s more in genes than even scientists know.
I then asked after the elder R. Parnes’s health and was told that although he was advanced in years and somewhat frail, his mind was still sharp. Hesitantly, I said it would be great if I could just say hello. Rabbi Parnes asked: “Do you think he’d remember you?” I nodded, so he pulled out his flip phone (note: almost all Heichal Hatorah students have smartphones), called his father, told him he was talking to a former student, and mentioned my name. He listened for a moment, and then handed me his phone, mouthing “he remembers.”
As we spoke, my rebbe and I were transported for just a minute or two to a time that might have faded from memory had it not been for a teacher whose impact I could not forget.
I also see the phenomenon of teacher-student relationships from another perspective. I’m deeply proud that three of my daughters are teachers — two full-time (Micole and Gabrielle) and one part-time (Daniele). (I’m also very proud of my fourth daughter, Raquel, who, following my footsteps, became a lawyer despite parental advice.) I’ve seen firsthand the extra time and tremendous effort they put into their jobs, far beyond contractual requirements, and the deep care and concern they devote to every single student. So I’m certain that in future years, when these students, as adults, encounter their Kaplan and Glenn teachers, they’ll recognize them with their own warm memories and the same fondness, respect, and gratitude that I and so many other former students have for Rabbis Fishman, Parnes, and Stepansky, Mr. Stepelman, Mrs. Bane, and their colleagues, who remain vivid in our minds. And that recognition and those memories will be mutual.
John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, had it exactly right: “I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession.” They’re our blessing and we are their beneficiaries.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.