Lessons From Middle America:

Induction to the 2008 National Teachers Hall of Fame

Reprinted from N'Shei Journal Winter 2008

Dr. David Lazerson

“We’d love to come with you instead,” Tim insisted.

“But why?” I responded. “You’d miss the whole reception! You know, all that good food. Good drinks. Good company.”

“Oh that,” his wife Angie said. “We’ve been to many parties. But we’ve never ever seen a Sabbath before. Not out here.”

How could I refuse? And I could only shake my head and marvel at the whole set of circumstances and what was taking place before my very eyes.

My wife Gittel and I were in Emporia, Kansas, pretty much the center point of the United States. Besides being known as the “heart land” of America, Emporia boasts one of the country’s very first one-room school houses and teacher colleges that, to this very day, churns out dedicated and professional educators who teach throughout America and the world. It’s also the site of the National Teachers Hall of Fame (NTHF). I was one of the five teachers selected throughout the country to be inducted into the NTHF class of 2008.

The entire process from the get-go was really one surprise after another. First, Kathy Strickland, one of the NTHF directors, flew out to my school, the Quest Center in Hollywood, Florida, to surprise me with the news. I run an experiential, hands-on music program at this school for students with profound special needs, including autism, Down-syndrome, cerebral palsy, medically fragile conditions, and other difficult challenges. The Quest Center is part of the Broward County public schools and is, in fact, the nation’s 6th largest school district. My students, ranging in age from pre-K through 22 years old, were performing in an Earth Day assembly when she made the surprise announcement. She told the audience that the Teachers Hall of Fame was “the most important hall of fame but the least well known.”

I had to confess that, up to that point, I had never even heard of a Teachers Hall of Fame. It’s been said that teaching is the world’s most important profession. Good, effective teachers help to inspire and shape the future generations of essentially every single area of expertise on the planet, including mechanics, pilots, musicians, farmers, athletes, singers, computer mavens, builders, doctors, nurses, to name but a few. Without teachers and education we’d be nowhere fast. It’s a sad comment on our nation’s priorities that teachers are pretty close to the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to salaries and respect. Society pays all sorts of honor and big bucks to many really poor role models, simply because they can sing or act or throw a ball real well. A college graduate in the computer field can basically start out at my teacher’s salary, despite my 30 years in the system along with a doctorate, mind you.

I later remarked to her Kathy that, while I wholeheartedly agreed with her, why not put the NTHF in Hawaii or NYC or even Miami, where it’d get a lot more exposure? She then told me that Emporia, Kansas – of all places, is known as “Teacher Town USA.”

A few days after this assembly I received an email from the NTHF stating that if there were any issues at all I shouldn’t hesitate to contact them. I checked the schedule of events and, as far as I could tell there were only two “slight” considerations. I emailed them back with two “tiny” issues: Shabbos & Kashrut. This was followed by a quick response from the NTHF folks with one word: “Huh?” They then added the following line: “Please excuse our ignorance but we have no idea what you’re talking about.” Might just be a long few days in Emporia, I thought to myself. If there was any conflict with Shabbat I simply could not attend. Keeping kosher? Worst comes to worst, I’d survive on PB&J sandwiches. Us veteran kosher road warriors know the importance of shlepping along canned tuna. Besides, even the most obscure gas station in “yahoopitzville” usually has some kosher products sitting on their shelves.

The jam-packed NTHF events, in late June, included special media sessions and interviews, roundtable discussion groups, meeting with various educational leaders and dignitaries, local tours, dinner receptions, and it all culminated with the Friday evening official induction ceremony. For us Torah-observant Jews, the term “Friday evening” carries with it a certain trigger responses, like “just how close is it gonna be?”

The ceremony was scheduled to end around 9:00 PM. We immediately went online to check the local times for Emporia and found out it was going to be too close for comfort. Shabbat was coming in at 8:51 pm. The hotel that all the inductees and their guests were staying in was approximately five miles away from the university - where the dinner and induction ceremony were being held. I wrote them back stating that we’d need to be closer since we don’t drive on the Sabbath. In addition, we called the closest Chabad Shliach – several hours away in Kansas City, to find out that there was basically no kosher food to be had in Emporia. He further told us that the local Emporia college once had a Jewish professor a few years back and may have had one or two Jewish students as well. “They’ve never seen the likes of someone like you,” he reminded me.

KC has, in fact, several kosher places including a glatt kosher Subway, but KC wasn’t exactly around the corner. We quickly dismissed this option and simply figured we’d do what do under lots of different travel experiences: BYOK time, or Bring Your Own Kosher.

Quite frankly, we weren’t sure how these issues would play out. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity but perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be? We looked into the Igros Kodesh and the response we read was right on the money. The Rebbe wrote in this particular letter how the previous Rebbe never compromised anything when it came to Torah and Mitzvot. Stand strong, the Rebbe urged, and everything will work out in the very best way possible. Only in this manner, the letter continued, will you truly have a positive influence on the environment around you. It was the booster shot we needed to hear and now there was no question whatsoever. We had to go and somehow things would work out.

“We got something special just for you,” the NTHF folks emailed me a few days later. “You and your wife won’t have to walk. It’s a bicycle built for four! You’ll both ride in the middle and we’ve hired two people to do the pedaling for you!”

It was very sweet but I had to email back to decline their generous bike offer. “Thanks so much but we don’t do bikes either on the Sabbath,” I responded.

“It took some effort,” they communicated back after three days went by. “We found a horse and carriage to come pick you both up after the ceremony!”

Once we declined this offer as well they probably were thinking we belonged to some unusual, really strict Amish group. I could almost picture them saying to each other “not only don’t Dr. Laz and his wife use electricity, but they don’t even use animals either. They’re really religious!”

At this point, rather than look for a 6th inductee as a replacement, they started looking at closer hotel/motel options where we could walk back after the main event was over. I told them that both Gittel and I exercise and we love to walk. But if they got one of those famous Kansas storms rolling in, or one of their powerful twisters, it could be a mighty tough walk home, if not impossible.

We finally found online a really cute bed & breakfast a mere half mile away from Emporia State. Now we really only needed this place for Friday night and we figured we could hoof it back to the main hotel at some point during Shabbos afternoon. Since this place was considerably more money than hotel, we offered to pay the difference. In addition, the other inductees had no Sabbath issues and were flying back on Saturday. But for us, since Shabbos wasn’t over till late Saturday evening, we would actually have to stay an additional night as well. The NTHF would hear nothing of the sort. “We don’t want you to have to bother to unpack in one place only to unpack in another and then move back again. We’ll put you up at the bed & breakfast for all four nights. It’s our pleasure!”

But they were just getting warmed up. Within days kosher food soon became a non-issue as well. They would bring in all the goodies, including all the special foods for Shabbos, from KC. These included several treats from the kosher Subway. How could we ever refuse?

With these nitty-gritty’s taken care of, I could now focus on the real tasks at hand and prepare for this major event. Being elected to the NTHF automatically puts one in a position of being a spokesperson for education. I was also going now as a national rep for special education. And so along with the fame comes a whole package of responsibilities. I needed to be clear headed about where I stood on the important issues facing America today. I would be asked, on national radio and TV, my opinions on all sorts of education related issues, everything from NCLB (No Child Left Behind) to why so many new teachers simply pack up and leave the field. Plus, and here was a critical factor, I would be wearing a kippah, a skullcap, on my head. Thus, I went not only to represent my field of special education but also a rep of the Jewish people. It was a unique opportunity to make a real “Kiddush Hashem” – if all went well, of course.

But still, the real surprises were yet to come. To keep things flowing smoothly, whenever we spoke for the media, we basically went in alphabetical order. My last name initial of “L” put me 4th out of the five inductees. And so I was surprised when at our ceremony rehearsal they had me speak first. “I don’t want to rock the boat here,” I protested. “Why not keep the same order?”

“No,” they insisted. “We don’t want there to be any problems with the Sabbath and you using a microphone!” I could only shake my head in amazement. Just a month before they didn’t even know what the Sabbath was. Now they were making sure I didn’t get near “muktzeh” – the things you don’t even touch on Shabbat!

Angie and Tim Miller, and their 8th grade daughter Lauren, were our “host family.” Each of the five inductees was paired up with a host family. They picked us up at the airport on Wednesday, drove us from KC all the way to our Emporia bed & breakfast place, and basically took us back and forth to all the events during the next few days. We hit if off right from the start as we shared stories and laughs about everything from education to growing up in big cities like Buffalo and Detroit (where Gittel is from) compared to a small town like Emporia. It didn’t take long to realize that Tim and I both share a passion for sports, travel, teaching, and even the good ol’ Three Stooges. Somehow, despite our somewhat obvious differences and upbringings, we had a lot in common.

Thursday morning, our first responsibility as a group, the NTHF had us meet with over 150 high school students from across the state of Kansas. They were all thinking of becoming teachers and they wanted to interview us. They pulled no punches. Why did we become teachers? How did we manage to stay in this field for so long? (Us five inductees had a combined total of nearly 150 years!) Wasn’t it hard financially? Why is it so hard for new teachers? I found it to be an exciting and very real way to begin the induction events. One rather quite amusing thing happened before, however.

To my shock that Thursday morning, I quickly realized that my new pants were actually one size too large and that, of course, I forgot to bring a belt. I simply couldn’t wear my tux pants, which has that built-in belt attached. I needed to keep them spotless for the induction ceremony. I was being picked up in 20 minutes. There wasn’t even time to run out and buy one! I quickly called Angie on her cell phone and asked her if I could borrow one of Tim’s, as he looked close to my waist size. They saved the day and I was even able to stand up without worries in front of all those high school kids. Several of the students wanted to know what my kippah symbolized and many, to my surprise, asked for my autograph. It wasn’t even an ego thing but I couldn’t help but feel pride for my profession. I mean, here were high school teens asking for an autograph – not from a professional ball football or baseball player, not from a rock ‘n roll star, not from a handsome face of the screen… but from a teacher. Suddenly I felt inside, yes, there is hope for America.

The events of the next two days were intense, busy, and also lots of fun for us. We seemed to come together as a team despite our very diverse backgrounds. Kathy’s husband, Glen, who serves as director of public relations for the NTHF, remarked that this years inductees was, in fact, the most “diverse group since the hall’s inception in 1992, covering all geographic areas of the States and in education as well.” We seemed to cover all the other bases too. Three females. Two males. One African-American. One Hispanic. One Orthodox Jew. A phys-ed teacher. A life-skills instructor. A math teacher. Special education. We came from Texas to big city Miami to small town - a very small town in Montanna, where this teacher “could drive for hours without seeing another soul!”

During those three non-stop busy days in Emporia, we shared our thoughts and feelings (and many a laugh) about the state of education in America today. It was quite inspiring and humbling to be in the company of these other four highly skilled, dedicated teachers. Here too, despite our different backgrounds and upbringings, we all seemed to share a passion for teaching and dedication to our students. Ron Blanchard, one of the inductees being honored, came from Louisianna and referred to me as his “same brother different mother.”

Our tour of the actual facility of the Teachers Hall of Fame was an eye-opener. On the one hand, it was nice to know that such a place truly exists and that there is this national organization working hard to get some respect for teachers and education. On the other hand, however, it was an eye-opening experience, a kind of state-of-affairs of how this society views education in general and teachers in particular. First, due to budget constraints, the NTHF no longer has its own facility. Rather, it’s housed within a few rooms at the local university. Secondly, I couldn’t help but compare it to my experiences at the Baseball or Football or Basketball Hall of Fame. Huge, wondrous, modern, interactive complexes with ongoing videos and audio-visual stuff that fires the spirit and imagination. My guess is that the Drag Racing or Dart Throwing or Fire-Eating or Poker Hall of Fame has got a bigger and nicer place than the NTHF.

There was one startling difference, however, that merits further description. I refer to Emporia, Kansas. For surely this small town is what America is all about. I’ve traveled all over the globe and this tiny hamlet nestled in Middle America has lots to teach us all. Never have I experienced such a down-to-earth friendly place. It reminded me of the block I grew up on in Buffalo, NY, where we all knew each other and always said hello. Only in Emporia it’s not one block – it’s the entire flippin’ city! Everyone everywhere in Emporia says hello or waves hello or stops and asks you how’re ya doin’? We could be sitting on the porch of our bread & breakfast and people passing by would nod their heads and greet us. The painter from three houses down stopped on the sidewalk to tell us how he moved from the islands years ago to Emporia, which was like paradise found for him. People inside the shops would stop and applaud if they found out we were the 2008 inductees.

I couldn’t help but think of that amazing lesson in the Talmud where it says that the great leader and scholar, Rabbi Yochanon Ben Zakai – the top student of famous Hillel, was always the first to greet someone wherever he went, whether it was in the study hall or out about on the streets. Someone once asked the Lubavitch Rebbe shortly after the race riots in 1991,what could be done to improve the Crown Heights community. The Rebbe told him five powerful words: “Say hello to your neighbors.” It seemed as if Emporia was living proof of the wisdom of Rabbi Yochanon and the Rebbe. They were putting this message into real-life practice. Saying hello to others is not just validating and acknowledging another’s existence. It makes them feel good inside. It’s an unbelievable easy way to spread some positive vibes.

Friday late afternoon, after our delicious kosher imported meals, was the actual induction ceremony. Since they put me first to speak, it was still well before Shabbos. We were told beforehand to limit our remarks to about five or six minutes. I warned them that putting a rabbinical college graduate together with a microphone was a dangerous combination. “We are anxious to hear what you have to say,” the MC whispered in my ear. “Take 10 minutes if you want.” I laughed back and could only wish I could hear the same response at my shul back home in Miami.

It was my opportunity to thank everyone and, perhaps more importantly, to share some thoughts with those in attendance, including the media folks. It was somewhat of a daunting task, as I felt it was such a tremendous opportunity to reach people. I had to mention Hashem, G-d, of course, and how Torah has powerful life lessons for everyone on the planet. I also knew that it had to be done is a pleasant and sweet way so as not to turn anyone off. Despite the pressures, I also felt that I couldn’t get up there at this world-forum podium and simply read a speech. The last thing I wanted to do was put them all to sleep!

I turned to the Talmud for some advice, which is actually quoted as well in the Alter Rebbe’s amazing book on Chabad philosophy, the Tanya. It mentions how Rava used to say something funny at the beginning of his lectures to warm up the crowd. It was his special technique to get his students more open and receptive to learning. I figured if it was good enough for Rava then it was plenty good enough for me at the NTHF induction ceremony.

After they showed a mini-documentary on my teaching practices, which by the way, is posted now on my website at www.drlaz.com, I was called to the podium. It was show-time in Emporia and I had to wait awhile for the applause to die down. I could only hope for the same response after my speech.

“Just a few brief remarks,” I whispered into the microphone, as I let this 20- foot long scroll of paper roll down from my hand to the floor and nearly half way across the stage. They burst into laughter. Thanks Rava, I thought to myself. I owe ya one. After sharing one more funny story with them (the one of the rabbi and the bus driver, which by now everyone on Planet Earth has heard), it was time to share something a bit more profound. I told the crowd about my very first graduate level course in special education. My professor, Dr. Bernie Yormak, shared with us the notion of FID and GOK. These two awesome concepts have stayed with me as guiding lights over my 30 years as a teacher. “FID,” I explained, “really illustrates how we’re all special needs. After all, we’re all human and only the Good Lord is perfect. We all have problems, hang-ups and idiosyncracies. Only the ones who end up in the special ed classes do it F – more frequently, I – with greater intensity, and D – longer duration of time.”

Many in the audience nodded their heads in acknowledgement, but the knock-out punch was saved for last. I then went on to explain GOK and how it’s something that’s kept me honest and humble throughout my educational career.

“After every ‘significant-other’ in a kid’s life has had their say, the psychologist, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the therapist, the teacher, the principal, the parent, the sibling, the educational evaluator. After they’ve all finished examining and dissecting this particular student... as far as what he or she will be, what he or she will do in life, what he or she is capable of doing, it really comes down to GOK. G-d Only Knows!”

Some folks shouted out things like “that’s right” and “tell ‘em, doctor,” and I was reminded how Middle America is often called the Bible Belt as well. I ended my talk with that famous line of the Rambam: I learned a lot from my teacher. More from my colleagues. But most from my students. It’s totally true. Despite facing these incredible difficulties and challenges day-in/day-out, they almost always have a smile on their faces. They teach us to love and to give and to appreciate the “small” things in life, which of course, are really the big things.

As Shabbat came in with the setting sun, the induction ceremony came to a close. I had used the mike a long time ago. The speeches and words of congratulations were over and it was party time! The reception for all the inductees, the guests and dignitaries, university presidents, school superintendents, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, the media folks, the whole bloomin’ gang, made their over to the hotel. The other inductees did their best to get us to go.

“You sure we can’t kidnap you? You know, just push you two into the open back seat of the car? Please!” They motioned to a waiting car with the back door open.

“Can we at least get you a bottle of wine?”

It was a sweet gesture but we knew that there was no kosher wine to be found in Emporia.

“Oh, no thanks,” Gittel joked. “We drink vodka.”

We had to graciously decline as we started to walk to our nearby lodging. My parents had come, as well as some friends from Miami, so it wouldn’t be just me and Gittel for Shabbat dinner. That’s when Tim, Angie and Lauren asked if they too could join us. I made Kiddush. We washed for bread and made the special blessing of “hamotzi,” breaking bread together on our cute wraparound porch. They asked all sorts of questions about the Sabbath, the Torah, our practices, when about 40 minutes later five or six carloads of people pulled up in front of the B&B. It was a loud, rowdy group and at first I thought it was some sort of college frat group.

Then they came into vision of the porch lights. It was the entire reception group! All the inductees and their families. The university and school dignitaries. The media people. The NTHF people.

“We all decided,” Ron yelled out, “if Laz can’t come to the party, well, the party comes to Laz!”

We had tears in our eyes and simply couldn’t believe it. Suzanne, one of the inductees, held up two large bottles of vodka and announced “we brought ya a little present! No wine – no problem!”

“You guys are awesome,” I said. “But that’s gotta be for everyone!”

They also brought with them large fruit platters, paper plates and utensils, so it would all be kosher. It was truly a most magical Shabbos in Emporia. One that taught me the lessons of reaching out, of saying hello to others, of teaching and helping others. And that the really important things in life are not measured or counted in dollars, but in matters of the human smile and soul. Kudos to the NTHF and Emporia for helping to put our profession on the map and into the consciousness of American culture.

© 2006 Dr. Laz - All rights reserved.
E-mail us at DRLAZ770@aol.com. Web Address: http://www.drlaz.com