Three JBHA Teachers and Their Guides to Living
By Aria Bitan
I recently developed an interest in philosophy, and tried to look into different ways of seeing life. My delve into various philosophers and their beliefs did not help me find the meaning of life, but it made me wonder about something interesting: How do philosophers gain the attention of the world so that people want to hear about their ideas? Is it their Ph.D.’s, their exceptional questioning skills, or are they simply born with a philosophical gift? Unless they are an official philosopher, most people don’t broadcast their opinions on the “big” life questions like identity or religion. Because of this, I decided, why don’t I start asking “normal” people their philosophies? Since we all go through life trying to find our purpose in this world, it is essential to create our own philosophies to live by. I wondered what other people’s ideologies are and what they learned throughout their lives to reach these conclusions. I turned to three of my teachers, Mr. Barnett Kamen (Jewish Studies), Mrs. Ivy Kaplan (History), and Mrs. Rita Schuman (English), to hear their beliefs.
My first interview was with one of the school’s Jewish Studies teachers, Mr. Kamen. He said his philosophy on life was “to experience all the love I can, primarily through my family.” He said that he wants to share his love with his family, but most importantly, to make sure they know it. He also described his view of love and hate: “I don’t know why people hate,” he told me. “Why can’t we all just be kind to one another? Since this life is all that we can be sure of, why do so many people spend it full of hatred?” As we continued talking, he went on to another philosophy: the pursuit of intellect. If you’ve ever had Mr. Kamen as your teacher, chances are you’ve heard him say that he can’t teach math or science since they have answers to them, and you are not able to question those answers. He loves being a teacher because he can have stimulating discussions with his students on life's unanswered questions, probing each other to ask why, and being able to instill a core structure of critical thinking within his students. I then asked him whether his philosophy has ever changed. He answered that it never did; he simply was exposed to new ideas. Mr. Kamen grew up in a small town in New Jersey, and although he saw racism throughout his life, he made sure never to let it affect him or his central belief to judge people solely on their character, nothing else. Just be a good person, that's all he asks. As a teacher, the only thing that matters to him about his students is for them to be good pupils by trying their best. Nothing else matters, and therefore, nothing else will be judged. In return, however, as a teacher, he wants to be given that same respect and opportunity to be judged on character. He believes strongly in letting people explain themselves before assumptions are made about them.
The second person I had the opportunity to interview was my History teacher, Mrs. Kaplan. After thinking about the question for a while, she said something she realized this past year: It was to start living in the moment and not be as concerned with what the future will hold. COVID-19 made her stop and rethink her life; she began to look around and see how much good she still has in her life even though there is a pandemic. This made her realize that we all need to be more grateful for what we have, and by doing so she was able to lower her stress and fear. When growing up, Mrs. Kaplan was living just to get through the day, looking forward to vacations; now she told me that she’s learned to take a deep breath and simply enjoy life, finding the beauty within each day. I then asked her whether she has had any life-changing moments in her life that made her think differently, to which she responded that meeting her husband got her to start thinking not only for herself but for the both of them, as well as for family. Mrs. Kaplan’s advice for the younger generation is to live in the moment, even though it can be hard. She wants us to realize our privileges and use that to better understand each other in the world. Mrs. Kaplan’s mother used to constantly tell her that “when God closes a door he opens another,” and although it is a common phrase, she said that she comes back to it often as a reminder to take a breath; it will all be okay in the end. In the future, she hopes that the country and everyone can see past our differences; we don’t have to agree on everything, but it doesn’t hurt to talk civilly to one another. When it comes to social media, although it has proven to be helpful, especially during these times, she urges us all to check the facts that we see spreading all over our screens and make sure that false words won’t spread.
My final interview was with my English teacher, Mrs. Schuman. When asked about her philosophy on life, she told me that she doesn’t have a perfectly thought-out philosophy to answer all her questions; life does not work that way. She said that she doesn’t think everything can be put into “nice neat boxes,” which is a philosophy in itself. The older she gets, the more she realizes that there is always more to learn; securing your thoughts perfectly doesn’t work because your perspective can change every day. This is why she loves to learn and teach because she believes that you can never be smart enough; there is always more to learn. Throughout her life, she has realized that things are constantly changing, so there is no use trying to stop it. “If we don’t adapt, we are going to be in for a life of heartbreak,” she so eloquently said. There were so many times in her life where she thought she had a clear plan, and although it would change, she realized that’s not a bad thing -- quite actually the opposite. During our interview, Mrs. Schuman told me about how she left home after college to go to Washington D.C. by herself. This was a pivotal moment in her life because it taught her independence and made her realize that she wanted to become an English teacher. Through her marriage, Mrs. Schuman was also able to learn how to grow up and evolve together with her husband. Her advice for the younger generation is to keep an open mind; don't get pulled into the vortex; be aware of what's going on and stand up for what you believe in. Her husband set a good example for her to constantly be interested in other people. They would always find different ways to connect with random people they met because everyone has a story to tell; you just need to ask.
Each teacher I spoke with had such different stories and advice, but what they each had in common was the importance of connection and staying true to yourself throughout your life. I am so honored to have been able to have these conversations and urge whoever is reading this to listen to their advice as I am. In times of division, the only way to stay sane is through each other. By staying honest and true to ourselves, as Mr. Kamen said, we can grow to become amazing people. By stopping and realizing how wonderful our lives truly are, as Mrs. Kaplan told me, we can be more appreciative of ourselves, and therefore happier. If we learn to accept change and listen to each other, as Mrs. Schuman said, we won’t be stuck in the past our whole lives.