A most fascinating study in contrasts can be appreciated by observing school children entering their classroom on the first day of a school year, and observing the same children, nearly a year older and hopefully wiser at the end of the school year. The respectful, purposeful, meek and awestruck manner is replaced by an overly familiar, somewhat callous, and, dare we say, a drop disrespectful display of behavior at the end of that school year.
What happened?? Perhaps we can explain by understanding what lies behind a person’s motivation to accomplish. When a new school year, or a new project is undertaken, a person sets high goals for himself. A child may have high hopes for a successful school year with consistently high grades, being very popular among peers, feeling an uninterrupted flow of appreciation and admiration from teachers and parents, and succeeding in sports and other competitive arenas. On the first day of school they are full of enthusiasm and school, teachers and friends are the welcome assets to reach those goals. Nothing has happened yet to damper optimism.
Then, reality sets in and success does not flow so easily or readily. A poor grade, a reprimand from a teacher for disruptive behavior, a losing effort on the ball field all bring home the difficult realization that this school year won’t be perfect after all. By having set such unrealistically high goals, a feeling of despondency and pessimism can quickly set in perhaps even after the first one or two setbacks. By defining success as near perfection, the child is set up to feel the bitter taste of failure before too long. School, the teachers and classmates are now the setting for a less than satisfying experience, leading to a loss in regard for the school and its people.
What is the solution? One workable approach is to help them (and ourselves) set attainable, bite-sized goals. Let’s show our children that we’re proud of them if they have a good day. If they study hard for a test, no matter what grade they receive we can emphasize the value of effort. If they have an off-day, it’s a problem for that day only, because tomorrow is another day, a new beginning. If a teammate makes a bad play and the team loses the game as a result, our sons and daughters will feel like winners if their goal was to keep their teammate’s feelings intact and they succeed in not showing that they’re upset.
As we approach the end of the school year, and your child may feel many of his or her goals lay unfulfilled, set new goals. Every day can be a magnificent accomplishment, if we focus on attainable goals. Today you’ll listen and participate for at least half of the Chumash lesson. Today, when someone pokes fun at your holey backpack, you’ll just chuckle good-naturedly and not get upset. Today we’ll all work together to arrive in school on time. Today you’ll raise your hand three times to answer questions during a math lesson. Once you have goals that are attainable, feelings of success, self-esteem and pride return with a reasonable amount of effort.
The true measure of a mentsch lies in how he conducts himself at the very end. Anyone can be well behaved and respectful on the first day of the school year; the real accomplishment is to end the year with the same level of self-respect and dignity. This is a most worthy `bite-sized’ goal – to end the school year with Derech Eretz and respect for all. A child who can do that may very well realize that the school year really was a most successful one after all.
Best wishes for a meaningful and fulfilling Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann