Teaching the Teacher

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Scott R. Kline

When my children were young, I was their teacher. From sports to academics to our family traditions, they looked to me for guidance. I taught them how to throw and hit a ball; I showed them how to study and to write; I led them as we practiced our Jewish life. And I figured it would always be that way—me the teacher and my children the students.

In the last couple of years, though, I’ve found a new source in my efforts to become a better person, something where there’s endless potential. I study a Jewish area of learning called Mussar that’s been helpful in moving the dial, but the new source of wisdom and learning I’ve found is, to my surprise, my children.

These four kids who tore apart our home, snuck beer into our playroom with their high school friends and wrecked more than one car, have, as it miraculously turns out, some things to teach me. And the more I look, the more I seem to find.

Josh, my oldest, and his wife Adara bought a small home in San Mateo near Hillsdale Shopping Center. As they were searching for a home that they could afford, they came across one and asked me to look at it. I told them to forget it, that it was the worst home I’d seen. They soon bought it.

And then Josh, with no experience, began remodeling the home. He pestered me to help him when I could. Every weekend he’d tackle a new project, without bothering to realize that he had no idea what he was doing. Plumbing, electrical, woodworking—it didn’t matter. I kept telling him that he was going to kill himself. When he told me that he was putting recessed lighting in his kitchen, I thought he was out of his mind. But then, there they were, lights perfectly in place and working.

I’ve learned from Josh that I need to pay no heed to my ignorance and just assume that I can do whatever it is that needs doing. I’ve even fixed a couple of things on my car—now there’s a miracle! I just have to ignore the fact that I have no idea what I am doing and dive in.

Speaking of projects, it’s my nature to rush to get things done. I can’t check things off my list fast enough. Unfinished things make me nervous. My daughter Arielle, on the other hand, never rushes through what she is working on. She’s an interior designer and will work on a project with the patience of Job. If she needs one hour, she’ll spend three, making sure it’s perfect the first time.

When I’m rushing to get something done, I try to think of her. Slow down, I tell myself. Take your time. It’ll be fine. Take a look at it one more time and make it is as good as it can be.

When my daughter Tali walks into our home she’s always singing or whistling, always upbeat, always happy. She makes the room come alive. Though she’s a Berkeley graduate, she doesn’t spend her time worrying about the world; instead, she’s able to focus on enjoying life in the present in a happy, contented way.

I, on the other hand, can’t stop seeing the mess in everything, be it the broken sidewalks of Menlo Park, the horrific trash on the 101 or the Iranians trying to create a nuclear bomb. I’m trying hard to emulate Tali; trying to focus on the here and now, the beauty of what I have and the love all around me.

My youngest son, Coby, is a kind soul. He had a health issue growing up that, I think, made him especially sensitive to other people. He never speaks badly about anyone. He goes out of his way to do nice things for strangers. And he rarely complains about anything. He’s a true mensch. When I’m with him, I watch him to learn how I can be a better person. When we’re apart and I’m going about my life, I try to remember to ask myself how he might act in that situation. And, of course, I admire the heck out of him for being a disciplined and decorated Israeli soldier.

I never dreamed that my motley crew of kids would turn out to be some pretty good adults, and that I could, if I paid attention, learn from them. Who knew that this was a possibility? Until I took the time to see all the good qualities in them, I never imagined how much of a better person I could become by allowing myself to learn from them.

Of course, I hope that they’re still learning from me. It’s just that now it’s going both ways.