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The Student Becomes The Teacher

Meredith Polsky

The following post originally ran on Zeh Lezeh, the blog of The Ruderman Family Foundation.

By: Rabbi Charles S. Sherman

For a lot of us, August is a month of transition — still trying to squeeze a bit more out of summer fun and warmth, but at the same time, recognizing summer is drawing to a close. Around the not-too-distant corner: school, routines, a little less leisure, cooler temperatures.

For my wife and me, this time of year always brought a little more anxiety. We are the parents of a son, Eyal, with significant disabilities- a quadriplegic, on a ventilator, totally dependent upon others. At this time of year, we would meet with Eyal’s teachers at our local public school. We would share with the teachers our expectations and try to address their concerns. While Eyal always worked on grade level, no teacher was really prepared to have a student with such challenges. He required medical equipment that made strange sounds. Communication was limited, it took enormous patience to read his lips. Eyal would bring with him an entourage- a nurse, a teacher’s aide, and frequently, my wife. I understood this whole thing could be intimidating.

For many years, our focus, and rightfully so, was on Eyal. How would he learn? Would the teacher make him feel comfortable and allow him to maximize whatever abilities and resources he has? How would the other students treat him?

Happily, Eyal was successful and graduated high school and college. Our advocacy definitely was necessary, but just as important, his teachers rose to the challenge. I thought this whole thing was about Eyal being the student. But I had something to learn, myself.eyal-sherman-high-school-graduation

Eyal’s Physics tutor, a high school classmate, shared with us her college essay. It reads, in part: Eyal Sherman cannot walk or move his arms. He is unable to wash, dress, or feed himself without the assistance of others. He is a symbol of tragedy- a brain tumor and subsequent stroke at age four have left him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Now a teenager, he’s a young man who draws stares in the school halls, and is the object of pity. He could be the poster child for dozens of causes. No one wants to live like that. It is not a life.                           

Or so I thought. Everything that I have written in the previous paragraph is a snake-skin of bias that I used to wear, but now have discarded. I am ashamed that those words were my own, an example of my blindness and ignorance. They are a stereotypical description about those who are severely disabled.

I am Eyal’s tutor. But I have learned more from Eyal than anything I could ever teach him. I know now that our accomplishments are limited only by the boundaries of our dreams. This insight is not written down in words, not researched or lectured on. It is known in the heart, soul and mind of Eyal, and anyone who has overcome extreme obstacles on the road to success. Yes, I have helped Eyal raise his Physics grade, but the awareness that he has given me will help me pursue my own successes. I am his teacher, yet Eyal is my mentor.    

I have a favorite Rabbinic text that suggests, “Who is a wise person? One who learns from all persons.” As the Psalmist reminds us, “From all my teachers, have I gained understanding,” Psalm 119:99.

rabbi-charles-s-shermanRabbi Charles S. Sherman is the author of The Broken and The Whole, Discovering Joy After Heartbreak:  Lessons from a Life of Faith. (Scribern/Simon and Schuster March 2014). Learn more about Eyal by watching this Dateline NBC story about Eyal.

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