For many years, our temple's rabbi visited my sixth grade classroom to teach a mini-course about responsibility and ethics. He began by describing a scene he witnessed in New York City, which involved a police officer and a young man crossing in the middle of a block.
The officer began to write up the man for jaywalking, but stopped when the man said, "What's jaywalking? I never even heard of that!" Ultimately the officer decided to forego the ticket because of the man's ignorance, but he warned the man never to jaywalk again, since now he knew what it was and understood that it was wrong.
Our rabbi then related this situation to Jewish learning, maintaining that learning entailed responsibility, because the more you knew, the more accountable you were to behave in accordance with that knowledge.
But my students often went on to challenge him: Sure, you were responsible for what you knew; but did ignorance always let you off the hook?
And that opened the door to a whole new and even more provocative discussion.
For many years, I led a parent-child book discussion of the wonderful middle-grades novel VIVE LA PARIS! by Esme Raji Codell. In one of the most provocative subplots, Paris McCray, an African-American fifth-grader, is given a yellow star by her elderly piano teacher, a Holocaust survivor. Not understanding its significance, Paris views it as a symbol of an exclusive club and proudly pins it to her clothes when she goes to school.
For her insensitivity, the principal gives her a two-day in-school suspension that she must use to research and write a report about the Holocaust. She complains to her mother that the punishment is unfair -- she that she did nothing wrong because she didn't know what the star really symbolized.
Her mother responds, "There comes a time when ignorance is no longer an excuse."
I think about both the rabbi's teaching and Codell's remarkable book when my class discusses B'reishit -- particularly the moment when Adam and Eve switch from ignorance to knowledge. The preteen years, too, are a time when new and complicated relationships with knowledge and information appear. Sure, kids of all ages are responsible for information they know -- but unlike younger kids, preteens are also increasingly responsible for what they should know, what they could know, and what they need to find out.
When they are home from school with a cold, for example, they are expected to reach out to friends to find out what they missed. "I didn't know we had homework," is not an acceptable reason to come in empty-handed the next day. Similarly, when there is the possibility of bullying, preteens are expected to look closely, to pay attention, and to do something -- confront the bully, support the victim, and tell a grown-up -- when they recognize it is occurring. We expect preteens to begin to watch out for one another, to notice signs of unhealthy behavior or abusive relationships, and to speak up accordingly, since we feel that oftentimes these behaviors and relationships are more visible to peers than to adults. And although sometimes preteens may not want to know what's out there, they have to know.
Ignorance is appropriate when you're a toddler and it's an excuse preteens sometimes wish we had. But unlike that lucky jaywalker, they all don't always get a second chance.