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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sukkot: How Welcoming is Preteen's "Sukkah"?

"Come and have a lookah
In my sukkah
And have yourself something to eat!"

The old Sukkah song -- my sixth graders have been singing it since they were three years old. Each year at this time, they jig and jump and goof around and mug to one another as they hear this familiar tune at our synagogue. But what do sixth graders really know about making others feel truly welcome?

Several few years ago, I had a student who showed up for class one rainy afternoon and burst into tears before she had even put down her backpack. I put my around around her and took her to the hallway, where she revealed that she had had a misunderstanding with her parents. I brought her down to the office and with the help of the office secretary, we agreed that she would be more comfortable if she called home. I encouraged her to come join the class as soon as she felt up to it.

But on my way out, I began to wonder: How exactly could I make sure that the class provided the kind of "welcome back" she would need?

When I arrived back at the classroom, the other students, who were naturally both concerned and curious, bombarded me with questions. Was everything okay? Did she fall? Or did someone hurt her feelings? A teacher? Another student? Did something happen at school? On the bus? At home?

I told them that while I wouldn't discuss the specifics, everything was going to be fine and I expected the student to return to the classroom shortly. But my bigger concern was with them: How were they going to react when the student walked back in?

They really didn't know what to do -- whether to say something or not, whether to acknowledge the tears or pretend the whole thing didn't happen. So I turned the tables on them and asked: How would you feel right now if you were that student, and you were about to return?

Being sixth graders, they agreed that their uppermost feeling would be embarrassment and a desire not to have the spotlight shine on them. They said they'd want to blend back in right away. Secondarily, they thought they'd like to know that they weren't alone -- that the rest of the class cared about them and didn't like to see them upset.

So if you were in her shoes, I asked, what would you like others to say?

Most agreed, that the best approach would be to "not make a big deal of it" -- to just act "normal." They also agreed that those who were her closest friends might offer to fill her in on any classwork she might miss, or simply say, "Glad you're back."

I was proud of them -- of how they showed insight into the situation, problem-solved the an approach, and ultimately made the student feel welcome when she returned.

A sukkah is a physical space, and often a beautiful one at that. But I think my students would agree that it's also a state of mind -- a way of watching the outer world from a safe position and of drawing others in for shelter or warmth or comfort when they need it.

"Come and have a lookah in my sukkah..." On that rainy afternoon, this is exactly the invitation my  my wonderful sixth graders extended.

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