When Andrew Taught a Teacher

About a month ago, I was contacted by the religious school principal, Rebecca Tullman, at our former synagogue, Temple Kol Emeth. Our family were members of this wonderful community for four years before we moved to a congregation closer to home. Both Morgan and Andrew had their B’nai Mitzvahs there.

Given we had 3 children in the religious school, Rebecca knew our family well. Especially Andrew, who seemed to be in her office, often, during Sunday School…

Rebecca was one of the first to reach out to me and provided amazing support after Andrew died. I will never forget the her supporting smile, her watery eyes and huge embrace she gave me at Andrew’s Celebration of Life.

When Rebecca called me, she explained that she wanted to write about Andrew in her monthly article in the temple’s newsletter. When she explained her reason, I was overcome with emotion. I couldn’t believe my crazy, impulsive, ADHD child had touched an educator, the way she said he did. As a parent of an ADHD child, who struggled daily with my son’s behavior and constantly trying to explain to others his issues, it honestly floored me that someone actually “got it”. But even more, the fact that Andrew had left such a large impression in someone else’s life. Below is Rebecca’s story of Andrew and the impact he made in her life…

“One of the greatest blessings that comes from teaching is how much we learn with and from our students.
In the Talmud we read:

And this is what Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.

I have been thinking about this lately – about all the learning that I have been gifted by students over the years. Sometimes they suggest a new way of thinking about something. Sometimes they ask a question that I have never considered; and as we search for answers together, I am exposed to a variety of new ideas and information. Sometimes they trust me enough to be vulnerable and talk about fears and emotions; and I am given a greater understanding of the human experience.

There was the time when a nine-year-old informed me that the central message of the Garden of Eden story was NOT, in fact, about following rules and the consequences to breaking them. “You see,” she explained, “people break rules. We make bad choices. God knows that, too. What God is mad about in this story is that no one is taking responsibility for their choices. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.” I had never considered that perspective before; but it makes perfect sense. Otherwise, because the God of Genesis clearly DOES know that humans will make poor choices and give in to temptation, God has set them
up to fail and then punished them for it. But this 9-year-old made the story so much richer and gave me an understanding that was
comfortable for me.

In a youth group meeting one day, the teens and I were talking about pop culture messages about drinking and drugs and the messages in media that seemed to suggest that you could not really have fun if you were sober. This morphed into a conversation about why the teens in the room had tried or considered trying drinking or drugs. One young man talked about being anxious and feeling awkward at parties and trying to fit in. He explained that the lure of alcohol for him was not rebellion, desire for the forbidden, or liking to be wasted. It was that the alcohol could take that edge of anxiety off and allow him to be more comfortable
in a group. From the outside, this teen was a “golden boy.” He was popular, attractive, well liked, athletic, and a good student. The learning for me in that moment was a stark reminder that we never know what other people are struggling with. I never would have guessed that the golden boy was touched with social anxiety.

And then in 2013, when I returned to TKE as the Religious School Principal, I met Andrew Tracy. Andrew struggled with severe ADHD; and his parents, Christina and Stephen, struggled to help him function at his highest potential and to advocate for him to teachers and friends.

ADHD is a disorder that makes it difficult for a person to pay attention and to control impulsive behaviors. Finding the right combination of medications, therapy, training, and education to help someone with ADHD be able to function is often a long process of trial and error. In the meantime, the child who is suffering from this disorder is not easy to have in a classroom. They are often restless, fidgety, and lack focus. They may talk frequently and over others. They may have trouble completing
assignments, waiting their turn to talk, or being still. They are often labeled as the bad kid or the troublemaker or thought to be simply disrespectful. Their behavior can be seen as intentionally disruptive. Even for those of us who know better, who know intellectually that these behaviors are symptoms of a disorder and not of a “bad seed,” it can be hard to keep that in the forefront of our minds in the heat of the moment. In the moment, while trying to create an active and engaging learning environment for a room full of school-aged children with varied levels of intrinsic engagement, it can be hard to remember that the one kicking his desk loudly and interrupting constantly is not being intentionally difficult. Andrew’s most prevalent symptom was his extreme impulsiveness. It is likely for this reason that Andrew spent frequent time in my office.

So many children, ADHD or otherwise – many adults too make excuses for poor behavior or blame others. As did Adam and Eve! But when I asked Andrew what was going on, when he was sent to my office for the second time, he did not tell me that the lesson was boring or that the kid next to him had started it. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said he didn’t know why he behaved the way he did. Our conversation in the next few minutes made it powerfully clear that far from being “a bad seed,” Andrew Tracy was a kind, caring boy who was embarrassed to have disrupted class and mortified to have made the teacher feel so disrespected.

Because a 10-year-old boy was brave enough to be vulnerable in front of me, instead of pretending bluster and self-righteousness and blaming others, what I had known intellectually was forever engraved on my heart. Andrew literally was unable to control his impulsivity. He was not bad – in fact, quite the opposite. He was a kind and caring child who hated to upset others; but his disorder prevented him from always being able to behave as such.

Because of Andrew’s brave display of vulnerability, I am a better educator, but more importantly a better human. When a student or anyone else is displaying bad behavior, I think of Andrew and am reminded not to judge the person by the person by the behavior. Most people are not trying to be difficult or to ruin our days; and extreme behavior is usually a sign of a bigger problem.

When I was called to the hallway outside the first-grade classroom this school year because a 5-year-old was refusing to go into the classroom and was making a scene and the teacher couldn’t help, I found him sitting on the hallway floor in his socks, crying and
refusing to answer the teacher’s questions or to move. She explained to me that he’d thrown his shoes down the hallway. Because of
brave Andrew and the lesson he’d engraved on my heart, I knew instantly that my task was to understand what was upsetting this boy so
much that throwing his shoes was the only way to communicate it, and then to help him cope with it. Andrew’s example has given me
new wells of patience and determination to understand the reasons for behaviors and how I can help.
Due to a tragic accident on January 3, 2019, Andrew Tracy passed away and will now be forever 15 years old. But he will also be
forever the brave student who taught me the enduring lesson that you can’t judge a book by its hyperactive cover.
May his memory be a blessing and may all of us be blessed with the continued gift of learning from those we teach, parent, coach, train,
and mentor.
Kol Tuv,
Rebecca Tullman”

To read in the original form, please click HERE.

Rebecca, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for sharing this with the world. You will always be a blessing to our family.

Andrew, in life and beyond, you continue to shine your light. I love you.