A friend confided in me that her children's kindergarten teacher had come to their house to babysit recently. "My kids thought a celebrity was coming. Our teacher? Right here in our house?" There is a certain amount of awe and esteem that kids hold their teachers in. We believe in their goodness and power, almost instinctively.
From a young age we see teachers as set apart from others, people capable of bringing us to a different place by giving us a new understanding of the world. Though once we get a bit older than elementary school, we do realize they aren't celebrities. And yet. We still want something from them, to be able to explain the world: to let us see why those numbers fit together that way, how the words in that foreign language can be comprehensible, or why we need to structure our thoughts to assemble a well organized composition that actually proves a point. Teachers access things we can't. We need their help.
When I was in tenth grade, I hadn't quite gotten over the teacher worship stage of younger kids. In fact, the teacher I thought was so talented and wise was revered by most of the school, pictured on the school's admissions brochure sitting with a class under large and aged trees on the school's well groomed grounds, seeming as if they were discussing philosophy. That image was so appealing to me when I applied to the school for ninth grade: an outdoor setting and intense engagement in ideas, guided by a wise teacher.
In fact, I did learn a great deal from that teacher. He guided and encouraged us to work hard on our writing, learn grammar rules with absolute punctiliousness and rigor and read things we never had. He told me to read Virginia Woolf''s A Room of One's Own, its language rapturously beautiful, its ideas utterly transformative. It was the right time for me to read it, determined to be the sister Shakespeare never had, to be ambitious as a writer. I wanted to get my words and ideas out there, no matter what. My teacher regaled us with tales of his numerous students who had gone on to be editors at the Harvard Crimson and write for the Washington Post. He had an impressive track record.
The thing I most remember about Mr. Lin, though, is his lectures on Bible. I went to Hebrew school all the way through high school and definitely found what I learned about Bible interesting, it wasn't until someone else presented this world of my own texts to me that I found it something worth grasping, wanting to know more and learn more, realizing the ellipses and lacunae in the Biblical text were things that complicated the text and made it hard to understand. I understood that knowing Hebrew as I did, the text made much more sense, as it had aspects unyielding in translation, even to the smartest of teachers.
And maybe it is there, in Mr. Lin's lack of knowledge that I learned the most. For when he spoke to us students, chosen for the task because of his Buddhist beliefs, neither Christian nor Jew without skin in the game of belief, he only wished for us to know and be aware of the Biblical text as great literature without doctrinal underpinnings, as a foundation for any serious understanding of Western literature. I was the only one in the room who knew enough Biblical Hebrew to explain the meanings of names in the text, that when Edom is used as a nickname for Esau, the significance of its meaning, "red" adds to our understanding of the text.
I had liked Bible, but now, knowing that it was linked to text of Western literature I was excited. I could contribute and bring my knowledge of Bible to others help understand this literature. That is what I was going to do, to get my peers to take this text seriously, as much as they took biology or AP American history or Latin or trigonometry. It is crucial to framing our understanding of the world. I wanted my classmates to see how valuable this knowledge is and see in sophisticated way. I wasn't able to until much later in life, when I edited an anthology Reading Genesis and asked academics in different fields to use their expertise to write about Genesis. I found MacArthur winners(Rebecca Newberger Goldstein) and Harvard professors(Alan Dershowitz), sexologists(Dr Ruth Westheimer) and novelists(Dara Horn) to discuss their interpretations of passages in Genesis.
I wasn't surprised to find out that in June 2012 that my tenth grade English teacher was on the front page of the New York Times. After all, he was in his eighties and with so many students who went on to writing careers, winning Pulitzer prizes and other awards, naturally his passing would be noted. Perhaps the front page placement was a bit overdone, but certainly he had an influence on many and if it was a slow news day, why not if the editor was a graduate of the school he had taught at?
Still living, that wasn't why he was there.
He had slept with his male students. He claims only three, but many more others came forward. He claims it was warm and casual, he didn't know it was wrong. A classic pedophile excuse, to blame others, to say he didn't really mean it, all of that.
I discussed the situation of having been taught by not one, but in my case at least three sexual predators, with many classmates. One asked me 'is a betrayal of one student a betrayal of all of us?'
'Yes,' I replied, 'if someone does harm to one, it is harm to all. Forcing yourself on someone is to dismiss that person's feelings, render them invisible. It is a horrible abuse of power.'
But still this teacher is the person who got me excited about Bible, who told me to read A Room of One's Own, who drilled grammar into me to give me confidence that I know how to set words down on a page one after another. How could this same person be evil and harmful to others, even one of the causes of suicide of at least one student?
For answers, I looked to the Bible itself. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in Not in God's Name that there is a "unique mixture of light and shade in all the characters of the Hebrew Bible." Sacks adds, "the Bible hides none of this from us, and for a deeply consequential reason: to teach us that even the best are not perfect and even the worst are not devoid of merits. That is the best protection of our humanity."
The Bible teaches, Sacks tells us, that no human is beyond reproach, that it is a mistake to hold even the best beyond scrutiny. No one should be seen as worthy of complete adulation.
As kids, we have that desire to be worshipful - my teacher! The one who knows so much! Yet, the lesson for grownups is to avoid that desire and to remember that all are flawed. Teachers are not celebrities. As we all know in the internet age, celebrities are rarely role models.
Knowing that my teacher committed crimes yet still gave me valuable lessons both through his flaws and because of them, may be the most valuable lesson of them all.