Jonathan Safran Foer once wrote an article in The New York Times (2013) in which he stated, “We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. ” After over 30 years of teaching, one of the “tips” for teaching I can pass on is that everyone loves a story, especially when that story opens up the world to meaning and understanding. Below is a true story of an unforgettable experience I had this week with three students, physics majors, from one of the high schools I teach in.
The Meaning of Education
Dr. Karen D. Guth
As a teacher with over 30 years’ experience in both America and Israel I search for those moments and opportunities in which my students comprehend that what they learn in their classrooms are not fully realized until they understand how they can apply that knowledge to the world outside of the classroom. I am privileged to teach at an out of the ordinary place, Yeshivat Mekor Chaim, which affords those opportunities to allow the students to experience the true meaning of their education.
On January, 29th, 2017 I found myself in small claims court in Israel after filing a claim against a young man who rammed into my car with his truck, pushing me into a van in front of me and causing tens of thousands shekels worth of damage to my compact Toyota Yaris. Thank God no one was hurt; however, much to my surprise his insurance company refused to pay for the damage to the front of my car arguing that I could not prove that I didn’t first hit the van in front of me when he stopped short and then afterwards was hit from behind by the truck. In Israel, this type of accident is called “sharsheret” where three or more cars are connected as if in a “beaded necklace” one after the other in a smash-up. In this case, unless I have an eye witness to prove that I did not hit the car in front of me before being hit from behind, I will not receive payment for damages to the front of my car.
We are admonished, “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue” and I felt that it was not “just” that the insurance company of the man who slammed into me should not pay for all of the damage done to my car. Thus, I took both him and his insurance company to court. The challenge was how was I to prove without a witness, that I was not responsible for the damage to the front of my car? My husband suggested that this was a physics problem and that I needed to find someone who could show, with the weight and the speed of the truck that hit me, the weight of my car and the fact that I had stopped and wasn’t moving, that the truck could have pushed me into the van thereby causing damage to the front of my car.
I approached one of my former Mekor Chaim students who is majoring in physics and he took all the information, brought it to two other physics majors and together the three of them worked studiously on the calculations, with the information they had, to estimate how far the truck pushed me. They sent me pictures of the white boards filled with four levels of calculations, which I of course could not understand, the formula they used and the results. They estimated that I had been pushed approximately 3.8 meters as a result of the impact of the truck hitting me from behind.
Wonderful! Now how was I to explain this to a judge when I did not understand the physics myself? I received permission from the Rosh Yeshiva (headmaster) to take the three students with me to court and I sent a special request to the court to allow them to speak on my behalf when it came time to explain the physics of the accident.
These three young men stood by me against the driver of the truck and his insurance representative (no lawyers are allowed in small claims court in Israel, like America) and when I was finished telling my story, complete with toy cars and trucks that I brought as props to explain what happened, one of the boys stood up and proceeded to explain with intelligence, confidence and maturity how it was likely that the damage to my car, both front and back, was the cause of the impact of the 1700 kg truck hitting my 1000 kg car at 40 km per hour.
The judge asked him questions, the insurance representative tried to make him look like a fool and throughout it all our young student held his cool, answered every question with honesty and respect. The other students, who had helped with the physics calculations and provided translation for me as well as advice as to what questions I should ask, all showed the power of knowledge applied to a “real life” situation.
In the end, the insurance representative who opened the case with the comment that there was no way to prove that I didn’t hit the van in front of me before being hit from behind, became nervous because the judge was so impressed with our Yeshivat Mekor Chaim student, that he offered to pay 60% of what I was asking before a judgment was made. I, feeling that this had become so much more than about the money I wanted to recover, decided that it was a good compromise and I was willing to take it.
I will tell you that no one in that room on that day will ever forget what happened there. It was a day that three young students took four years of learning in math and physics and recognized that their learning had helped their teacher to prove that her accident was not her fault. Furthermore, they witnessed the justice system in action in the State of Israel. The adults in the room experienced the full power of a meaningful education when the students displayed their knowledge, understanding and ability to apply what they had learned in a way that lay people could understand. The student who spoke realized that not only is he brilliant in physics but he is articulate, he spoke with confidence and firmness. He held his own against the sometimes antagonistic questions thrown at him by the insurance representative and he answered honestly to the judge when he expressed that he was not at the scene of the accident during the accident but he was confident in their calculations which showed that HaMorah (The teacher) was telling the truth.
Afterwards, my husband and I took the boys out to dinner and we celebrated. We discussed the case, a little Torah, ate and the boys went to a room in the restaurant to daven Mincha before we took them back to school. My husband took a picture at the courthouse of the four of us, each of the students holding one of the toy car props and smiling. We sent the picture out on the school WhatsApp with a caption written by one of the boys, “Physics majors help Morah Karen win big in court. What great students we have at Mekor Chaim!” That was the truth; Morah (teacher) Karen “won big” because she has the privilege of being surrounded by young people with brains, values and heart in an institution that truly understands, the meaning of education.