I did not attend Jewish day schools as a child. It was only when I attended the JSP (Jewish Studies Program) at Yeshiva University in 1960 that I began to study Torah in earnest. The JSP Program, under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Besdin, was created for public school graduates who wanted to learn Bible, Talmud, Jewish law, and become more aware of what it means to be a Jew.
When I began the program, I had no thoughts about being a rabbi; but when I completed it in 1964, there was a clear possibility that I would enter the rabbinate. However, the reality was that I did not know enough to enter the ordination program at Yeshiva University.
The powers that be at the university were pleased with my progress in Judaic studies, as they were with the progress of a number of other students; and so they arranged for us – college grads—to attend a senior level high school class in Talmud to try and fill the many blanks in our Judaic knowledge background.
We were the old men in a class of youngsters, referred to by our teacher as the “senior citizens” of the class. Yet all of us felt comfortable in the class because of the sweetness of the boys and the charisma or our teacher, Rabbi Samuel Scheinberg. He was a teacher who not only taught us, he inspired us.
An inspiring teacher is at the heart of The First Grader, a film set in a mountain village of Kenya, that presents the story of a proud 84-year-old Mau Mau warrior, Maruge, who insists on seizing his last opportunity to learn to read and write. Although an old man, he joins a class of six-year-olds taught by Jane, the school’s principal, who is determined to give Maruge a chance to fulfill his academic dreams. She understands that, for Maruge, the ultimate goal of being a free man was to be educated.
The story opens in 2003 with a radio announcement that the Kenyan government is offering a free primary school education to everyone. Maruge hears the announcement and decides to enroll. He travels to the local school and tells Jane what he wants to accomplish. Jane tells him that the free primary school offer is intended for children, not for seniors. Moreover, the school has too many students already. After overcoming a number of bureaucratic obstacles, Maruge enrolls, and Jane, his inspiring teacher, seats him at the front of the class because his eyesight is poor.
Slowly, Maruge learns the alphabet and begins to connect with his classmates. However, the locals begin to resent Maruge because they feel he is a distraction to their children’s education. In spite of community pressure, Maruge resolves to continue even though there are people who want him to leave.
Ultimately, there is rapprochement between Maruge and the locals, and Maruge becomes the oldest person ever to attend primary school. A footnote: his iconic story impressed the world, and the United Nations invited him to speak about his determined quest for education.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about how much Judaism values education. “True freedom is experienced in a community’s ability to educate, to expand minds and perspectives, to tolerate opposing ideas rooted in truth, and to choose to be inspired to act according to truths learned when a community can inspire action through education. To truly be free, one must celebrate and strengthen the value of true education, the value of having a passion for truth; whether or not it conforms to our previously held notions, and allows us to have a conversation with people we disagree with based on a shared set of facts.”
The First Grader, an iconic narrative about an old man’s dream of learning to read and write, reminds us of the freedom that education can give us. Indeed, education opens the doors to freedom and personal fulfillment.