Intergeneration Wisdom

My project throughout the fellowship was initially inspired by my love for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Among other key messages, the novella emphases the wisdom of children, stating that, “all grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.” Netflix made an animated film based on the book in 2015, which features a young protagonist who develops a meaningful relationship with her wise , retired neighbor.

Viewing my upcoming graduation as the cusp of starting adulthood, I entered the fellowship with the intention to bring the movie and book to life and create an environment whereby elementary school, undergraduate, and overgraduate students could learn from one another. Looking back on the experience, I recognize that what I learned from my students has refined my sense of purpose and given me a more profound sense of appreciation of life.

Throughout my time in the fellowship, I was surprised with the similarities between the worldviews of over-graduates and my elementary school students. These similarities shined strongest when talking about how the pandemic has affected each of my students and both generations of students mentioned themes involving a lack of freedom, and a need to focus on the present moment. These responses were notably different from the responses that undergraduate students gave which highlighted a general inability to focus on the present moment out of fears for uncertainties that lie ahead. While it is important not to paint too broad of a picture, such a notable distinction between generations was insightful for me as I contemplated what I will take with me from the fellowship. My observation seemed to breathe life into the quote from Le Petit Prince; adults (including young adults) have much to learn from people older and younger than them!

Being a student at Duke for the past four years, I have witnessed firsthand the value that diversity brings to learning. Living with and learning from students from a variety of backgrounds has informed me more about the world and given me a more comprehensive understanding of my place and purpose in it. However, diversity at a university tends to exclude age as a factor. Last Sunday was the final session of Intergenerational Ethics with OLLI. As each student shared his or her impression of the course, I was touched when many students shared the inter-intergeneration session (the one this fellowship was dedicated to creating) was a highlight. Completing this fellowship, I realized how much I value connecting generations and observing the fruits of such connection.

As I graduate from Duke and join a management consulting firm in New York City, I recognize that my exposure to people who are as diverse in age as my elementary school and over-graduate students will be limited in the workplace. Because of how valuable I now recognize these connections to be, I am committed to searching them out with a high degree of intentionality and a commitment having an open mind and heart. I will hold fast to Le Petit Prince’s wisdom that, “the most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, only felt with the heart.”

Serendipitous Laughter: A Lesson in Humility

“A day without laughter is a day wasted” – Charlie Chaplin

The past two weeks represent the culmination of my fellowship, as I brought both of my classes together for an “inter-intergenerational” discussion. Coordinating between both nonprofit organizations and classes of students presented its own set of challenges, as students across all generations wanted more guidance as to what the discussion would entail.

I learned years ago that, sometimes, serendipity will have its way in guiding an event, and I was confident that this class would manifest in one of those times. Explaining to students that they would have to just show up, I received reactions ranging from sheer excitement to nervous anticipation. These reactions permeated through me as I contemplated the potential for the class to be either a great success or a chaotic failure.

As the virtual Zoom room filled with students, a wave of relief rippled through my body when I saw that several my elementary school students and their parents were able to attend, after expressing doubts initially, due to conflicting athletic commitments. Thank goodness for the rain, I think to myself, reflecting on how miracles come in all shapes and sizes.

I began class by asking students to introduce themselves by saying their name and what fruit their code of ethics most closely represents. To model an answer, I introduced my ethics as a tomato, since “I focus on context when determining just behavior, and a tomato can either be a fruit or vegetable depending on the context.” Students seemed to like this introduction as they participated energetically by creatively classifying themselves as all kinds of fruits (and even some vegetables).

Following introductions and some more icebreaker questions, we split into two smaller breakout rooms so that discussions could get deeper and more personal. As I hopped between both rooms to make sure my students felt comfortable, I was pleasantly surprised with the depth of conversation tidbits I picked up. Not being able to fully engage in one room, I eagerly waited for the class to rejoin so that I could hear summaries of what I was missing.

Toward the end of class, I brought both breakout rooms back together for a large group discussion. “Can anyone share one piece of advice you have for a generation not your own,” I ask students. I continued facetiously with, “…and because I am the teacher, I will go first, and no one can stop me.” Before I can share my insight, one of my elementary school students unmuted and exclaimed, “I can stop you.” And stop me she did! I saw my grandparents (who are also students in the class) hysterically laughing as my younger student reminded me to speak with more humility. I began chuckling along too, as my student persisted in sharing her advice first. My prediction was proven accurate: serendipity shined.

After class, my co-facilitators and supervisor commented on how impressed they were with the level of discussion. This was the first time that such an inter-intergenerational class was taught, and it was clear from their reaction that they thought it was successful. I was proud of bringing these two organizations together and have since began to think of ways to ensure the partnership persists after I graduate.

Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Case for Progress-Oriented Gratitude

“When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition.”
― Letty Cottin Pogrebin, 
Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America

March is Women’s History Month, and in both of my classes, themes of feminism and women’s rights have woven their way into class discussions. In my Jewish ethics course, my elementary school students ask questions ranging from the gender of G-D to why traditional Jewish literature (written BCE) quotes so many men and so few women. These questions are mirrored by comments from the overgrads in my Intergenerational Ethics course who mention how in their lifetime alone the role that women play in America has drastically shifted in favor of gender equality. The richness of ensuring dialogue highlights the depth of my students’ introspection.

On Sunday evenings, after I finish teaching these two courses, I often find myself deeply reflecting on the themes that students bring up. Recently, I have pondered the role that gratitude should play in conversations regarding ethics. For example, should I be grateful for the progress that has been made regarding gender equality, or should I expend my energy on criticizing and ameliorating gaps in gender equality that persist today? To put it in the context of class, should I celebrate the progress that my overgrad students speak about, or should I guide class discussion to focus on how presently female voices still trail behind their male counterparts in Jewish scholarship (although this gap is rapidly closing)?

To find answers to my questions, I remind myself of the humility with which I must broach this subject, given my youth and identity as a man. Since I began this fellowship, I have been constantly reminded of how the relationship between students and teachers is bidirectional. Teachers often hold answers to students’ questions, and students often told answers to teachers’ questions. I pay close attention to my students’ comments during the next classes, deeply listening for potential answers to my question.

Finally, my eagerness overpowered my patience, and I asked my question to my students. Their response and the discussion that ensued has completely shifted my perspective on balancing historical progress with contemporary inequality. While the conversation was nuanced, I want to share with you the conclusion the classes reached:

Intergenerational gratitude is key, and that gratitude need not come at the expense of contemporary progress. It is possible to be simultaneously deeply grateful and hopeful, and at the intersection of these two emotions lies the keys to progress-oriented gratitude and creating a brighter future.

There is a very fine line that needs to be walked when implementing teaching pedagogy that upholds progress-oriented gratitude and the legitimacy of my diverse students’ lived experiences. I am still learning best practice for creating such a classroom environment, and I look forward to further developing a greater sense of progress-oriented gratitude within myself and my students. I remain grateful for the opportunity to teach, and I am excited for what I will continue to learn from my students and what my students will learn from each other.

Intergenerational BLUF & Tachlis

Andrew will be working with Beth El Synagouge and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Durham, NC, in order to facilitate intergenerational conversations about ethics and purpose.

Class is about to begin, and as the teacher, I feel the butterflies emerging from their dormant chrysalises in my stomach sending vibrations of excited nerves throughout my body as they beat their new wings. I love teaching, and as part of the GradEngage Fellowship I am given the honor of teaching two separate ethics classes spanning three generations of students. The butterflies are here to remind me of my passion for teaching. When I care about something deeply, it is only natural that butterflies emerge to remind me of how much I care.

Class is starting. This class, about Jewish Ethics, is taught to 4th-6th graders who are members of the Beth El Synagogue in Durham. The students trickle into the Zoom room, and the butterflies finally find flowers to rest upon; I am ready to teach.

This first lesson is focused on teaching the importance of using core values as a foundation for discussion – a concept that may seem simple but makes all the difference in dialogue. In business school, we call “leading with your core values” BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). All students in the Master of Management Studies listened to an orientation speech that defined exactly what was expected from BLUF. In Yiddish and Modern Hebrew, we call that same concept of leading with core values Tachlis (“bottom line”). When I first learned Tachlis, I was in Israel, and the person explaining it to me was patient and waited to make sure I fully understood what it meant.

Because I had spent a lot of time learning what BLUF and Tachlis meant, I expected to spend at least an equal amount of time discussing what our version might look like. However, in my class, I didn’t even have the chance to name the concept, because of how eager my students were to share their opinions, and how well the students naturally followed BLUF and Tachlis. My students’ vulnerability and authenticity shined even without having to intentionally create norms. In graduate school, my peers and I struggle to share fully authentically even after establishing a relationship, yet my 4th-6th grade students were naturals. I wondered what happens to our BLUF and Tachlis as we get older.

Now is time to teach my second class. This one, called Intergenerational Ethics, is half filled with undergrads (ages 18-22) and half filled with overgrads (ages 50 and up) who are part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Durham. The same butterflies awaken before the class begins, and just like before, they find resting places once students start to enter the Zoom. I am co-teaching this class alongside three undergraduate students and one overgrad who lives in Durham. As teachers, we had spoken extensively about setting norms for the class, especially because many of the overgrads had seldom used Zoom. We feared that nuggets of wisdom would go unheard either because students would be too afraid to share or because students would not know how to unmute themselves.

To our surprise, our prediction was turned on its head. Instead of not sharing their views, overgrads shared their experiences openly and honestly. There were even times when we had to cut overgrads off to ensure others had a chance to share (respectfully of course). The adage “with age comes wisdom” was proven true, as overgrads’ experiences enlightened the undergrads in the class.

Reflecting on both classes, I realized how similar young children and retirees are. I found comfort and humility in the wisdom of children and chronological seniors (as my grandma, an overgrad in the Intergeneration Ethics class, calls herself so as not to be confused with the “academic seniors”). There is so much that we learn as children, forget as adults, and only later recall as we become seniors. The butterflies in my stomach rest, but not before baby caterpillars form chrysalises for the next week’s worth of butterflies.

The Sixth Sense

“Life literally abounds in comedy if you just look around you.” – Mel Brooks

“I have always been a huge admirer of my own work. I’m one of the funniest and most entertaining writers I know.” – Mel Brooks (presumably commenting on the first quotation)

Learning about human perception involves learning the “five senses:” sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. From a young age we are taught that each sense allows us to appreciate the world in a different way, and that we ought not to take these such perception for granted. Each of our senses adds a certain je ne sais quoi to our world, contributing flavors, colors, or melodies to our day, nourishing our souls. Together, our senses allow us to understand and appreciate differences in small details. They make each moment different from the last, allowing us to perceive and appreciate life’s many beauties. It is the variation that makes life so exciting.

In quarantine, what we see, smell, taste, touch and hear can be redundant. I, for instance, have cooked the same eggs with onion and spinach for breakfast each day. My gastronomical variation comes only when I occasionally replace the spinach with broccoli. The birds can always lift my mood on sunny days, but after listening to them carefully enjoying each note of their improvisational symphonies, even their melodies sound redundant. And, I love seeing trees blossom and flowers bloom in the early summer warmth, but after walking past the same tree multiple times each day, its beauty becomes less impressive. I have realized that beauty exists in impermanence, and our five senses allow us to preserve such Wabi-sabi in our memory, making what Robert Frost describes as “Nature’s First Green” last just a bit longer.

With quarantine, however, this process breaks down. The impermanence switches from being our surroundings to being our lifestyles. Instead of needing ways to appreciate the beauty of the universe around us, we need ways to appreciate the universe of our own lives. While our five traditional senses allow us to preserve that which surrounds us, we need to turn to a different sense to appreciate our own lives during quarantine, granting us the ability to shine a light on each moment, turning dull moments into joyful ones. The sense that we need is a sense of humor.

It is difficult to find reasons to laugh, especially during times when the world seems bleak, but it is during these times that our sense of humor has the most potential. Laughter is a prism that refracts the typical grayness of the world into a myriad of different colors eliciting a sense of joy that can only be expressed through the whimsical melodies of our laughter. (Have you ever listened to your own laughter, and pondered where it came from and what it says about you, or, have you ever considered what you find funny and why?)

Laughter is like our fingerprint, as it is part of what makes us unique. Laughter heals. If social distancing and quarantining create distress, then laughter is medicine. Laughter uplifts. If one seeks to momentarily escape their existing environment and give themselves a break, then laughter is an instant vacation. Laughter spreads. If one seeks to bring happiness to others, then laughter is the harbinger of smiles. And, smiles are contagious. They send energy to those around us, lighting up their worlds just as our smile lights up our own. When our typical senses struggle to help us make life special, we must turn to our sixth sense, our sense of humor to do so. Channeling this sixth sense begins by asking ourselves “what has made me laugh recently, and who have I made laugh recently?” Send your answers to carlins101@gmail.com. I am curious!

Heroes Among Us

kenan insider heroes among usI recall career day in kindergarten, when parents would come into class and talk about their jobs. Professions like police officer, firefighter, soldiers, lawyers and doctors would be considered heroes. They would tell tales of their time on the job saving lives. Their brief presentations concluded with a much deserved applause from the class. Almost all of my classmates excitedly exclaimed I want to be a hero when I grow up, so I will be [one of the aforementioned professions]. As kindergarteners, we had our lives planned. Everyone wanted to be a hero.

Then, the parents who were bank tellers, computer salesmen, and grocery store clerks presented to my kindergarten class. As they described their jobs, my classmates and I found their presentations far less glorious. Why would anyone choose to handle money or machines, or help purchase food when they could be a hero and help people instead? One classmate had a confused look on his face when he heard the bank teller parent talk about interest. How could anyone find this interesting, my classmate whispered to me. Looking back at my kindergarten yearbook confirms my memory. While people reported wanting to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters and other heroic careers, I found only a few cases of people wanting to be what we considered non-heroic. At that time, we didn’t understand that circumstance creates glory, not position alone.

In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems much of the world is turned on its head. Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms have extended past the university touching nearly every aspect of life. Information Technology teams who typically go under the radar, are now at the forefront of operational efficiency. They have become the heroes of some of the largest institutions (Duke included). In times of social distancing, only those that are considered “essential” continue to go to work putting their lives at risk for the benefit of society. Going to the grocery store, I felt compelled to thank the clerks, much as I feel compelled to thank soldiers, for putting themselves on the line to serve others.

While grocery stores continue to operate, many people are now scrambling to purchase electronics to ensure that they stay connected amid a temporarily virtualized society. As a result, computer salesmen, like my father, now come home recounting stories of customers calling them their heroes in times of crisis. Bank tellers who previously served a mundane role, have become points of access to much needed cash and liquidity.

During a crisis what we consider essential puts a new perspective on glory and heroism. Those whose work is often thought of as a means to an end, now preform lifesaving duties. This pandemic has humanized professions, making me recognize that the grocery store clerk, like the doctor helps people survive. I wonder how next kindergarten career day will go…

Since reflecting on how COVID-19 has changed our understanding of what is essential, I began counting the people whose work allows me to function daily. The grocery store clerk, the gas station worker, the bank teller, the IT staff, the mail(wo)man, truck drivers…. Eventually, I count over 100 people who without them, my daily life would come to a halt. I realize that these are also the people whose work I typically take for granted. I was never taught to view their work as glorious, or heroic. What a limited worldview I had!

This pandemic has taught me to appreciate the many heroes who are risking their lives and whose work allows society to function as smooth as possible even during a crisis. To those whose work is just now being considered essential, thank you for being heroes.