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By June 23, 2021Culture, Humility

REPOST [8-14-18] — This essay recounting a very personal student assignment was first posted on the Humble Sky blog a couple of years ago. It was among the most commented upon. I think all of us wish we had a teacher with such compassion. “… he is a soulful thinker who touches the core of adolescents,” one commenter observed. You cannot teach empathy, but you can encourage it by example.


The opportunity may not be as dramatic as “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” but for some students one particular class assignment may have changed their lives.

For most of us our high school years are remembered, for better or worse, by a desire to be accepted. Not for who we are as individuals, but for our ability to conform and blend in. So it is counterintuitive at best and downright frightening for students in this English class to give an oral presentation with the topic being something unique and unknown to others about yourself.

“Amazingly,” explains the veteran teacher Gary Greenbaum (my brother) who conceived of the assignment decades ago, “students often embrace the opportunity to share extraordinarily personal things.” With these cathartic moments comes something equally remarkable, “Without exception, fellow classmates listen patiently, ask thoughtful questions and reassure their friends that they are not alone.”

There are stories of being bullied, adopted, gay and other deeply personal affairs on which only the presenters are experts.

Greenbaum recalls some of the most notable presentations, when his students revealed fears, shed tears and reminded one another that being different is what we all have in common.

  • One female student explained that the reason she never wore earrings and never went swimming with her friends was she was ashamed that she wore hearing aids.
  • A 6-foot, 200-pound jock who lived and breathed football revealed that he played classical piano in the Sacramento Junior Symphony.
  • And then there was the student who confessed, as tears streamed down her face and soon the faces of all of her classmates, that both of her parents were mentally disabled. This was why, she explained, looking to her best friend, that she never invited her inside her house; why she never allowed anyone to meet her parents; and why she never allowed her parents to come to any school event. … And that dramatic revelation was why, two weeks later she proudly ushered her parents to the school’s Open House where, Greenbaum recalled, the mother and father were dressed as if they were going to a formal event.

These students and many others of Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove, California, have shared with Greenbaum, often many years later, how this particular assignment and opportunity was the most significant experience of their high school years.


  • lucy fisher says:

    I betcha if Gary didn’t lay a safe, secure and loving foundation for his students, they wouldn’t share those feelings and memories. Kudos to him. Bet also that the experience enriched their lives and those they touched.

  • Sally says:

    We heard you talk many times about what a fine teacher Gary was. His students were so fortunate. Thinking of you, Stu.

  • edwitts says:

    So great to have known Gary, a guy that truly made a difference.

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