There are both advantages and disadvantages to being different, as Ada Glustein has discovered. Growing up the only Jew among her neighbors and classmates in Ottawa, Canada meant that she recognized from an early age that she was not like everyone else. However, she didn’t fully understand why. What she did know was that her family had certain expectations for her, and she often felt ill-equipped to fulfill them.
In Glustein’s memoir, Being Different: From Friday Night Candles to Compassionate Classroom, the author describes how being part of an immigrant family set her apart but ultimately led her toward a vocation that made good use of her heritage. From her father’s insistence on her exhibiting ideal Jewishness—without asking questions—to her grandfather’s unconditional love and her mother’s sometimes irrational fears for her, the author was aware of an identity separate from the culture in which she was raised. Glustein found both her parents’ attitudes instructive, as they prepared her for future adversity. After suffering a disappointing divorce, she writes, “I discovered that I could survive, that somehow the safety net for life comes not from others, but from oneself.” Her memoir explains how she came to value her distinct identity as a strength.
Being Different is organized into three parts: “Where I am From,” “Where Do I Belong?” and “Becoming a Teacher.” The first two sections describe, in engaging language and tone, the childhood and adolescent experiences that taught her about prejudice. Many of the incidents the author describes were hurtful, yet they’re related with honesty, sometimes with warmth and humor, and without self-pity. Her reactions to the biases she encountered and the lessons she learned from them shaped her eventual teaching career. Detailing this progression is important to the reader’s understanding of her evolution from a student feeling like she didn’t belong to becoming an empathetic teacher of young children, many of whom seemed like outcasts as well. Her tendency to question authority, once decried by her father, was motivated by her conviction that all children deserved a chance to learn. On several occasions it created a more equitable learning environment for her students.
When Glustein left the classroom to undertake a new career as a university faculty associate, teaching student teachers, she used the stories she’d accumulated about interactions with school administrators and children to encourage and instruct them. She found that both her successes and failures were educational for a younger generation of teachers. Her responses to challenging personalities in the classroom demonstrated compassion. Above all, she made it clear that all children have worth. Many of those student teachers urged her to write this book, and I’m thankful she did.
As the daughter of an institutionalized schizophrenic mother, I also grew up knowing I was unlike my peers. I appreciated Being Different because it emphasizes that while each of us is unique, none of us is alone. I discovered, as the author did, that feeling different offers individuals an opportunity to develop greater empathy for others. Glustein’s book is a good reminder that our differences can have transformative power.