In my Jewish community, choosing a prospective school for one’s children is a mission that possesses Talmudic intensity, and is a topic of passionate debate among my contemporaries. Buzzwords like blended learning, iPads and SmartBoards help assure anxious parents that their children will get ahead and get into Harvard; what more could a modern Jewish mom want?
But I pay extra attention to talk of anti-bullying programs and a commitment to fostering the value of kindness. I wonder if these programs will be enough to counteract the unfortunate tendency children often have to band together and winnow out the “nerds” and “losers,” or to make it okay to be different in a typically homogeneous environment like a Jewish day school. I wonder if it would have been enough for me.
Sara Leah stood out like a sore thumb among the neatly-pressed and perfectly coiffed schoolgirls in our right-wing yeshiva elementary school. She had huge curly hair that resisted attempts to be corralled into a ponytail, and her shirt was consistently untucked. She wore pastel pink coke-bottle glasses and saddle shoes, way before they became ironically vintage, and her knee socks were embossed with things like rows of hearts when everyone knew classic argyle was the way to go. Academically, she was weak. She had no clear, defined role to play except that of class nerd, and she fulfilled her purpose beautifully.
It didn’t take that much to be branded as different in the extremely homogeneous population that existed in my school, where virtually every student was white, firmly Orthodox, and middle to upper-middle class. I only knew one girl who had divorced parents. Even our accessories, the only things we had sartorial control over given our bland uniforms, were all alike; God help you if you veered from the trend of the moment like Kipling backpacks, snap bracelets or bra strap headbands (which were quickly banned for their immodest implications). Conformity reigned as it does in most single-sex yeshivas that don’t tout modernity or progressive values, and differences were not celebrated; they made someone an object of derision, and I, leading the charge with many of my classmates, didn’t let Sara Leah forget it.
We snickered when she stumbled over basic Hebrew words or asked the teacher a question, which she quickly learned not to do, and we purposefully excluded her from our Chinese jump rope games and discussions where we traded maternal insights into our Tamagotchi digital pets. We turned down her offers to share her snacks with us, citing fear of cootie transmission. She was picked last for dodgeball and as a partner for class projects. When she had to be tacked on to an existing group, as the last girl standing, our morose expressions said it all. Every time she behaved in a way that rang true to the self-fulfilling prophecy we had set up for her—her watchful, eager gaze during recess as she waited in vain for an invitation, or the moments spent rifling through a messy binder in the middle of class to locate her homework—only gave us more ammunition for our disdain.
We did not undertake a campaign of vicious cyber–bullying with taunts to commit suicide, or text topless photos to the entire student body, or anything that you read about in newspapers today. But who can say whether the rippling effects of our more “typical” childhood bullying were any less severe for Sara Leah?
I am not a veteran of therapy for nothing, so I can offer an educated conjecture as to why I seized upon Sara Leah, and how a generally nice kid like me possessed such a capacity for cruelty. I suppose it’s because I felt very different, too, and I was eager to magnify someone else’s idiosyncrasies to divert attention away from my own.
I was an alternatively rambunctious and dreamy—and always attention-seeking—child, and shoved first into a uniform and then behind a desk, I was left a little shell-shocked. I resisted all attempts to be molded into a submissive, docile “bas yisroel” who heeded the administration’s directives to laugh quietly or wear my long hair tied back, and who fumed at their implication that to be a nice Jewish girl, it was essential to remain in the background of Jewish life and society. I instinctively chafed at their liberal use of the word shvartza; it was always uttered with a bit of malice, matched only by the way they spat the word goyim, who they were obsessed with. Be nice to those poor goyim, they warned, whose kids are all wild animals who roughhouse in public school and end up in jail.
“What’s so wrong about befriending people who believe differently than us? But why can’t women dance with the Torah?” I would whine. “Why do the men get to do all the fun things? What if we want to be more than just imahos b’yisrael?” Eventually, I was met with sighs and eye rolls before I even opened my mouth to ask a question.
I managed fine socially; I think the other girls lived in hushed awe of my cheeky impudence. But I still felt entirely out of place and lonesome in my views, and frightened at being potentially shunned by my more conformist peers.
And so I chose to be at the helm of constructing the subtle but unmistakable divide between us and Sara Leah so as to further distance myself from the disparity I felt marked me. Better we should move farther away from her together, I thought, than have them move far away from me.
Over time, the distaste we made obvious for Sara Leah grew fainter as we grew older and more cognizant that it was all petty foolishness. If we didn’t actively invite her to eat lunch with us, we didn’t make faces when she tried to join us, either. We had greater empathy and understanding; but as for any practical, friendly overtures that I made toward her, well, I wish I remembered any of those as much as I remember my earlier unkindness.
I do vividly recall summoning the courage after we graduated to call her and ask for forgiveness for my role in her misery. I went elsewhere for high school, much to my relief and, I’m quite sure, that of the administration; maybe no longer being in the same class as Sara Leah emboldened me to make the call. I rehearsed my apology exhaustively and then made the call, purposefully not on erev Yom Kippur, also known as Night of the Insincere Pardon—and I stumbled over my words.
I realized then, as I do now, what a superficial, token gesture it was after all I had helped put her through. Despite how obviously symbolic and perfunctory it seemed, she was very gracious in her acceptance of it. I haven’t spoken to her since.
This was all a long time ago, but my deep sense of shame and remorse has endured; just in writing this, I have cringed a dozen times and felt my heart break over my role in her torment. That apology, I realize now, should have at the very least come in person, and I am committed to making sure it does.
My shame is now also coupled with my profound fear that my children might encounter bullying in their own schools, whether they might be on the receiving end or the ones doling it out. Either one seems scary to contemplate.
I comfort myself with the knowledge that the potential schools for my children are all more progressive and have a wider embrace of people that vary in religious observance and range of abilities than the one I attended. An Orthodox Jewish day school will never be truly diverse in student population—unless you can categorize more than one gender and type of yarmulke as diverse—but it can teach students that being different is okay, and even quite wonderful: how boring would it be if everyone were the same?
I can teach my children that lesson, too, and I can tell them of how it was a lesson I learned too late. For as much as I want them to learn from me what to do, I also want them to learn from me what not to do.
And maybe it will all be enough—the more enlightened schools, the greater intolerance for bullying today, that fact that I am a more aware grownup who can use my past experiences to inform the way I parent. I hope so. Because I’d love for my children to go to Harvard, too, but more than that, I’d want them to look around in class when they begin school, and take note of the child who is different, the child who has little in the way of social currency and who struggles to make friends. And I’d want my children to move closer to them—instead of moving farther away.
Tova Ross is a freelance writer and contributing blogger to Kveller. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
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