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Out of School

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

An 8th grader pleads for understanding.

Between me and you, I don't care about prepositional phrases or Pi or Lewis and Clark or even King David. I'm not interested in who won the War of 1812 or why Saturn has so many rings. To me, life is outside the classroom -- tulips, rainbows, Color War, sleepovers, Boggle, choirs, Banana Republic, hiking, and ballet -- not blackboards and finals.

Fact is, I have never liked school. School is just a place that is full of rules -- like a jail, I guess.

  • Come on time.
  • Dress the way we tell you to dress.
  • Have your homework done and done neatly.
  • Keep your loose-leaf organized (What's the point of that?).
  • Don't call out.
  • Ask questions.
  • (How am I supposed to ask questions if I can't call out?)

And my teachers do not understand me. They never have.

It's not that I don't want to learn, I just prefer to dance... and draw... and laugh... and bake... and sing... and dream... and even pray. What's wrong with that?

Plenty. At least that's what my principal says. And my parents seem to agree with her. Most of the time, I come home and just listen to lectures:

  • Mrs. Chernoff called me today.
  • How in the world do you expect to get into a decent high school if you don't study?
  • Do you think I like to do housework? You think Daddy ENJOYS being an accountant? You just do what you have to do. That's all there is to it.
  • Until you turn things around, there will be no friends over and limited phone privileges.

Is brains the only thing that matters? What about being a really good friend? Doesn't that count?

Every year I thought it would get better. But it didn't. And now I'm finishing 8th grade and barely passing. I know I'm not stupid... or I think I'm not stupid, but is brains the only thing that matters? What about being a really good friend? Doesn't that count?

What about art? And music? And watching the sun set? And writing an email to Sarah in Israel, after she lost her grandmother? And helping poor old Mrs. Shemanowitz with her groceries or when she is lonely? Aren't those things more important?

As you can see, I am very frustrated by all of this. And lately, all I do is cry. I know that a 14-year-old girl really shouldn't cry, but I can't help it.

Please don't misunderstand. I know that my parents love me. They really do. But a few weeks ago they really lost it. I brought home a literature test that they had to sign. I got a 42 on it. Honestly, I was lucky to do so well. I was completely lost. How should I know what Orwell meant with his metaphor? And why should I care? And what is a metaphor, anyway?

Well, you should have seen the reaction. First Mom flipped out.

"I'm not buying you a stitch of clothing until your grades improve. I have HAD IT!"

Then she hit below the belt, comparing me to my sisters.

"Judy is not any smarter than you, but she NEVER brought home failing grades. She worked hard for her marks. And so will you. Even Ruthie takes schoolwork more seriously than you do."

Daddy wasn't exactly thrilled either. He slapped the test paper with his open fist, declaring, "THIS is what I pay tuition for?"

I just ran to my room, slamming the door behind me, threw on my headphones and buried my head in my pillow. The situation was hopeless.

He said that we must educate our youth according to their ways. It sounded a whole lot like what I've been saying about myself for years!

And then, the other day, I was sitting in Hebrew class... I guess I was spacing out or doodling or something... when Miss Davidson said something that really surprised me. We were learning about King Solomon. She said he was the smartest man who ever lived and she mentioned one of his most famous teachings. I think it comes from Proverbs, but I'm not so sure. He said that we must educate our youth according to their ways. My ears really perked up with that one. That means that every child has his/her own way of learning. It sounded a whole lot like what I've been saying about myself for years!

After we were dismissed, I approached Miss Davidson in the hall. I hesitated a lot -- I had never really spoken to a teacher privately -- but Miss Davidson is kinda cool. I mean... she's not really cool, but for a teacher I guess she's cool. I asked her if my understanding of what King Solomon had said was correct. She said it was. But she didn't stop there. She then asked why this was so important to me. That was really nice of her. I knew she was running to another class, but she was making time for me anyway.

I started telling her about how nobody seemed to really understand me. I wasn't against learning; I just sort of looked at everything a little bit differently than the other kids. And a funny thing happened. She didn't yell or disapprove. She didn't even disagree with me.

"There's nothing worse than feeling alone and not understood, Rachel," is all she said.

I looked at her gentle face, and then, out of nowhere, the tears just started to gush. Miss Davidson threw her soft arms around me and held me while I just bawled away. Tons of kids walked past us, but I didn't care. I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn't. All of my frustration was coming out -- right there in the school hallway... finally.

Over the next few days I spoke to Miss Davidson a lot. She told me that she was a lot like me when she went to school. Her school was only interested in the really good students and if someone was a little bit different... well, you know the rest. I wasn't sure if she was making that up or not, but I almost didn't care. She just made me feel like I was okay. She also told me that she thought I was smart. That was real important to me.

But what was most important, was that she spoke to my parents. As I said, they do love me, but they just didn't know how to get through to me. I wish I could say that Miss Davidson performed magic with them -- she didn't. They still wore their disappointment on their faces, but they did try a new approach. Instead of lecturing, they said things like, "Let's work together," and "Let's figure out how to get you through this." That felt a lot better.

I also noticed that they complimented me much more often -- even in front of Judy and Ruthie. I guess they were following instructions from Miss Davidson. But it didn't matter. Those compliments are so powerful that I believed them anyway.

I never asked her, but I suppose Miss Davidson secretly had a little talk with some of my other teachers too. Or maybe they had a meeting about me. Either way, some things became different. They just stopped getting on my case so much -- especially about the small stuff.

If I forgot to do some homework or wasn't taking notes, they didn't make a big deal. Mrs. Chernoff moved my seat up and looked at me a lot more while she was teaching. It took me a while to catch on, but it seems I was getting tests that were a little easier than most of the other girls. I had thought that marks didn't matter to me, but it sure felt amazing when I started getting 82's and 86's. And my parents were overjoyed too -- hadn't seen them smile at me for a long time.

Summer is almost here and I can hardly wait. But for the first time in my life, I don't dread the coming September and the new school year.

Don't get me wrong. I can still do without Ponce de Leon and isosceles triangles, but people seem to just understand me a lot better. That makes a big difference.

School isn't necessarily meant for everyone. And my sentence isn't up for four more years.

But maybe I'll get time off for good behavior.

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