Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Portfolio, "Internal Struggles" and my Villainous Family

So, what's more important? For Calvin to truly have "fun creating" and come up with absurd or innocently villainous and murderous (his snowmen, for instance) stories? Or for him to fulfill the teacher's requirements and to hate writing?

At Templars, we had an assignment at the beginning of the year (eleventh grade), a Portfolio, as it were. The purpose of a Portfolio is to encourage self-discovery, soul-searching, or, for those less theologically inclined, to put together a pretty collage of you and your friends alongside happy verses from the Tanakh talking about the fact that "two heads are better than one," and so on and so forth.

The Portfolio had to include an Introductory Essay that was supposed to state your desires and goals, a Name Essay that would discuss who you had been named after and why, a Birthday essay to discuss that day in the Jewish year, and a Final Summary that was supposed to sum up how much you had changed from the beginning of the Portfolio to the end. In addition to this, you had to include at least one verse from Tanakh which you connected to, five non-original selections, an original contribution, and a book report on an appropriate Jewish book.

I wasn't bothered by the Portfolio; I enjoy writing and would have enjoyed the task. I was bothered, however, by the teacher who would be reading the Portfolios- I felt there was no way I could possibly tell the truth if she would be the one to read and grade them. In fact, very few people did. A lot of my classmates laughed over the fact that they had stated their dearest wish was to go to seminary, get married, have ten children, and have a husband in Kollel- and that they had been believed. Needless to say, this rubbed me the wrong way. I had no desire to lie, but, on the other hand, I couldn't exactly tell the truth. I compromised, and wrote the following essay:

    Who am I? I am Chana. To those who know me, the name strikes a chord (shall we hope?) deep within their souls. Chana? Ah, I know Chana. Chana is the one who never backs down, is rather stubborn and enjoys expressing opinions even if they may be (as they usually are) contrary to traditional and accepted views. Chana is the one who likes to embark upon quests for knowledge that lead us into unconventional lanes and different types of thought. Oh yes, Chana is the element that is lacking on the periodic table. She is the child who brings the joy of life to a high, which means that her sadness is also deeply felt. She is the one who knows that she is not perfect and revels in her knowledge. She thrills herself each and every day, attempting to make her life fun, or at the very least, different. In the same way that all others wish to be, Chana strives to be an individual. Does she accomplish it? We cannot know.

    What does Chana want? The question is a hard one; she seems to disperse craziness and oddities as though they were largess, but what is behind her peculiar manner? Chana wants what every healthy person wants. She wishes to do well in school, to excel in life, to earn a diploma of wisdom when it comes to practical doings. She wants respect and honor because as human beings, we social animals cannot do without attention, and Chana certainly manifests this. She aspires to fulfill her potential (in the way she deems most productive), and is still idealistic and young enough to believe she can make a difference. In other words, Chana wishes to be a dazzling adult. Will she fulfill this goal? We can only wonder.

    What will Chana do in the future? Everyone waits with baited breath; suspense fills the frozen air. Will she be a mother? Yes, this is expected. Will she, as Rabbi remarked, wed the Rosh Kollel? Doubtful, although this remains to be seen. What school of thought does she belong to? Definitely her own. (“What!” shrieks a crowd of spectators, “how egotistical!” Yes, precisely. Chana enjoys her ego.) Will she wear a platinum-blonde shaitel? I think not. In other words, Chana cannot know what she wants to do until she does it. It’s only after she commits the action that she learns whether or not it was an appropriate one (sad, I know, but this is one of the drawbacks of being Chana.) In any case, Chana is Chana, will always be Chana, and bears the surname of _____ proudly (although sometimes she does wish she were called first rather than last). So who is Chana? The enigma. There only to pretend to be seen.

This is a versatile essay- serious or lighthearted, depending on how you read it. I can see it as being lighthearted, mocking the assignment slightly, being somewhat amusing (at least to me) and not meant to describe all the important things about me. (I should also point out, when I said that I only know whether the action is appropriate or not based on the punishment- that wasn't really a reference to everything I do, but to Templars itself.) Then again, it could be serious- the outlook of a student who would like to do well at the things that are important to her. It was written from the third person because it was meant to suggest an outsider looking in- if someone else were to see me, what would they think of me?

Still, please read this essay carefully before you move on to my next section. Evaluate it as you would any teenager's essay. Does it fulfill the requirements- talk about myself, hopes, goals and dreams? Is it threatening? Is it playful? Is it happy? Unhappy, or neutral? Please make sure you have come to your own opinions about this before continuing.

The teacher who read/ graded my Portfolio took the essay very differently than the way I intended it.

It was meant to be amusing, a little daring; even, if you took it seriously, an attempt to say that the assignment itself was not something I valued. However, Mrs. Portfolio took it as a (in her own words) "cry for help." What ensued, then, was a two-hour conversation about anything and everything under the sun. Why, you ask? I shall tell you.

During recess, the PA system/ speaker announced that I (along with another student) should come downstairs. Mrs. Portfolio quickly awarded the other student her grade (10/10) and then showed me mine (10/10). Yet while the other student was allowed to leave, I had to stay behind. Mrs. Portfolio peeked into the G.O. office only to see that it was occupied, and instead requested that I follow her into the davening room. I did so, slightly worried.

This is when I was informed that I had an "internal struggle with hashkafa," my paper was a "cry for help," and Mrs. Portfolio felt it was her "achrayus to help me." I tried to dance around the issue, telling her this wasn't so, but she simply wouldn't accept it. So then, I figured- where's the harm? I would be completely open to her questions, every single one of them, and I hoped that through doing that, I would demonstrate once and for all that I did not need her to come to my rescue.

However, my plan didn't work the way I thought it would.

The following is an angry response to what happened, written after the fact (probably the day after.)

    Tales of a Demented House of Learning And its Inhabitant

    Namely, myself.

    Ah yes, this Portfolio.

    So what is the purpose of the Portfolio? To reflect who I am. As a discovery of the person I am, to uncover where my introspection leads me. In other words, the truth about Chana.
    Big news! Front page headlines!

    Or maybe not.

    So I am told that assignments build up and hence it is a good idea to try to get them done beforehand, and I write my Portfolio Essay, giving it in on perhaps the second week of school.

    But it is this past Thursday when I am summoned downstairs by the intercom/ loudspeaker/ PA system/ noise device.

    “Hodel Sparks and Chana, please come to the front office.” And we go.

    And who is there but Mrs. Portfolio?

    Who proceeds to show Hodel her grade and give her her essay, but who takes me into the Davening Room after establishing that her little alcove is indeed unusable, in order to speak with me.

    About what, pray tell?

    Not about my essay, for I got a 10/10 on that. No, about Mrs. Portfolio’s perceptions of my paper.

    So, I wish to reveal the secret of a lifetime to you.

    I have an “internal struggle.”

    With “Hashkafa.”

    There is a “conflict” in my family.

    Someone is putting “pressure” on me- she doesn’t know whether it’s “academic, hashkafic, or perhaps family?”

    Notice the lovely stress on family.

    “I could be totally off the mark, of course, but I don’t think I am.”

    I suppose it doesn’t really matter that I think she’s gone bonkers, does it?

    And hence we talk- or perhaps, rather, I am talked at- for the rest of my Division and a good portion of Mrs. Portfolio's class (Navi). I attempt to evade her questions. I dance around the answers. She insinuates that my parents are confusing me, that they don’t follow the Hashkafa of the school, that perhaps they are strong and when I come home with the Hashkafa of the school they say “well, this is not our way, and we don’t follow it, and hence we don’t need to know it.”

    Because, according to Mrs. Portfolio, “if there were all these speeches, and you weren’t even hearing a word of them- if you were blocking them out- it would be a chaval!”

    Terrible, terrible.

    Then comes the, “I really want to finish this conversation and talk to you but I have to go to class- it’s not nice you know? So what do you have next period?”

    English. Joy.

    “Do you have to be in that class?”

    “Er…not really.”

    “So I’ll talk to her and we’ll finish this conversation.”

    This is how I end up missing English, AP Psych and part of History in the midst of a terribly engrossing discussion with Mrs. Porfolio.

    About my internal struggle.

    Which I claim I don’t have.

    But she claims I do.


    Now, it’s hardly necessary to explain what it was Mrs. Portfolio talked about, but I’ll list a couple of topics.

    Speeches, Teachers, Mussar, Orthodox and Less Orthodox Schools, her own personal conflicts growing up (she tried to make me feel close to her that way), Socialization between Boys and Girls (the eleventh commandment), the “Solidarity” Melave Malka and why only Bais Yaakov schools were invited, on the fact that because there were Gedolim their way of life is valid and I must respect it and understand it, blasting the Reform Movement, Labels, etc.

    As you can see, I certainly took her off tangent. Then there were some repartees of mine she couldn’t really answer (so unfortunate) and so she sputtered and attempted to explain her thoughts. Dear, dear. These included Homosexuality- the word “to’aivah,” Labels, how to go about Proving that Judaism is the true religion, etc.

    What did she ascertain?

    That I am an intellectual (ah, I didn’t pour my heart out to her, so flattery! Hurrah!)

    That my reaction is “different” from other girls because I am “three steps ahead of the speaker” and I get “caught up on one little mistake instead of trying to see the big picture- even if they didn’t say it, what they meant to say.”

    That I’m “extremely sensitive” to the way things are presented

    That I’m judgemental/ critical

    And we discovered that she couldn’t exactly name what my internal struggle was about after all. Interesting, no?

    Some statements from her:

    “Your paper was a cry for help..I felt it was my achrayus, my responsibility, to rise to the challenge- so here I am.”

    “You couldn’t pay me to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut!” (and then she quickly adds, “Not that I mind people who do.”)

    “I would send my children to public school before I would send them to Solomon Schechter.”

    “If it was a choice between MO elementary school and public school, I would have to send them to MO Elementary School- the lesser of the two evils- not that MO elementary school is evil, of course.”

    And many comments about “Reliable Rabbeim” and what distinguishes them from the unreliable sort.

    So how did this little meeting end? Rabbi walked in. She was embarrassed, and I said, “Rabbi- I’ve just been psychoanalyzed; the verdict is not yet in,” while smiling graciously. After which we left, and she told me that she’s “always there for me”and if I need “clarification” I should go to her.

    But of course.

    Obviously, I did not enjoy this experience.

    So what is the answer?

    I do not want to lie in my Portfolio. If it is meant to be about me, then it should be about me. It should be that which I find fascinating, interesting, etc. That which makes me think. I do not want to include that I am a Bais Yaakov maidele whose dream is to go to Seminary, marry a Kollel Bachur, and be a Shaitel-Macher. I do not want to include poems about Mashiach and the greatness of the Imahos.

    I do not even want to include neutral poems about flowers, sunshine, and beauty if that’s not what/ who I really am.

    I want to tell the truth- not violently, not to dash into their faces, but the truth as I see it about who I am- mildly. Which is what I (thought) I did. That which I find beautiful and inspiring.
    The trouble is, they won’t understand it.

    So what is my choice? What do I do? Do I lie and present myself as someone other than who I am? Do I tell the truth and request for Mrs. Portfolio to leave me alone? Do I pretend to be perfect and do all the insipid things the others do- include pictures of this one’s Sheva Brachos, and that one’s Vort, and this one’s Slurpee, etc?

    And if I do something different, and I am blamed for it, are the consequences really so terrible?
    I wish, I wish, I wish they would leave me alone. But apparently they still desire to save my soul.

    What to do? What to write? What to say? And how shall I lie, when I so hate lying? How shall I lie when it will be a denial of all that I believe?

    I could have been _____'s pet if I had only parroted her opinions back to her. But I cannot, I will not do that.

    I will not be Mrs. Portfolio’s pet and claim I find a Lashon Hara movie inspiring. I will not!

    But what option is there?

    There is no option, unless I want to face the music- which wouldn’t deter me, except for the repercussions and the idea that I am a germ capable of corrupting all others with my diseased Judaism.

    It’s evil.

    There’s nothing for me to do.

This is an angry response. And when I look back at it now, I see the anger in it, along with the sense of being a cornered victim, fighting back. Or maybe even more than that, maybe even a sense of looking down upon the very ones who misunderstood me. Feeling that I was smarter than them, when in truth it was a matter of understanding rather than "smarts." I was upset by the ridiculous logic they employed, especially when I had no idea where this was coming from.

What had I possibly said that gave rise to the ridiculous notion that I had "internal conflicts" and that my parents/ family were at the heart of the matter? Why did Mrs. Portfolio feel obliged to tell me all about how she had been raised as part of a Mizrachi family and had gone over to the Agudah? Why did she feel I was in the same situation as she had been?

She did point out one sentence to me, and then asked me the most astonishing question.

"She is the child who brings the joy of life to a high, which means that her sadness is also deeply felt. "

Mrs. Portfolio looked at me and asked whether I was depressed.

In order to understand how ridiculous a question this is, you would have to know me. I am so full of life, dancing with vitality, writing messages on all of the teachers' chalkboards wishing them a good day or other happy nonsense, skipping around the school, smiling, that it is simply ludicrous to think of me being "depressed." What I intended by that sentence was simply that I can feel joy- true joy, pure and blinding- to the same extent that I can feel sadness- a paralyzing sadness, unhappy and cold. But that was not meant to suggest that I was depressed!

I went home that day, rather upset, and told my parents I had wasted two hours of my day in conversation with Mrs. Portfolio because she wouldn't listen when I told her I didn't have "internal struggles with hashkafa." They called the school up and firmly stated that Mrs. Portfolio was not my psychologist, they'd thank her not to remove me from classes to talk to me about philosophical viewpoints/ my philosophical "issues," and they'd prefer her to leave me alone. She, in her defense, stated that I dragged out the conversation so that it took two hours. That was true. I wanted to prove to her that I didn't have internal struggles/ conflicts, and hence wanted to discuss all kinds of issues in an attempt to show her I was very open/ willing to talk about these things/ state my opinion as opposed to being closed to anything she had to say.

As I write this I am calm, but when I returned home that day I was frustrated, angry and irritated. If I had gotten a 10/10, then why was there a need to cross-examine me? Why the desire to give me hashkafic/ halakhic help? Just because my viewpoint is different from yours doesn't mean it isn't valid! (This is where the discussion of Gedolim and "Reliable Rabbis" came up...)

There was one question in particular that I addressed. Mrs. Portfolio had very effectively told our class that one was not permitted to brush one's teeth on Shabbos. Since we do/ my family does, I brought in the source that states that not only are we allowed to brush our teeth on Shabbos, we can even put toothpaste on the brush! I found it mentioned on the Avodah mailing list, then looked up and found it mentioned in Nefesh Harav. I brought the sefer into class and presented it to Mrs. Portfolio. She read it, thanked me, but- note this- did not inform the class there was more than one opinion/ an alternative opinion about the matter.

During this two hour marathon discussion, I asked her why she hadn't told them.

She said that it would be too confusing for teenagers to be faced by multiple sources/ opinions (the same reason she gave for why Templars could only have one official hashkafa= the Agudah, instead of multiple ones/ allowing many). Teenagers, alas, are confused as is, and if *gasp* they would find out that different sources say different things about certain issues, they wouldn't know what to do!

Needless to say, I was not impressed by this response.

We discussed some other issues- another interesting one was the "Solidarity Melaveh Malka" which only included the Bais Yaakov schools. It didn't include the Lubavitch high schools or the Modern Orthodox Coed highschool. I asked her why and she said that the Coed Modern Orthodox highschool has "ideas that are not like ours...our girls don't watch movies, are not like them, it would confuse them..." (i.e. corrupt them) By the way, the majority of girls at Templars do indeed watch movies, so that's hardly an issue. As for the Lubavitch schools, well, apparently the husband of the principal of the Bais Yaakov school in Chicago had spoken out against Messianic Lubavitch beliefs (believing the Rebbe was the Mashiach.) I almost laughed out loud. "So? I don't believe the Rebbe is the Mashiach, either!" I said. "Does that mean we have to exclude the girls who go to that school? And even if you couldn't invite that Lubavitch school, why didn't you invite the other (non-Messianic) one?"

She had no answer to that.

(I am very pleased to say that the next year Templars updated its policy and said that any Jewish Orthodox girl was welcome to their Melave Malka.)

And there were more...

Once again, there's no easy way out of this. My teacher was fully convinced that she was helping me, aiding me, coming to my need when I had been "crying for help." She persisted because she felt that the reason I was denying it wasn't because I really didn't need her help, but rather because I was scared to tell her- and in truth, still wanted her to help me. I disagree with her here- no means no. If she had good reason to think I was psychologically ill or distressed then she could talk to my parents (then again, she thought my parents were at the heart of the problem, "knocking Templars' hashkafa") and take further measures, not decide that I am supposed to trust on her. But she meant well...

Now that I'm not there any longer, it's easier for me to judge calmly, to see problems for what they are. When I was there, all I felt was rage- rage that she wouldn't listen, anger that she didn't believe me, that she persisted when I told her enough, and then more anger simply because of her illogical answers and opinions. So much emotion exhausts a person...and by the time I left Templars, I was mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhuasted.

But this was just the beginning- and a mild one at that. There's more to come, much more....beyond the Portfolio.


been there said...

I was in the same place when i was in yeshiva years ago - the sole intellectual in a sea of anti-intellectualism. I would not fret - those situations are troubling but in a way invigorating. You'll graduate, leave the school and go your own way. I did, and even look back fondly at the old yeshiva days (talk about revisionist history) despite the fact that I ended up in academia - a very different place.

Jewish Atheist said...


One of the troubles of being a smart person who is courageous in the pursuit and expression of truth is that few will (or can) measure up. When you're out there on one end of the bell curve in both intelligence and open-mindedness, it stands to reason that the majority of people won't be there with you. Unfortunately, many of those people will still hold positions of authority and power.

The truth is a scary thing. Your teacher, it seems, has two strikes against her. One, she isn't smart enough to compete, and knows it. And two, she's consequently scared to consider more than one opinion. She assumes her students are the same way and probably many of them are.

I'm reminded of Potok's My Name is Asher Lev, in which Asher's unflinching search for the truth as an artist brings him into conflict with everything he and his community hold sacred. Being truly open to the truth, regardless of what it turns out to be, is scary and not for the faint of heart.

Obviously, most of your readers will dismiss me because of where my search for truth took me, questioning my motives, but you've got to go wherever the truth (your truth) leads. If not, you're just wasting your time.

One tangential point -- I have a theory that many smart, personally courageous teachers believe in the noble lie -- that the ignorant masses can't handle the truth, that they should be fed a dumbed-down version which will at least keep them in the faith. They might even be right. It's a common occurrence for a great Rabbi to admit he believes one thing in private but say something else in public. I suspect you'll have to make your own decisions regarding this issue when you're grown up.

East of California said...

A hypothetical question: Let's say the teacher had been right - the author of the essay was indeed struggling with many conflicts she had not expressed to others, and now she was opening up. If you were the "troubled" author (instead of who you indeed are), what would you have expected from the teacher as far as a reaction? And, then coming at the issue the other way - if you were the teacher(who, for the sake of this hypothetical, deals with teenage girls on a fairly regular basis and has seen "angst" play itself out many ways), what would your reaction be?

Keep up the thoughtful blogging!

Irina Tsukerman said...

Unbelievable! How could she misinterpret your essay like that? And yet, somehow I'm not surprised. I know a number of "well-meaning" individuals who figure that if your answer is different from their expectations, then there must be something wrong with you. I hate to put it so bluntly, but I think it's sheep mentality.

Ezzie said...

Wow. Amazing post, one which many of us can relate to in our own lives.

I would argue against a couple of points, though: First, your saying you don't want to discuss things after a 2-hour conversation would likely come across to a teacher as a wish to avoid the issue, rather than a sincere wish of "enough is enough". I wouldn't be surprised if the teacher has dealt with many teens who she felt were similar to you - some questions, some anxiety, etc. - and had been able to "straighten them out" to the Templars world.

The problem is she was overmatched: You knew your stuff, and could back it up; not only from the "outside" world, but even from the Templars world. My wife brought in the same sources about brushing teeth into her school (heh - you're not so original after all...), but the rabbi's response was very different. He read it, and acknowledged to the class that there was a legitimate differing opinion.

I'd also argue that this teacher herself is someone to feel bad for. Clearly, she doesn't know how to handle differing opinions, and has been led to believe that this is the way things must be. Only one opinion should be told to reduce confusion. In a way, I agree with her: Until someone hits about 8-11 years old. But that's not the way I was taught, whether in elementary school or high school.

But think about it from her point of view. If your hashkafa is that only one opinion be told, and only one way of life be led - and be led exactly - a letter like Chana's is disturbing. '"Not want a platinum-blond sheitl"?! Sure, Chana's only a teen - but this is a "cry for help"! Chana surely must have deep-rooted issues. Are they from her parents? Her own self? Ah, I remember when I never imagined I'd be like this - this is what helped me. I'll tell her.'

Poor teacher.

Ezzie said...

Oh, just wanted to note... Once again, I love a point made by JA (scary, JA - we really need to stop this!)

One tangential point -- I have a theory that many smart, personally courageous teachers believe in the noble lie -- that the ignorant masses can't handle the truth, that they should be fed a dumbed-down version which will at least keep them in the faith. They might even be right. It's a common occurrence for a great Rabbi to admit he believes one thing in private but say something else in public. I suspect you'll have to make your own decisions regarding this issue when you're grown up.

I've had friends - very smart ones - who have said exactly this point. I argued that while they're actually right - many people really can't handle opposing viewpoints, and suffer from it - 'tis better to show all points of view and prove to them why one is superior to the other. Living in a bubble works only for a while: In today's times, those bubbles burst far quicker and with far more force.

Halfnutcase said...

ezzie yes they do.

actualy chana i regularly had to endure such questioning my fellow students, assistant rosh yeshivos, etc. i had developed a particualar hashkafa in dealing with life, a very very open ended one, and most people i found could not understand why i would look that way.

in all honestly i've always loved the division of opinions in torah, and all the arguing. and i think it's sad that our teaching systems don't make any room for people as bright as you are.

but again, it's a problem i've had to deal with personaly all to much. and what ezzie said is true, the simple minded approaches really do burst way to easily, and way to dramaticaly. perhaps you could figure out a better way chana?

Chana said...

Been There- well, I have left, and I look back on my Templars days with anything but fondness. If this happened to me, it could happen to others- and I want to stop that.

Jewish Atheist- Thank you. You always seem to know what I mean. And your understanding of a search for truth is absolutely correct in terms of me. As for Asher Lev and painting- I was always so troubled by the fact that they didn't see painting as God's gift to him, a talent he was meant to develop, but rather as a devilish force...

East of California- If she were indeed concerned about me, there would be several things to do first. A) Talk to my parents. Maybe I already was in counseling/ was dealing with a stressful situation/ a relative had died. B) If she decides my parents are part of the problem (and that I'm being abused or am at risk suicidally...) then comes meetings with the school psychologist/medical therapists- personnel. But by no means is she supposed to decide she knows my feelings better than I do. When I say no, I mean no- not the "Hanicha Li (Leave me Alone)" she thought I was advocating. She is not a trained/ licensed psychologist, and has no right to try to "cure me."

Irina Tsukerman- It's the sheep leading the sheep...

Ezzie- I think she thought I was trying the "Hanicha Li" approach (leave me alone, God says, when truly He is leaving an opportunity open.) I agree that's what this suggests, but I still don't feel this was her place. As for "poor teacher"- well, yes and no. Yes in that she a) does not realize she did anything wrong b) didn't realize I knew what I believed in. But poor teacher only takes you so far...in the end, she is still responsible for her actions.

Halfnutcase- I completely agree. Torah is made up of conflicting ideas and opinions. There are some people who may hold to the Agudah view for one idea but the MO view for something else. But there has to be a choice involved. Let the school teach- present a smorgasbord of options, different sects (not just mussar, but also hassidism, not just Hillel, but also Shammai) and give the students enough knowledge/ wisdom to understand how to choose wisely. I know that's a tall order, but the students would be so much more interested and invested in learning if we were taught various opinions as opposed to one idea we must all obey.

Tobie said...

As someone who also suffered through the Templar system, I once shared a good deal of the same frustration with the system. My portfolio, I confess, was vague and mealy-mouthed; I simply did not care enough about the project to reveal anything about myself, true or false. I spent eighth grade, however, having long talks with my teacher as she tried to explain the Amalek thing to me, I think in a hopeful, rather desperate attempt to keep me on the derech. (She never did explain it, and thank God, I'm still religious, so there you go).
Anyway, I reached a point where I stopped having this anger. No matter what I think of the insular philosophy of the Templars, deep down, they are kind, sweet people who are attempting to do the best for the world. Mrs. Portfolio, is not, I am sure, nearly as intelligent as you, but even more so, she has no hint of a glimpse of an idea of where you are coming from. She cannot see your subtle sarcasm, literary style, anything at face value, since she simply has no basis for comparison in her own mind or experience. In her mind, your humor was bitterness and your self-descriptions masked inner doubt.
I am not saying she was right. I am not even saying that it was an intelligent inference. But it was a natural one and the action that it inspired was well-intentioned. I know that it is painful, annoying, and frustrating to be totally misinterpreted- I spent four years at the Templars fighting off suspicions of heresy, and am sure they now weep for me since I go to a secular college (where I am regarded as an overly-religious fuddy-duddy. The irony!). But to be truly open-minded, we must attempt to understand even close-mindedness, and admire it for its small elements of beauty in addition to rejecting it for its failures.

The back of the hill said...

What is sad is that not all teachers are fit for the job.

There are some brilliant ones, but there are others who by their presence prove that teaching is a catch-drain.

The dividing line seems to be that good teachers love to teach, the others love being teachers.

mishichist said...

Just comes to show that when people say they have problems with Lubavitch's Messianism, in truth they just hate Lubavitch. It's just another scapegoat, and the sooner chabad realizes that there is no lost love, the sooner we'll reach the truth. Yechi.

dbs said...

It’s a terrific story on many levels. I wonder if Mrs. Portfolio really thought that anything that you actually wrote constituted a “cry for help”. Even from an orthodox yeshivishe perspective, it is such a healthy essay (well, maybe a bit edgy and angst filled). It presents someone who has remarkable self-knowledge, and is able to both celebrate and satirize herself comfortably. Truth is, it shows someone who is more off-beat, iconoclastic and independent than outright rebellious.

Obviously, this little talk was long in coming and the essay was just the trigger for it. Your teacher had already developed her ideas about you (and your family) from many other episodes – some of which you’ve related. Probably the most misguided aspect of it was that she seems to have thought that having this type of discussion may somehow influence you to get with the program. Sure, let’s show how we don’t respect her or her family and that we don’t understand anything about her – that should be a really positive experience. Oh well. My high school experience was in Ner Yisroel, which was probably not any more enlightened that Templars.

Truth is that I’ll bet that every brilliant, individualistic kid, of any denomination, has had some teacher who decided that making them conform was an extra credit project. It is those moments, though, and the anger and frustration which come with them which help define us. Will Chana become a dazzling adult. Absolutely.

Elliott Cahan said...

It sounds to me like they wanted you to stick to things like checking lettuce for bugs then actually using your head. Keep up the good work.

mishichist said...

elliott, how dare you mock the holy work of checking lettuce? That's what makes our religion a great one: it's not just thoughts and feelings; it's cleaning for pesach and checking lettuce and wrapping teffilin. Chana, think and check lettuce. Better, think while you check the lettuce ;)

e-kvetcher said...

BTW, here's proof that there is a G-d and She doesn't like me:

Last year, right before Pesach, at about 12:30 at night the wife says "I still have to check and wash all the lettuce before I can go to bed" and motions to a forest of romaine lettuce on the counter. I, being a bad, lazy Jew replied "Let's just go to bed, I'm sure it will be fine. Besides, I've never even seen bugs in lettuce in all my life." The wife says "No, I'm going to check it" and opens up the first bunch.

It was literally a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. I had never seen so many insects in one place in my entire life.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me is that there really are girls who have serious problems, and an essay like this is a clue, and it still takes hours to get them to open up.

She was trying too hard because you didn't have problems, but instead of getting so angry -- think about how much they care. How many teachers gave or would give you two hours of their lives at your new school?

Elliott Cahan said...

G-d forbid I would mock the holy work of checking lettuce. There are some things that you do and just don't question them. However, I would argue that many of our educational instutations, while they claim to work with the "individual to make them a ben or a bas torah, yada, yada, yada" in the end try to mold and shape kids without recognizing and allowing them some creativity and "out of the box" thinking. We are so worried about kids going off the derech, that we are not letting them find themselves and their own identity. I am sure that many readers here, were "rebels" to some degree or another and ended up just find. Why should we all be robotons? Don't we want our kids to love being Jewish because of Judaism and not despite it?

Chana said...


You said "...instead of getting so angry -- think about how much they care. How many teachers gave or would give you two hours of their lives at your new school?"

Her intentions were good, that I'll grant you. But her actions are inexcusable. She's not a licensed psychologist. She doesn't need to get in my head, and discussions about my hashkafa (and advice about it) are definitely not under the heading 'Helping Depressed Girl.' If she were really concerned, she would ask me how I felt, I suppose- without making assumptions first. As for her caring about me...remember, abusive husbands "love" their wives.

Secondly, this essay is definitely not a clue. Where do you see clues? What seems to point to Sad Depressed Unhappy Girl in what I've written? Please point out the sentences...Now, if I'd written I hated my life, kept a bottle of pills by my bed, and was unhappy, that'd be a clue. But platinum-blonde shaitels? No, I don't see it...

As for my new school-

1. When I first joined, the teachers came after me to offer me help with homework. My math teacher asked me how I was, whether I felt happy here, and was willing to offer me extra time if I wanted it.

2. Every day, my math teacher (this year) allows us to come in with questions from 7:30 to 8:05 in the morning. She gives all of us students 30+ minutes of her time outside of class each and every day- just to make herself available. She's also available during Clubs Time and privately after school.

3. My French teacher spent hours (plural) coming in early to school so as to help me catch up to the rest of the class. She also graciously gave me an hour of her time so I could interview her for the newspaper at my school.

4. My History teacher has given me hours of his time, as well, in terms of questions, meetings, and my interviewing him as well.

5. All teachers can be reached by email by the students at any point in time, and you can expect a prompt reply.

What I want to show you is that all of these teachers make themselves available to us- but professionally. If my History teacher dared to sit me down and talk about my philosophical views/ try to persuade me to change them in the name of me being depressed, he'd be in severe trouble. I go to school to learn, not to be molded into a certain kind of human being.

I also want to clarify that anger is not a bad thing. Anger is a tool, and passion helps me. So long as I am angry, I am inspired to change things. Forgiving because my teacher mistakenly "cared" about me is not an option.

Everybody else- I can check the lettuce. I will check the lettuce. But I shall check the lettuce while humming strains of "Wicked" and asking myself torturous philosophical questions, which will make all the difference.

e-kvetcher said...

If you don't check the lettuce, the terrorists will have already won!

FrumGirl said...


Great post, as usual.

Just one little comment of constructive criticism... I hope you understand: I wish you had concluded with how, when looking back at this and your anger dissipates... what this experience has taught you. We (meaning people like you and me) have all dealt with intolerant teachers who think they know best, are narrowminded, and try to lead a pack of sheep. Your anger is still obvious. But if you state that you have learned from this and have grown from this... then why not finish up with how you have grown? I would so love to hear how you finished on top instead of being left with a bad taste in my mouth with promises of more angst to come....

Semgirl said...

To be fair, I only skimmed thru your post and didn't read it thoroughly and analyse the whole thing, as a writer of your abilities deserves. So many wonderful blogs, so lil time.

But I just want to second what FG says. You really should present yourself as the cultured sensitive, polished intellectual you are that is head and shoulders above the teachers in Templars that you describe, rather than just another malcontent blogger.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

This was fascinating, and quite well written. The discomfort comes through. May you be blessed to continue to question, and struggle, and grow.

homey said...

"In order to understand how ridiculous a question this is, you would have to know me. I am so full of life, dancing with vitality, writing messages on all of the teachers' chalkboards wishing them a good day or other happy nonsense, skipping around the school, smiling, that it is simply ludicrous to think of me being "depressed.""

This sounds too self-conscious of the "image" you present

brianna said...

My my.

You'll go far one day, Chana. Seriously.