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
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.”
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!”
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?”
“Do you have to be in that class?”
“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.
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.