I recently read Miracle Ride: A True Story of Illness, Faith, Humor- And Triumph by Tzipi Caton. The book is about an Orthodox Jewish girl's battle with cancer. But oddly, the book was meaningful to me for a completely different reason. This was because of two passages, which I shall reproduce below, that beautifully evidence the stupidity of Bais Yaakov teachers the world over. And what is more disturbing, the impact their stupidity has on the people who must struggle to withstand it.
Take the first day of school for example:
There was one teacher who was famous for her "first day of school lesson." She did the same thing every year. She would walk into a classroom, point to one girl, and say, "YOU!!!" That year she made the mistake of pointing at me.
"You," she said, "do you love G-d?"
I looked at her and answered, "No, I don't think so."
I didn't mean that I didn't have ahavas Hashem. I meant that I knew I wasn't up to the level of ahavas Hashem that she was trying to bring out. I knew that she expected me to say that I loved Hashem, and then she was going to disprove it by telling me that a sixteen-year-old couldn't possibly reach perfection in that area. It was what she did every year. I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of making me feel stupid on the first day of class. So I was honest with her.
The teacher was taken aback by my answer. "Let me ask you this then, do you follow His commandments?"
The teacher's face lit up as if she had just invented the light bulb. "If you don't love God, then why do you do His mitzvos?"
"Well, I do your homework," I answered.
The class was roaring. I was kicked out.
Yeah, well, I guess I did have an attitude problem.
Right before I walked in, some classmates snatched my cap off my head, saying that my sheitel was stunning and there was no reason to cover it with a cap. They refused to give it back and I was ready to call it quits on my whole day in school.
When Miss Riegler saw some girls trying to hide my cap in a locker, she made them give it back to me. She said that how I felt was not up to me but at least my hat was, and that it wasn't their business to help me get used to my new look.
Pessie called me that night to tell me how glad she was to see me in school and how much she missed sitting with me at lunch. I liked talking to her. I didn't know her for all that long, but from the time we first sat together eating three-day-old bagels at lunch, we got along really well.
She told me that she was really sorry that some girls took off my cap that day. She said that a teacher in the school had asked them to do it. The teacher wanted the girls to tell me how good I looked without the cap and wanted to encourage me to wear the sheitel without it.
When I hung up, I got really angry. I was angry at the people who thought they could tell me how to live and what to do and why. It was as if everyone was an authority on Hodgkin's.
Let me first say that I am extremely impressed Artscroll allowed these excerpts to see the light of day, although I am sure the fact that the teachers are left unnamed was a big part of that. Well, it's either that, or these accusations were completely overlooked, which would not surprise me. Of course, for someone like me, these excerpts would never be overlooked, because I feel them as I read them. She writes about her teachers, and I envision them in my mind. I know these women- not her women, not the particular ones who taught her, but the ones who taught me, who were just the same in their steadfast and earnest stupidity when it comes to educating children. For me, it was these throwaway excerpts that made the book valuable, more even than the entire description of her battle with cancer, not because that is not a worthwhile struggle to document, but because these excerpts impact me personally. As I read them, memories flooded me, my anger swept over me, and I remembered exactly what I had felt like. But more than all of that, the fact that this girl, who bears no relation to me, and went to a completely school, writes these throwaway excerpts, vindicates me. Even now, I look for proof- proof to assemble to show that it is the system, not the student, who is at fault. It is as though I think that even now I shall be called before a principal, made to plead my case, and I want to have the ability to do it well.
Let's discuss the first excerpt. To afford the teacher the benefit of the doubt, I can envision a scenario in which her actions would be appropriate. They would be appropriate were she speaking to a gathering of reprobates and sinners who needed to be shocked out of their complacency and realize that they were less than perfect. But to talk in this way to a group of sixteen-year-old girls, each one overflowing with love of Hashem, and desiring to strive to be closer to Him? To suggest that they are inadequate, to mock them and make fun of them, to claim that their efforts are puny, pathetic, that they lack proper love of God? To put them down? To make them ashamed of having even dared to think that their offering before their Creator was worthwhile? Ah this...how this rings of the bitter guilt they fed me, upon which I was surfeited, all the times in which I was told that I was not equal to the pinky finger of a Gadol, that I was lacking, that I was shameful. It does not need to be said aloud. A teacher need not yell, shout or scream to deliver that message. Look at what this girl writes, this girl who wrote the book.
"I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of making me feel stupid the first day of class."
And so the girl talked back. Well, tell me, what else could she do? Oh, she could have been like me, and attempted to prove to the teacher that everyone's love of God and effort is appreciated in accord with their ability. She could have brought in the Baal Shem Tov stories that I so love and told the teacher that God judges us in accordance with our intent, and knows the ways in which we strive and struggle to grow close to Him. She could have cited various Rabbis, including the Rav, regarding this concept. She could have taught her teacher that everyone's efforts, the way in which we all strive, is precious before God. But perhaps she did not know the sources, or perhaps, more experienced than I had been, she knew it would do no good. And so she did not bother. Instead she mocked the teacher, much as I did, and the teacher, sensing that her authority was questioned, threw her out of class.
The line that to me is the saddest is the one where the author admits her own guilt. "Yeah, well I guess I did have an attitude problem." Did you? Did you really? It is a sign of an attitude problem when you don't want your teacher to make you feel stupid, like a failure, to make you feel that you don't love God enough? Is it a sign of an attitude problem when you would like to be treated like a human being, and instead of being taught only in negatives, through a guilt-laden mussar oriented approach, you are taught in positives? You are taught instead of the fantastic heights to which one can reach love of God, the way in which one can strive from the level one currently inhabits and grow further attached to Him? Could the teacher not instead have asked the class how they loved God? She could have written their ideas and answers on the board, smiling as she did so. She could have praised them for their input and feedback. And then, she could have shown them sources, excerpts, actual texts, and shown them the wonderful ways in which this love could be developed further, taken to new heights. But no. It is much easier to tell a sixteen-year-old child that she doesn't love God enough, isn't good enough, won't ever be good enough. It is much easier to teach guilt and failure.
And then! What fool of a teacher could tell students to rob a girl of the cap she wears over her wig? Did it not occur to the teacher that the girl would feel self-conscious? That perhaps she is permitted to make her own judgements about her appearance and the way she would like to look? And then, for the teacher not to claim responsibility and own up to what she did, but instead allow Tzipi to find out about this through a fellow student- have you ever heard of such an act of cowardice? Who are these teachers whom we give leave to instruct our youth and why do we do it? Why do we educate our youth with the idea that the God who judges them is strict and cruel, desiring the every offering of the Gadol Hador, but throwing away the efforts of the sixteen-year-old? Why the emphasis on shame, guilt, failure, negativity, that which a person is not and potentially will never be? Why the endless comparisons to those who are meant to be far greater than us, better than us, always? It never ends! They never end, the feelings engendered by this, the failures we are taught we are. We exist for one purpose, and that is to support our husbands in Kollel, that most special of tasks a girl can accomplish. That is the sole purpose afforded a girl, beyond her consistent emphasis on tzniut. We are nothing unless it is in relation to someone else, whether it be a man who gives a purpose to our existence, a Gadol or Rabbi who can instruct us and who is worshipped by maidens who pursue him with honeyed devotion, or perhaps teachers to the next generation, raised to tell them what they are not, what they will never be. It is a vicious cycle! And the ugliness taught to one generation of students is parroted back by another; we live in a generation that lacks understanding and prefers rhetoric and rote to comprehension. It's sick; it's sick! It's the sickest, saddest thing I have ever seen, and it never fails to rouse my anger, when I see the way in which we persist in destroying children's souls before they have ever had a chance to breathe.
Do you know I still have to fight all of them now? All those teachers who told me what I wasn't, what I would never be, what I couldn't be, who poured guilt and shame into my ears for hours a day, and were angered by my "attitude," who saw nothing wrong with extolling the virtues of Gedolim and Rabbis and other praiseworthy figures, making them into saints, and comparing us to them in the most negative of ways...it never goes away. Am I shadowboxing, fighting with demons, shadows, hidden within myself? Most probably I am. But there is an insidious voice, lingering, which tells me each time I fall, no matter how much I cover myself over in the healing words of the Rav and every other teacher who writes of the ways in which we can grow and become stronger, that I am nothing, and will be nothing, and have ever been nothing, in comparison to the grey-bearded men who live in their cells, pouring over tomes that secretly I still despise- because I know that I will never live up to them. Even now- and it's been five years!- I harbor a hatred toward everyone who told me what I wasn't, and insisted upon my guilt and my sins, though I denied them, and said I did not have them. Well, guess what! Since then, I have sinned, and I am dirty, covered over in stains and mud, and perhaps God despises me! But I hope not, because I think He also sees what I can be, what I could be, and will be gentle with me, and help me to get there. My God isn't angry with me for a supposed lack of love for Him; my God only wishes to help me get there! Would that there was a world that echoed that opinion, where a girl doesn't have to accept their judgement of her, and echo them, believing their words, that she has an attitude problem because she doesn't want to be told of her failures, and what she lacks...instead dreaming of hearing, for once, what she does possess, and the ways in which she can make that serve her, and her God.