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I found myself with a weird and wacky desire to misbehave. Things only went downhill from there


The recess conversations always went the same way. Everyone would be discussing schools and acceptances, things would start to get heated, and then inevitably someone would turn around to me and say: “It’s okay for you, Tova, your father will figure everything out for you.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think my Dad is awesome for what he does — working on three school boards is not easy, and there are times when I think he wishes he could throw in the towel. Yet he continues because he sees this work as vital, and I admire that greatly. He keeps the schools running when everyone else wants to give up. He’s incredible. But…

I’m the middle child, the most easygoing of the bunch, and my elementary school experiences mirrored that. In those years I barely opened my mouth and couldn’t have stepped out of line if I tried. Of course, I got into high school easily enough. Needless to say, if I hadn’t, my dad has enough pull to make things happen, and he even managed to get them to accept some of my closest friends who were rejected, which was definitely a perk. Some of my classmates were still refused, though, getting into other schools instead. Somehow, in their eyes, this was my fault. Two classmates stopped talking to me altogether after that, giving me a cold shoulder till this day. That part really makes me sad.

Still, that September, I found myself looking wide-eyed at my new school building, with my fresh haircut, starched skirt, and brand-new knapsack, almost as if I was ready to make a fresh start. Which I did, but not quite the fresh start you might expect…

From Day One of high school, something changed inside me. No more was I the meek and mild Tova; I adopted a whole new persona. The first day of school found me becoming the proud bearer of the first “debit” mark in my class — a white sticker branding my homework pad for misconduct in my very first math class. I found myself with a weird and wacky desire to misbehave. Things only went downhill from there.

I became known as the kind of kid who liked to have fun, and my spunk and mischief are probably what caused me to be noticed. (That’s potentially one of a million and a half differences between me and my genius older sister Batsheva, who is a real goody-goody. It takes no psychologist to understand why there isn’t much love lost between us.)

I’m pretty smart, baruch Hashem, and that served me well, because despite my ever-escalating antics, my grades remained at the top of the class. I was talking through class, being sent out for giggling, and coming late regularly. I was becoming infamous for my misbehavior, despite my high achievement. I did deserve to be punished for what I did — I knew that — but often the worst thing was how it was presented.

“Tova. We wouldn’t expect this from you,” Mrs. Pinnick, my mechaneches, would stress when I turned up at her office for earning three detentions in a week yet again. “What would your father say?” Other teachers would make similar comments, some of them even comparing me to Batsheva, the model student. Wow, that made me angry. Somehow it was as if board members’ children all had to be perfect. Unfortunately, in retrospect, I think that idea only made my behavior worse.

By the time I started tenth grade, I knew every spot on the wall of the corridors, which I would roam during most classes. It wasn’t unusual for me to be seen prancing around the building without shoes, having a whale of a time and not doing a stitch of work. Homework and rules were for the diligent people. My friends and I preferred to have fun.

One of our antics, though, got us into pretty deep trouble. Near our school was a large area of marshland. I don’t think anyone had any inclination to visit it until the day our mechaneches announced that no one was to go near it because it was dangerous. Within the hour, my friends and I had decided to do exactly that.

In order to get into the marshy area, we had to pass through a set of iron railings. My friends squeezed through the bars without issue, and I attempted the same. Bad move. Most of me got through. Like 95 percent of me. Unfortunately, the other 5 percent — my leg — refused to cooperate. And that is how I was found half an hour later, with my body on one side of the gate, my leg on the other, and a group of panicked friends guiltily watching. My friends got into trouble, too, of course, but nothing compared to what happened to me after that. That incident only compounded my teachers’ views that I needed firmer handling, and I was unfortunate enough to be the first girl in the history of my school to be suspended from attending class.

Taking the suspension slip home to my parents to sign was probably the worst moment in my entire high school experience. I was a board member’s daughter, and I was being suspended. My parents were equally shocked and baffled. What was causing all this bad behavior? They were angry, and rightfully so. And though I stomped and cried, I knew I was wrong.

For two days following the incident, I sat alone in an office at school, copying reams of Shakespeare. While my friends joined together for classes and recess (and possibly more antics) without me, I sat writing copious quantities of foreign-sounding gibberish, my anger increasing with each antiquated word. You would have thought I would learn my lesson…

But life isn’t that simple, and humans aren’t black and white. While it was hoped that this kind of punishment would calm down my impulsive silliness, something in me continued to feel restless, and I kept at it.

My father, by the way, used to come into school each week on Wednesdays to meet with all the mechanchos. One time, when I was roaming the corridors, I bumped into him, and he bent down to give me a kiss.

“No! Don’t give her a kiss!” a voice said from behind me. “She doesn’t deserve it! And while you’re here,” Mrs. Pinnick continued, “perhaps we can sit with Tova and figure out why this behavior is happening.” Which is exactly what we did.

In case you’re hoping for a sudden metamorphosis and a solemn promise from me to be better, don’t hold your breath. When grilled for the reason behind my actions, the dismay of both adults in the room became apparent. I explained I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing, I was just DOING it! We left the office as confused as when we had entered, and I returned to doing what, at that point, I knew best.

I pretty much continued in this way throughout the majority of my school career, somehow managing to get enough studying done to fly high anyway. Baruch Hashem I left on a positive note with my teachers, who had somehow grown to like me over the years, despite my antics — and I had grown to appreciate them. I’m still grateful to them for their patience.

I went to seminary and then returned home to teach, surprising myself along with everyone else with how much I enjoyed it. I loved using my pent-up energy to engage and inspire, pushed myself to be the most enthusiastic and beloved teacher out there. And the more I taught, a funny thing happened: I started to understand my behavior throughout all those years. Of course I cannot excuse the bad behaviors, but maybe now I can begin to understand them.

Because as I saw with my students, no one wants to be judged based on her family. No one wants to have unrealistic expectations jammed down their throat. No one should need to be perfect because of a parent’s position, a grandparent’s prestige. With a slow dawning, I knew: I hadn’t wanted to be naughty. Mrs. Pinnick had been right all along. There had been a reason for all the negative behavior. I just hadn’t known what it was.

Today, I use what I learned from my experience in my own classroom. When I see students acting up, I try to see what’s lying beneath — what pressures, what worries, what fears. I try to treat each one as an individual, with her own set of unique talents and challenges, secrets and skills. And when I think back to the kid I was, the board member’s daughter with the crazy behavior, I think how nice it would be, if we could look beyond the labels we give ourselves and others, and instead become the people we know we need to be.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 875)

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