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We had a similar reception from another Bais Yaakov. Not outright rejection, but a cool response hinting to the fact that I was unwelcome

Ipace the dimly lit path outside our camp bungalow, cell phone glued to my ear. “Shaindy, I can’t do this!” I shout. “What did I get myself into?” I barely listen to what Shaindy has to say in response as the anxiety rises within me. What have I done?

That was the summer of eighth grade. Camp, panicked phone calls, tears, fears, and not much sleep. I hadn’t expected it to be that way, at all. On the bus to camp, I’d been as merry as the rest of them — shouting and cheering and waiting for the action to start. But not this kind of action.

In retrospect, this story started a good few years before that summer. It’s a story of a kid who had one life at school and another at home. The story of making it work, trying to fit in, when I was completely and totally different. Like when I realized that my mother dressed differently than my friends’ mothers and that we just seemed to have a different mentality toward so many things. That I was a different breed.

Once the realization that I was different hit — somewhere around fourth grade — it was there to stay. Although I had great friends and teachers, I always carried that awareness of how different I was and how my home life contrasted with my school, which felt so stifling. I comforted myself that come ninth grade, I would make my exit and go to a school where I felt I belong.

When it finally came to applying to high schools, however, I hit upon a snag. Whereas it would have been easy enough to continue in the same school system as I had attended for the last number of years, changing to a more "regular" Bais Yaakov was not simple:

“You’re probably going to have a hard time getting in,” warned a staff member from the first school, after my entrance exam. Apparently, my background was too different. Boy, did that hurt. All those years of not fitting in came flooding back — not only did I have to suffer through that, but now I couldn’t even spread my wings elsewhere? Ouch. We had a similar reception from another Bais Yaakov. Not outright rejection, but a cool response hinting to the fact that I was unwelcome, filling my stomach with knots.

Meanwhile, though, another opportunity arose. A new school was opening and had actually called my parents to ask me to join. It was meant for exactly “my type” of family, with similar standards and hashkafos. When I heard some of the names of girls who had enrolled, I was excited. I knew these girls from camp, and I liked them. The hanhalah was enthusiastic, and things were looking up. “We’d love to have Chava in our school, she’d be such an asset!” they enthused to my parents. Wow. Someone wanted me! Someone accepted me! It was a done deal. My parents informed the other two schools I wouldn’t be coming, and I started to fantasize about my new life ahead.

As the year progressed, so did my excitement. Of course I was going to miss my friends, but the brand-new uniform hanging in my closet beckoned, and I eagerly awaited the first day at my new school. On my last day of elementary school, my classmates threw me a beautiful goodbye party, telling me how much they’d miss me and presenting me with stacks of photos of the last years we’d spent together. It was bittersweet to leave them all behind, but camp was on the horizon and I was optimistic for my future.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for my bubble to burst. Now that my camp friends were going to be my future classmates, I started to realize things about them that I hadn’t previously. Things that bothered me. Like how they seemed to always be trying to prove themselves as being “different.” Like how they had chips on their shoulders the size of Everest. And how, in all honesty, they weren’t “my type” at all, and in a tiny class, that would be suffocating. I began to panic.

I cried buckets one evening in camp. Did I make the wrong decision? Should I have gone to a different school? My head hammered. Had I just set myself up for more years of misery and angst? The thought was alarming. So I did what I do in crisis, and I called my Mom.

I was a staff kid, and my family had a bungalow where my parents and sibling stayed. That day, my mother happened to have gone off-grounds for the day and was surprised to hear how stressed I sounded on the other end of the line. “Relax, Chav. We’ll work it out, we’ll figure it all out,” she reassured me, trying valiantly to calm me. She reminded me how much I had wanted out of my previous school and how this might be a great new beginning. But the panic did not let up.

I called my friend Shaindy and paced outside endlessly. Up the path, and back again. Up and back, up and back. She needed to get off the phone, twice, but I kept her on the line, bawling that I’d miss her and about my general misfortune. Things seemed bleak.

A couple of weeks later, after I had calmed down somewhat, a phone call arrived while I was hanging out in our bungalow with a friend. My mother made sure I was sitting down before she told me what it was about. “Chava, I just got a phone call…” It was my new school. The one I didn’t want to attend. They had run into financial issues and were “so sorry but were not able to open in the end.” Any peace I had made with the situation flew out the window. It was six weeks before the new school year was about to begin. I had a new knapsack, a new uniform, and no school.

At first I was frozen and numb. Then I completely lost it. That night in camp, I cried and cried and cried. As far as I was concerned, this was the end. I had nowhere to run, all routes had been blocked. I was totally inconsolable. To add to my hurt and anger, I kept recalling how many times I had badgered the school to confirm that they would be opening. They had broken all their promises. Their desire to have me, the fleeting feeling of acceptance, had all flown away with the wind.

Over the next few days, while I was in my hopeless state, my mother went into action mode. While I went to another camp for second half, she was busy making phone calls to other schools, begging them to accept me. The responses, when she got through, were to the tune of: “We didn’t really want you when you applied on time, what makes you think that we’re going to want to accept you now?” To further exacerbate the issue, the schools had picked up some totally unfounded rumors about my behavior that they used to defend their stance. They claimed I had been exposed to things I would never, ever do — things I wouldn’t dream of doing. “But I’m a good girl!” I cried to my mother. “That isn’t me at all!” And she nodded and agreed. But it didn’t help.

In the end, I was left with an ultimatum: return to my previous school or not have one at all. The humiliation was massive. After all these years of knowing and wanting something different, I was back to my starting point, with the added bonus of having to tell my classmates that I was returning. But I did it.

At that point, my attitude was horrible. I viewed high school as a countdown to the day when I could finally leave school. I was desperate to just be myself, regardless of how that would make me look in my classmates’ opinions. Luckily, I had some very good friends who helped me stay on-track, reminding me that it would not help me at all to be different. And though their opinions bothered me, they were right. After a few weeks of being back in my old-new school, I stopped fighting and tried to make it work.

I’m in that school now, and I still feel different. There are times when the rules and attitudes frustrate me, and it’s far from perfect. Still, I wonder if any high school is ever really perfect, and I’ve grown to accept that this was meant to be. I’ve also bumped into the other girls, the ones from camp, a few times, and it only strengthens my feeling that my school is best for me, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Their behavior has become more extreme, and their negative attitudes have grown. I’m sure that if I would have been in their class, I would have been influenced, too. Maybe this entire saga has helped me become a better, stronger person. Perhaps it was good for me in the long run.

More than anything else, it has taught me to be flexible and adapt to whatever happens in my life. While I had a plan of how I saw my future, Hashem clearly had a different route in mind, and that was hard. Still, since I’ve stopped fighting and started going along with Hashem’s plan, I’ve been able to see the positive part of how things turned out. And I hope that stays with me, no matter which path Hashem chooses for me in my future life.


(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 894)

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