“People understand that everyone has different talents. One girl can sing, one girl can dance, and another can paint. But everybody wants to be smart”
“Ilove finals!” I exclaimed at the exact same moment that Gila burst out, “I hate finals!” We looked at each other and started laughing. When the laughter died down, I explained the thoughts behind my declaration. “I love facing an empty test paper and letting all the knowledge that we’ve been learning and reviewing flow out and fill the page.”
Gila glared at me. “Alright for some. I hate looking at an empty test paper, knowing that even though I listen and take notes as best as I can and have spent days studying with Miss Brainy herself, I can’t think of anything coherent to write. We’re just so different. I don’t even know why I’m friends with you, never mind study partners.
“Because we’re as similar as we’re different,” I said mentioning the oft-repeated phrase that was the glue of our relationship. When it came to academics, I was in the top 1 percent of the class while Gila floundered somewhere near the bottom. Still, our learning styles complemented each other; I liked explaining and Gila liked being explained to, so it worked for us to study together even with the difference in our academic abilities.
“Time for a break,” I announced, changing the topic and pulling out some refreshments.
“I take back what I said before,” Gila said jokingly as she helped herself. “This is why I’m friends with you. You know how to win me over by buying me my favorite snacks.”
“You know what really bothers me?” Gila asked as she pulled a Twizzler apart, strand by strand. “I’ve made peace with my academic abilities or lack thereof. I can repeat verbatim all the phrases that have been used to encourage me over the years from, ‘It’s the effort that counts not your grades,’ to ‘School and academics aren’t your whole life,’ and ‘You’re doing your best and that’s fine.’ But I hate the competition that goes on in our class when the tests are returned. It sickens me when I hear girls complaining that they only got a 92 after studying for three long hours. How do you think that makes me feel when I studied a lot longer and only got a 60, which I’m actually pretty proud of, though of course I wouldn’t say that out loud for fear of being labeled dumb? And how do you think I feel when I’m forced to announce my grade to the rest of our class? And if I dare say I’d rather not share — trust me I’ve tried it — everyone makes such a fuss until I’m forced to give in.
“I can’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about grades,” I said in response to Gila’s complaint. “When it comes to production, nobody expects the girls who have a solo or a main part in the act to keep their parts to themselves. So why should it be different when it comes to comparing grades? I can’t sing or act but I do well on finals. So, what’s wrong if I want to share my success with others?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Gila said honestly. “The way you put it, it doesn’t sound different but it most definitely is.” She was quiet for a moment before she spoke up. “I think the difference is that when it comes to production, people understand that everyone has different talents. One girl can sing, one girl can dance, and another can paint. But everybody wants to be smart. Maybe because so much of school is about doing well academically.”
We continued debating the topic, each of us sticking resolutely to our original opinion until I caught a glimpse of the clock and decided it was time to get back to studying.
We decided to stop our debate and agreed to disagree, like we did on so many other topics.
The next few days passed by in a whirl of reviewing and test-taking. After two weeks of finals we were done. Now came the fun part — getting our tests back. (Our school had a policy that we didn’t get any tests back during finals.) On the first final we got back, I scored 100. The next mark was a 99. I lost 1 percent on something silly and of course I made my disappointment known. After every final the class got back, we went through the ritual of comparing our marks between ourselves to see who scored the highest.
Everything was fine until the dikduk teacher returned our last final. It had been a really easy test; lots of multiple-choice questions and I was sure that I aced it. In fact, when I got the test paper back, I glanced at it quickly, expecting to see 100 percent. The number I saw made me wonder if my vision was betraying me. I checked again. 62 percent! That couldn’t be my mark. But it was: imprinted on the paper in red pen. My first reaction was that my teacher made a mistake tallying up the marks; after all she was a dikduk teacher, not a math teacher. But as I flipped through the pages, I saw lots of red pen and corrections. I would have to examine it later to see where I had gone wrong. I looked around the classroom and saw everyone else’s smiling faces, triumphant over their good grades. Was I the only one who had done badly?
I buried the paper in my knapsack and tried to make a quick getaway. But Gila caught up with me before I managed to put my stuff away.
“I got an 84 ! My highest grade yet! You for sure got 100, right?”
“Wrong,” I snapped, annoyed that she had done so well when I had done so badly and feeling bad that I couldn’t feel happy for her one-time success.
Gila saw my face and immediately knew something was wrong. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed anything. Especially not someone like me.”
“It’s okay,” I said, though it was far from okay. “I got a 62. I’m not sure what went wrong but I’ll look through the paper later.” My hasty retreat was further delayed as Tziporah sidled up to me, accompanied by a bunch of classmates. “It was such an easy final, no?” Tziporah said, making me feel even more stupid over my low grade. “What did you get Nechama?” The two of us were constantly competing with each other over grades.
I remained quiet, hoping she wouldn’t pressure me, but no such luck. “I prefer not to say,” I said eventually. By then a whole group of classmates were clustered around my desk. It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life.
“What happened to the rule we instituted in this class that nobody hides their grades?” Tziporah reminded me. “Come on. What’s the big deal? So, you got a 99 instead of 100?” Before I could respond, the paper had been snatched out of my hands and was being passed around, my low mark visible to all my classmates. You know the saying, “I wish the ground could have opened up and swallowed me”? It might be cliché, but it perfectly described the awful sensation I felt at that moment.
“So that’s why you didn’t want to say,” Tziporah teased. “Don’t worry! Everyone’s brains are allowed to go on vacation occasionally. Even someone as smart as you.” I tried to laugh along with everyone else, even though there was nothing funny about the situation. I felt like crying but knew it was wiser to save that for the privacy of my bedroom.
Through the haze of my embarrassment I suddenly remembered Gila’s complaint and how vociferous I had been in protesting her. So, this is how the girls who struggle feel when they were forced to announce their grades.
Suddenly I heard Gila speak up and she didn’t sound amused. “It’s okay if someone’s brains go on vacation once in a while but it’s never okay for anybody’s middos to go on vacation. Nechama didn’t want to share her mark and nobody had the right to coerce her into it. And it was definitely wrong to take the paper away from her and pass it around.” She looked intently at Tziporah and everyone else standing there. “Just imagine for a second how you would want people to act toward you if you were in Nechama’s shoes.”
Good old Gila. I could have hugged her right there and then. Trust her to come to my rescue. I waited with bated breath to hear how our classmates would react to her words. They weren’t a mean bunch of girls but still may not be willing to take Gila’s mussar. Luckily for me, they did. Tziporah was the first to apologize and everyone followed suit. By the time I left the classroom I felt marginally better.
“Thanks for speaking up for me,” I said to Gila when it was just the two of us. “Now I know how you feel,” we said simultaneously and then laughed. It was already becoming a bad habit of ours.
“Me first,” Gila insisted. “I finally understand your side of the argument: how it feels to want to share your good grade with everybody.”
“And I definitely understand your point of view,” I added. I was thoughtful as we walked down the street in silence. “I want you to know one more thing,” I said to Gila as we turned the corner. “You may not get top marks on exams, but when it comes to being a loyal friend, you are definitely tops.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 749)
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