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The Key to Freedom

Four teens share their experiences of how they escaped from their personal prisons… to freedom

Exodus. A prison term so long and unbearable that salvation seemed inconceivable. Yet Klal Yisrael was led to freedom by the only One who holds the keys to true Geulah.

There are all kinds of prisons, and even in America, land of the free, individuals can experience the feeling of being locked in.

Four teens share their experiences of how they escaped from their personal prisons… to freedom.


Miri’s Sentence

Absent. Such an innocent, even typical occurrence. I never expected it to mess me up the way it did, but boy did I choose a bad day to be absent.

Toward the beginning of the school year, our mechaneches, Mrs. Marcus, divided us into pairs of “Chumash buddies.” Three times a week she gave us hachanah time in class, and twice a week we got worksheets for homework. We were basically “chavrusas” during hachanah time, and were responsible to help each other make up missed work if either of us was ever absent or needed help.

I was well-matched with my buddy and we were doing great together, until one Monday, exactly a week into second semester, I was absent. First period, Mrs. Marcus announced a buddy shakeup for second semester, and gave the class half the period to choose new buddies, the only “rule” being that everyone had to pair up with someone new. It would have been a cinch for me had I only been there, because I have lots of friends whom I like studying with and who are my type. But by the time my old buddy called me to fill me in that night, everyone had a new buddy — except for me and the only other girl who had been absent that day, Chavi Gross*.

I knew I had a problem on my hands, but I had no idea what to do about it. Listen, I’m not a baby, I can study with girls who aren’t my type, but this was just… extreme. Socially, we were in way different circles, and even though Chavi’s smart and a good student, as am I — if I may say so myself — we don’t operate on the same wavelength at all. Yet to show up the very next day and try to change things would obviously be rude, as if I had something against Chavi, which, believe me, I don’t. Besides, realistically, who in the world would I switch with, even if I could? If it were any of my friends, then their buddy also wouldn’t fit with Chavi, and if it were one of Chavi’s good friends, what would I gain? No one was about to switch with me at that point anyway.

So I figured I’d just have to make the best of it and see where it would take me. We started off, and what can I say, we were mismatched. Girls in our class who hadn’t really paid attention to the fact that we had both been absent on the big day looked over at us in surprise, like, what in the WORLD are they doing together?!

By two months into second semester, I was going out Of. My. Mind. with Chavi. It was challenging doing hachanah with her, when I wanted to fly through the work and get it done, while she was painfully methodical (at least compared to me). For example, when she bumped into a word she didn’t know, she wrote it down in a special section of her binder (Help! See what I mean?). So on one hand, this was becoming tortuous, and I was wondering how I was going to do this all year long, but on the other hand, Chavi’s a nice person and I really didn’t want to make her feel bad.

I was totally stuck.

Miri’s Keys to Freedom

My “salvation” came about in a way so remarkable that I never could have envisioned it. Amazingly, Chavi did something excruciatingly brave. One night she called and invited herself over to my house. That was a surprise, because outside of being Chumash buddies, we had little to do with each other. But the conversation she started was even more surprising.

“Look,” said Chavi openly, “we both know that we are in this sticky situation together, so instead of ignoring it for the rest of the year and suffering, why don’t we just put it out there and see what we can do to get through this. Let’s try each saying our piece without getting too personal or sensitive, and hammer it out.”

I almost fell off my chair. It took so much guts, and shocked as I was, I was also super impressed, amazingly grateful, and most of all, I felt sooooo relieved. No, we didn’t become great friends, though my admiration for Chavi was way up there after this encounter. The conversation was definitely awkward, but great all the same. And we did it. I told her how it was for me (okay, so I shared more like 80 percent of it, I really didn’t want to insult her; I wonder if she was doing the same). But we came to a great place about how we felt about our partnership and figured out some compromises for how to make it through the next three months. Which we did, and did well.

Miri, tenth grade

 

Ruchy’s Sentence

One Sunday I was surprised to get a call from Aliza, a quiet girl in my class, whom I didn’t have much to do with, asking if she could come over. Of course she could, but I wondered why she wanted to in the first place. Aliza came, and it seemed there was no agenda, so we spent a couple of hours hanging out, and it was pleasant enough. At some point she said, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what do you say to becoming great friends?” Politely I answered, “Oh, okay, sure!” though I actually had no clue what that was supposed to mean. Anyway, I figured, even if I didn’t, how could I look another girl in the face and say “No”?!

Wow, had I only known! The ramifications of this conversation were so unexpected that I couldn’t believe what hit me. Trust me, had I known what I was agreeing to, I absolutely would have said something more clear, like, “Oh, of course we’re friends, not best friends or glued to each other or anything.”

Oooooh, was I in for it. Aliza was totally cute, and in every other way seemed perfectly with it, but I had just unknowingly signed myself up to being her one and only bestie.

She dropped in all the time and called every time we had a day off to see if we should meet at her house or mine. Sometimes I made excuses or told her I already had plans, but there was a limit to how many times I could do that without it being obvious that I wasn’t as interested in this friendship as she was and really hurting her feelings, which I didn’t want to do.

I was the only girl in my class that she invited to her sister’s vort and wedding, so of course I went, how could I not? She greeted me with a thrilled, “Oh, you finally came; I’ve been waiting all night for you!” Help! Did she not have sisters, cousins, and family friends filling this room?

But I did have other friends, and I often felt like I had to choose between doing what I wanted with other girls in my chevreh or spending one-on-one time with Aliza, which is the only type of time she wanted from me.

Sometimes I’d invite three or four other girls and Aliza too, so as not to exclude her, but she often “couldn’t make it” once she realized that other girls were coming.

I didn’t have the heart to hurt Aliza’s feelings, but neither could I tolerate feeling so stifled.

I was totally stuck.

Ruchy’s Keys to Freedom

I sat with my mother and explained my predicament, trying not to be too dramatic. My mother first coached me to try to build a natural “wedge” as she called it. When Aliza called, if my mother picked up the phone, she always said I was unavailable. The idea was that the less intense the relationship, the more it would naturally ease up. So Plan A was to try and do this subtly. When Aliza wanted to spend time with me more than once a week, I’d explain that it “wasn’t a good day” because my mother needed my help or I had already made up to study with someone else. I always made sure to reassure her that I’d study with her another time.

I tried to distance myself to a fair and reasonable amount that worked for me. We still hung out, but it was for a lot less time. It was clear, though, from Aliza’s consistent overtures that she totally wasn’t picking up on anything. Plan A didn’t work.

Plan B was a lot harder for me because it meant addressing Aliza directly, which seriously went against my nonconfrontational nature. I practiced a few times with my mother and hoped it wouldn’t be too messy. I don’t do messy! The idea was to be as nice and empathetic as possible, while explaining what wasn’t working for me. Believe me, if I wouldn’t have been smothered by her for so long, I don’t think I could have carried through with this.

I gave Aliza the heads-up that I wanted to talk to her about something serious, and asked her when would be a good time. When we met, I got straight to the point. The basic gist of what I said was that Aliza was for sure one of my best friends, and that’s not what I wanted to change. At the same time, I explained that a lot of times I felt overwhelmed because I also needed more time and space by myself, to be with family, or to feel free to hang out with my other best friends and regular friends.

I can’t say it was amazingly well received, but it also wasn’t nearly as bad as I was afraid it would be. Aliza definitely did feel bad, and I felt terrible about that, but my mother insisted that uncomfortable or upset feelings, which would hopefully remain temporary, are a whole lot better for me and Aliza than allowing her to permanently remain “my problem” instead of “my friend.”

Ruchy, ninth grade

*****

Toby’s Sentence

I actually once got locked up. Quite literally. This story may seem a bit comical at first, but really it was a test of wits for me and a lesson in patience and creativity.

One day we were told that we would have a school-wide assembly during last period in the huge school that I attend. At the end of the day everyone packed up and went down to the assembly while I lagged behind, laughing with Sara Miriam and Hadassah, two of my good friends. I told them to go ahead; I’d be there soon. Because I needed to make a quick stop at the restroom up on the third floor. All was quiet, and when I tried closing the door, it seemed a little stuck, like it didn’t fit into the door frame, and so without thinking too much, I slammed it shut. Hard. It closed and I locked it.

But then it wouldn’t open. I tried and jiggled and pulled, but it was stuck tight. I wasn’t freaking out, because I’m generally not prone to hysterics. I tried to crawl out from under the stall but there was no chance of getting under there, as the space was way too small. I looked up over the top — it was pretty high up, but I figured if I really had to, maybe I could stand up on the seat and hurl myself over, kind of vault over the door top. The thought of it put me on edge; I was sure to break a bone, depending how I’d land, but being out of any ideas took a chunk out of my calm as I tried again with all my strength to pry the door open, to no avail.

It was so eerily quiet that I knew screaming would be futile and just drain me. I sat down on the floor to think and gather my wits. If I never returned home from school and my parents called the police, would they do a good enough search of the school building to find me in the third-floor bathrooms? Would I be here till tomorrow morning when everyone came to school? I felt ill.

How long had I been there already? I had no watch and it felt like a really long time. Too long. Was the assembly ending and everyone leaving school, leaving me there in an empty building? Would there be a cleaning crew coming any time that day? I had no clue what the cleaning schedule was like in my school, but that was a real possibility.

I wondered how long I should wait before figuring that no one was coming to clean, which made me feel all the more desperate, so I went back to considering breaking a leg in that vault move. Would I be able to get down three flights to the assembly with a broken leg? Tears started to leak, try hard as I did to remain calm and think.

I was totally stuck.

Toby’s Keys to Freedom

Suddenly I heard movement and was about to start screaming my head off, but then I caught myself. What if it was the principal or something, and I’d be hysterically blubbering? I took a shaky breath, composed myself, and tried once more with all my might, fear, and desperation to pull that door open. I figured if this last-ditch effort didn’t work, I’d scream myself hoarse if I needed to. I shook the door so hard I thought it would come off in my hands, hinges and all. And suddenly the door swung in with such force that I tumbled right out and on top of the person on the other side of the door. That girl immediately started screaming — I had flown out so unexpectedly that I scared the daylights out of her. It was Sara Miriam! The second I fell on her I started crying really hard. The intense pressure of holding it together, telling myself that I was calm, had been an incredible strain, but there I was with my good friend, who had come up to see why I hadn’t shown up at the assembly. When she passed the bathrooms and heard the noises of my trying to unstick the bathroom door, she came to investigate….

Oh, and guess what time it was? 3:45. The eternity I had felt was actually a 40-minute ordeal! When I finally calmed down enough to think clearly, I was so proud of how I dealt with the situation.

Toby, 11th grade

*****

Sari’s Sentence

I know about being locked in a prison of sorts, with seemingly no way out. At the time of my story I felt like I’d be stuck there forever.

I’m popular and confident and make friends easily, which is how I got into this situation to begin with. I became friendly with Yocheved, who lives nearby but attends a different school than I do, and we really hit it off, so we started walking to and from school together pretty often. It didn’t take me long, though, to realize that Yocheved was involved with people and things that she shouldn’t have been, and that I knew were definitely not good for me. But I was positive and very confident that those things, so foreign to who I was, had nothing to do with me and my life and there was just no way I’d ever cross any red lines. I wasn’t doing much with her anyway, just walking to and from school and enjoying Yocheved’s awesome personality and golden heart. But what started out simple gradually changed. We’d get to my school building and be right in the middle of a conversation, so we’d call each other later, and slowly, without my realizing it until it was too late, I was doing certain things, only with Yocheved, which I wasn’t proud of and wanted to stop.

But I’m pretty confident like I said, and hey, we were friends, right? So I told her straight out, this is not for me! She seemed to get it, so we went back to walking to school and dropped the other stuff. But once again, our relationship slowly started creeping back in the wrong direction — so slowly, in fact, that I didn’t even realize it until I had slid even further than the last time.

One day Yocheved called me while I was out babysitting in our neighborhood, and then she showed up at the house where I was babysitting. Feeling that this was really inappropriate, I told her I’d meet her when I was done, so I started meeting her after my babysitting jobs and before going home. I had no doubt that my parents wouldn’t approve (I didn’t really approve myself, though by this point I was ignoring that fact) but I was already too deep in, both hating what I was doing and being curiously interested at the same time. At school I was the same fun-loving, great student, and awesome Bais Yaakov girl as ever. At home I acted like “the real me” too. But in the gaps between home and school, I’d be with Yocheved and try to hide it and keep it very separate from the rest of my life. It wasn’t until Yocheved got into major trouble at her school that I realized that I was headed in that direction too, and I really, really, really needed help getting myself out of this. I was scared to go to my parents, knowing how angry they’d be, but where else could I turn? Nowhere! I was in tortuous turmoil.

I was totally stuck.

Sari’s Keys to Freedom

I knew there was a way out for me; it would just take a lot of bravery on my part. It took me close to a week to sift through all of the adults in my world and rate them for nonjudgmentalness (is that a word?), being totally normal and relatable, trustworthy and discreet like crazy (okay, that was really my NUMBER ONE criteria), and approachability. The list wasn’t too long to begin with but I narrowed it down to my tenth-grade mechaneches. Even though I had very little to do with her, she fit the bill. It was hard for me to approach her, but once I did, she was really understanding when I tried to explain how I had gotten myself into such a mess, and she gave me her cell number to call her to continue our conversation. With her incredible support, she guided me in approaching my parents whom she had met at parent-teacher conferences. Initially I balked, and she offered to speak to them for me, but encouraged me to face them on my own, believing in me and in my relationship with them. So I did it. That was hands down the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, even though it turned out that my parents were actually great, and helped me make a game plan for getting out of the mess.

My mother sat with me when I called Yocheved and told her that I wanted to break off our friendship and why. I asked her not to call me anymore, and then put her number on the “reject caller” list on my phone. My father offered to drive me to school to help me avoid Yocheved until I got into a new rhythm. It didn’t take too long till I was walking with a group of friends from my own school. And last of all, which may not be a big deal for other people, but for me was a huge step, my parents helped me find a therapist to work through certain goals we set, such as examining what this friendship gave me and how I can get that from healthy avenues, and learning better tools to stand by my principles even if it means swimming against the tide. It’s less than six months later, and when I see Yocheved around, I feel pretty comfortable in my skin. I wave and smile, and keep going.

Sari, 11th grade

*****

Sidebar

We often feel stifled or otherwise uncomfortable in a friendship and can’t seem to find the key to freedom. Shimon Frankel, LCSW, a therapist in private practice near Lakewood, NJ, encourages teens to take responsibility to change the dynamic in uncomfortable friendships; you never have to remain stuck.

Mr. Frankel explains that when we love people, we are careful not to hurt their feelings. Sometimes it’s our parents. Sometimes it’s our friends. Sometimes we agree to things we don’t really want to agree to, because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Everybody has been there, done that.

But somewhere along the way we need to learn that everyone is responsible for themselves. Let’s take what happened to Ruchy as an example. If Aliza is insulted that Ruchy has other friends, it’s Aliza’s responsibility to learn tolerance; it’s not Ruchy’s resonsibility to throw away her other friendships. If the “Alizas” in your world ask you to do something that’s uncomfortable, you’re allowed to say, “I’m uncomfortable with that,” and it’s Aliza’s responsibility to learn respect. You might actually be hurting your friend Aliza by not telling her these things. Because if you don’t tell her, how will she know? And then how will she work on those things from her angle?

It’s possible that the Aliza in your life has no idea that you feel the way you do. True, she may be insulted or embarrassed initially, but in the long run, you might be helping her very much. And you will be helping yourself too, because you’ll be learning how to speak up for yourself in a kind way when someone is hurting you. That will allow you to feel safe in making new friendships without having to worry that the new friend will also be too needy or also hurt you.

When someone has a house on a busy street, they put a fence along the perimeter of the front yard. The fence is very important. It allows the children who live there to play safely in the front yard without getting hurt by cars. As we grow up, we need to learn how to put up our own fences, or boundaries. It’s like when a parent tells you that you can’t stay up late; that’s a boundary. They know that if you stay up too late you will be overtired tomorrow. It will also mean less stress in the house if the kids are well-rested. So parents make a rule: bedtime! It’s not all that different when we set social boundaries with friends and family. It’s not okay to mistreat someone just because you are friends with them. Friends need to be thoughtful, and if you are friends with someone who isn’t being thoughtful, it’s okay to do something about it.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 806)

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