In the religious world, non-Jewish schools (all considered “public” in casual conversation) are regarded with such a level of contempt and repugnance one would think that they exist exclusively in the lowest depths of hell. They are reserved for kids who are off the derech, from fucked up families, or got kicked out of yeshiva. Any boy who ends up at public school is a lost cause and is branded with the mark of Cain.
When I was in fourth grade, I read a file my mom had written, detailing public schools—or going to Israel—as the options for solving my learning problem in day school. Even the mere thought of public schools sent chills down my spine. Public schools represented the opposite of everything I knew. They were the boogey man in my closet and the monster under my bed. They were the horrors that were close enough to sense and glimpse, but to distant and phantasmal to truly grasp.
Yet despite all my negative feelings toward them, I was also extremely intrigued.
I was fascinated with the image of public school I saw on TV and in movies. They had the parties, the hot girls, and the cool kids. All we had at Jewish schools were prayers, pubescent boys with body odor, and rabbis who yelled. Every one I had been to so far was extremely tedious and monotonous and I figured public school might be a bit more fun. Switching out of Jewish school might also give me the opportunity I needed to succeed. It would provide me with a shorter day, better teachers and some solid extra curricula.
On my way to school every day I would pass the one I wanted to attend. It was a big school for kids with learning problems. I would see the students practicing football on the field and congregating outside and I would constantly note how happy they looked, compared to how depressed I was. One day that could be me, I thought. Non- Jewish school could be my knight in shining armor, rescuing me from the snarling dragon that was awful Jewish education. I spent much time daydreaming about the endless possibilities. I would be the star of the football team, talk to girls, and actually do decent in school.
Deep down, I knew it was just a pipe dream though. Despite much crying, and kicking and screaming on my part my parents would never let me switch…
After I graduated middle school, I ended up at the local yeshiva. I had spent much time there as a day school student, and it seemed like the place for me. Things did not go quite as planned though. Even from the first day I visited the problems were apparent.
I had to sit down with the head rabbi to display my adroitness in torah. The main problem though, was that I had none. I sat opposite him at his desk and sputtered out a few poorly translated lines of Talmud. Despite practicing with my rabbi the exact portion that I would read, I was barely able to get through a couple of sentences. After looking at me silently for a few seconds to make sure I was indeed actually finished and not playing some sort of deviant joke on him, he looked me square in the eye and said, “ the level that you learn Gemera is probably among the lowest levels of all the Talmidim here, actually it might be the lowest.” And with that I resumed my day, unsure if I would get accepted to the yeshiva.
Despite my amateur level of torah study, I got in. I was pretty sure the only reason was because the school was scrapping for money, and they could not afford to turn down one of the only students who would actually be paying full tuition.
It started off fine. I was enamored at the level of freedom I was afforded. We could go on the computers at school, leave during breaks, and play tackle football during gym; all things I could only dream of in middle school.
It only took a few weeks for things to go very sour, though. The day was from 7:40 – 6:37, which was way to long for the jumpy, inattentive student that I was. I almost went crazy until I thought of ways to occupy myself.
I would sit in class and space out for hours at a time, I downloaded a few games on my phone, began to draw the back of my classmates’ heads and cartoons, practice holding my breath, and tried to learn how to regulate my pulse. I never answered any questions or took any notes. When that became boring I just began leaving for entire classes. The rabbis would have stopped any other student, but they had all given up on me a long time ago.
My only moment of escape came during the morning break when I would turn on my ipod, blast the Red Hot Chili Peppers, pull my hood over my head, and walk down the street. These ephemeral moments of nirvana were always cut off tragically early when I heard the shrieking bell, even from far down the street, and realized I had to go back to class or risk getting detentions.
I had never been so miserable in my life. It became pretty apparent that I had to leave yeshiva or suffer a serious emotional breakdown.
The only question was where to go? I was at the only yeshiva in town, and apparently the modern orthodox high school was out of the question.
One day I overheard my parents discussing my situation. . They both had enough pity on me to realize I had to switch schools, but it seemed like the only option was an obviously non-Jewish school for kids with learning problems in Dallas. Both of them were hysterical about that option. My dad was convinced I would “ bring home some blonde shiksa girlfriend” and abandon my faith immediately. My mom was almost in tears. I did my best to calm their irrational fears but it did not help much.
For all their reservations though, I ended up switching to a non- Jewish school in Dallas after less then a semester. It was not the school I initially wanted to go to, but I would have gone to west point if it meant escaping yeshiva. my parents had always done everything they could to keep me in a Jewish environment. I had countless tutors, experimented with add medications, physicans who were supposed to cure me of my schooling ills, and homeopathic medicine. Nothing made so much as a dent though, and my parents realized that it was finnaly time to make a change.
On a cold morning in December 2008, I arrived at my new school, ready to begin anew. I garnered every ounce of courage in my being, fastened my yarmulke, ignored the “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” sign, and proceeded to enter the other side.
My first class was math. As luck would have it I got seated next to a nice Jewish girl and we played Jewish geography for a bit. She seemed very nice and I was very happy to have met someone I liked only a few minutes in to the day.
There was another girl, very blonde, very pretty and very un-Jewish, sitting across from me. I talked to her for a little also. I tried not to stare, but since I was so used to looking at greasy yeshiva guys with acne from across the room, not extremely attractive girls with there skirts hiked up, she was a refreshing change.
As soon as the class stared the Jewish girl leaned over, and whispered to me that the other girl “is a huge slut because she lost her virginity in seventh grade.” It was immediately apparent that I was not in Kansas anymore.
In class we cut out shapes from paper and stuck them to a poster for some sort of hands on project. It was a far cry from the boring, one sided learning I was used to in yeshiva, and I loved it.
In English class the teacher read a book out loud and asked us questions about it. No one in the class was paying attention so I jumped on the opportunity to actually answer, something I never did in yeshiva. I raised my hand and it was the first time I answered correctly right in recent memory. It felt great.
Later in the day, because of a scheduling error I ended up in economics. It was full of seniors, and though they were extremely large and intimidating, they seemed all right. It was a quiz day and I figured I would try my hand at it. I did not know much of the information but I somehow got a 95. That was the highest grade I had gotten on any assignment in recent memory. The feeling of pride and joy I felt was incredible, and unlike anything I had ever felt at yeshiva.
The sense of ecstasy carried over through out the day and I was eager to tell my mom about how great it went when she picked me up at 3:30, over 3 hours before the yeshiva day ended.
I realized I was feeling two strong emotions about the school: Liberty and anxiety. Liberty because I was finally free of my yeshivesh shackles and I was finally comfortable in a schooling environment. Anxiety, because deep down I knew I was lying to myself about being comfortable.
Even though I had a decent first day, there was something so off-putting about the overall experience. Just being there made me feel dirty, like I had to shower and vigorously scrub myself clean of all the impurity that emanated from the school. I was a stranger in a strange land. I was obviously the only one in the school to wear a yarmulke, and though I did not mind flaunting my Judaism, I did not appreciate the piercing stares. Though yeshiva was awful, I still never felt as uncomfortable there as I did not at non-Jewish school. Still, I unhealthily bottled up the negative feelings, elevated the positive ones and went back the next day.
The next few weeks went as well as the first day. I would get out of school absurdly early, and stay a bit later to work on homework. I actually gave a shit about academics, something that was completely new to me. I was getting almost all A’s, and for the first time, I felt legitimately intelligent.
I was also getting the occasional look from girls, which was uncharted territory, though I was to cowardice and pious to do anything about it.
About a month in, after the initial ephemeral euphoria wore off, it became apparent that I had one piercing problem; I was making no friends. I got two invitations to birthday parties, but one was on Shabbat, and I was sick for the other one, not that I would have gone to it anyway. During lunch I would sit with kids in almost perfect, very awkward silence, save fielding a few questions about Judaism, whom I was now apparently the spokesperson for. They would have conversations about topics that would very often frighten me immensely; sex, drugs, and alcohol were appropriate table discourse. I would sit there, speechless, listening to stories about the time Chris did LSD on Halloween, or about how nick had lots of sex that weekend. After I realized I had nothing in common with any of them and could not contribute anything to the chats, I stopped socializing completely. I soon started eating my lunch in a classroom while browsing the Jewish news site vos iz neias, until it was time to walk to my next class by myself.
At yeshiva when anyone got the boot I genuinely felt bad for them. For the most part they were good kids, and they were kicked out for docile things like texting a girl or skipping prayers to often. In Fairhill, seven kids got kicked out or were pulled out just during my few months there. This time I did not feel bad for them, it just made me feel insecure to even be surrounded by these types of people. A few were for drug related problems, one was for getting violently drunk at a school trip, and the one I remember most was the pretty non Jewish girl who wanted to go out with me. She persistently ran away from home, so she was shipped off to a boarding school were she would not be allowed to wear shoes because, as our teacher explained, if you do not have your feet covered, its tough to make it very far.
Now, as an eighteen year old hearing about these things do not even make me bat an eyelash, but as a sheltered naïve fourteen year old fresh out of yeshiva they made my skin crawl. If this was what the real world was like I wanted no part of it. I found myself appreciating Judaism more in contrast; it became a refuge for me. Going to shul on Shabbat seemed to cleanse me of all the pollution I was subject to at school. When I prayed I did it with much for fervor and zeal. I would beg god to deliver me from my tribulations.
Though I did not fit in very well at yeshiva I at least had one thing in common with everyone; we were all Jewish. I was one of a very few Jewish kids at Fairhill, and I was the only even semi-religious one. Being surrounded by non-Jews did not stop me from my continuing my religious practices, it was just made it more uncomfortable. I brought a small siddur to school and I would use it to say birchat hamazon after meals. When people would ask me what I was doing I would pretend I did not hear them because I could not respond in the midst of prayer. If I missed morning shacharit before school, I would find an empty classroom, wrap my tefillin and pray there. One time a kid walked in on me while I was in the middle of putting them on. He looked at me like I was practicing autoerotic asphyxiation and walked out immediately. I don’t blame him for being confused; my davening face was pretty intense.
Another time, I was walking to class and my yarmulke blew away. I took off in hot pursuit. When I finally caught up to it I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a parent in her car cackling at my misfortune at me. I embarrassingly walked away, and the image stuck with me for a while.
One day while I was at school early working with a teacher we got into a conversation about Judaism. He had some specific questions about kosher so I explained to him all about how we were only allowed to eat certain foods, prepared in certain matters, etc. He must have missed out on a very key part of the conversation though, because as soon as I was done talking he attempted to shove his half eaten meet and cheese burrito into my mouth. I adamantly refused his advances and I had to put my hand over my mouth because he was just not giving up. He got it eventually though, and when he did he told me “taught you well, your father has,” like some sort of messed up proselytizing Yoda. We then carried on with the math like nothing out of the ordinary happened.
I never wanted to go back to yeshiva but I definitely did not want to be at Fairhill. The outside world was macabre and horrifying. I much preferred the sheltered bubble I came from.
There was a sense of loneliness that was unparalleled by anything yeshiva threw at me; at least there I had people to talk to. It eventually starting eating away at my self-esteem. Everyone else was talking to each other, having a jolly old time, and making plans for the weekend, while I would be sitting alone somewhere, wondering why I was not good enough to be included. The self-esteem problems eventually were joined with crippling depression, a major decrease in self-confidence, and extreme self-consciousness. If I would hear people talking near me, I would assume they were gossiping about me, and I would lean in closer to try and hear them. I did not think I could sink any further emotionally then I did at yeshiva, but it happened.
Being at school every day was like falling into a roaring inferno. My skin would sear and my eyes would boil and the smell my own hair burning would fill my scorching nostrils and I would kick and scream, and curse and writhe in pain for what seemed like forever but there was nothing I could do except wait until it was time to go home, smoldering, and douse myself in water. Then, the fire would die, but the burns would not heal.
After much careful calculation it was decided that I would attend the local modern orthodox school for 10th grade. It was there that things finally started working out for me. I made many close friends, forged close relationships with teachers, and looked forward to going to school every day. I still had much trouble academically, but with the help of a very dedicated teaching staff, it became manageable.
I can honestly not say if yeshiva or Fairhill was worse. They both were equally miserable and they both drained the life out of me on an equal level. After the worst year of my life, I was a shadow of my former self. The summer before 9th grade, I was outgoing and lighthearted and confident. By the end of the year I was emotionally crippled. If I could do it again I would have gone straight to the school I graduated from, which I loved very much. I wish there was some grand lesson I took away from it all so I could validate the pain even a bit, but the cold reality of the situation is that I cannot.
My mom picked me up on the last day, and right before I entered the car I ripped off my Fairhill shirt, symbolizing my newfound freedom. As soon as I got home i took a walk around my neighborhood. I had my headphones plugged in and I was blasting “Schools out for the Summer” by Alice Cooper while singing along. There was not a cloud in the sky and there was a brisk breeze; it was perfect.
It was time to tend to my burns.