This may seem a little angry. If it does, it’s probably because I’m a little angry. Especially now, because I can’t sleep. Tonight I couldn’t sleep because I had a disturbing dream–not a nightmare–just a disturbing dream. It was a nightmare, at one point in my life. It made me want to get out of bed and write about it so the world could understand. So I’m angry. Usually I’m not angry. Only when I think about my “education.” When I got angry as a kid, my mother would tell me to write a letter. So, I’m writing this letter to you, my yeshiva educational system.
My dream took place in some sort of school setting. I can’t tell if it was elementary school, highschool, or one of the several extracurricular educational settings in which I found myself when I was young–summer camp, youth groups–whichever. They were all the same. They had rules. They were structured. They had agendas. They all had meals, and at the end of those meals, they had “benching” or Grace After Meals. You led benching using a microphone. You used the microphone because you wanted to control the benching so it could be done as a group. In my dream, we were in a lunch room just before benching. I stood up to get a cupcake when you were ready to “bench.” You told me, in fact, yelled at me, to sit down–over the microphone. I was publicly humiliated. I couldn’t just let it go. I had to fight back. I stared at you. I argued that all I wanted to do was eat my cupcake so I could bench when I was done. I argued because I could. It was a dream–my chance to do things I couldn’t do in real life. Then I woke up.
I sat in bed trying to figure out why I had this dream. It’s four O’clock in the morning, and memories of something that happened 20 years ago and hundreds of miles away are finding a way into my head. This was not always a dream. When I was 11 years old, you did this to me in school. You were my principal, and I couldn’t have been getting up to get a cupcake, because you didn’t have cupcakes, but it was something just as mundane. I don’t remember all the details of that event, only that at one point, the entire lunchroom–hundreds of children–sat in silence, looking at me, as you stood 2 feet in front of me and yelled at me over the microphone. I didn’t argue. I turned red, began to cry quietly, and sat down in my place. You probably didn’t think that 20 years later I’d be awoken from my sleep by this memory.
Well Rabbi, If only I had known then what I know now. I would have pointed out that if I was your own son, things would have played out differently. Not only would you have refrained from publicly repremanding me, but you would have been concerned that I was still hungry at the end of the meal. But we don’t send our children to school to be loved. We send them to school to be taught–not only to read and to write, but to obey and to conform. This is the “hidden curriculum” I learned about so many years later. You learn to raise your hand. You learn to walk in a line. You learn to not stand out. You learn not to be yourself.
Well, I’ve always stood out. I can’t remember who started, but I imagine it was me. I was the class clown–a real smart ass. I singled myself out. Who knows why. Was it for attention? I don’t know. Your were supposed to know. You were the expert on children. You were supposed to know how to handle a child like me. Well, you certainly failed. You never fixed me. It became an ongoing battle. I became the trouble maker in school. I was suspended more times than I can count. I found myself in meetings in your office with my parents, teachers, other students. I graduated, but had not been educated. Sure I knew my math, science, and history. In fact, I was an A student in those subjects. You could not understand why I was consistently failing in Hebrew language and jewish studies. I mean how blind can you be? Did you think I had some mental block when it came to religious subjects? As far as your hidden curriculum went, I was an utter failure. The funny thing is, I wasn’t a bad kid. Other kids in my class would get into fist fights, or play cruel jokes on the weaker kids, or on our teachers. When I wasn’t doing my homework, or paying attention in class, I was doing things I can only dream of my child doing. I used to write poetry and draw pictures. My poems were about fairies and trees and reflections in lakes (those are the ones I remember), and my drawings were not of comic book characters killing one another, but of deer and birds and rolling hills. Sure I was different.
In summer camp, I was different too. I used to sneek off to catch frogs and snakes by the lake. I would wander through the woods learning the different trees. I would study the bugs and the birds and wonder at the way the woods became denser the deeper I walked into them. I also sat in the fields and wrote poetry, and would draw for hours filling sketchbook after sketchbook. But of course, I was a trouble-maker too. I got in trouble for holding hands with girls, for not being where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. I even lit my councelor’s shoes on fire–well we all did, I was just caught holding the lighter.
My trouble-making continued into highschool. I was kicked out of one highschool because I pulled down my pants in class (I was wearing boxer shorts). I stole the plaque from one of the rabbi’s doors and colored in the letters in his name. I was getting worse. But still, when I look back on it, the crowd I was never a part of, was the crowd smoking on the roof, or doing drugs at parties. I went to those same parties, but stayed away from the drugs. Instead, I enjoyed the dancing. I loved the feeling of losing myself in the music–of letting the beat move my body in ways that didn’t make sense in any other context. I hung out with all the smokers, but never when they smoked. They were into crude jokes and cursed like sailors. I stayed away from all that. I also stayed away from basketball and hockey (I had a mean slapshot, but developed that on my own, and never tried out for the team). Instead, I spent my time at museums, and reading about animals and nature. I finally finished highschool after my junior year and went to a local community college. Highschool had failed me too. Not only was I still a trouble-maker, but you let it affect my grades too. I didn’t fail. I just wasn’t the excellent student I had always been. You might, at this point, say that I should blame myself and not you or the school for those things. I used to agree. But now I don’t. You see I was a tough case. I was hard to control. You couldn’t do it. You wanted to change me, but couldn’t. So you convinced me that it was my fault. If I wasn’t interested in changing, then you wouldn’t be able to change me. You made me feel guilty about it. But I still didn’t give in. Apparently there was something I needed that I wasn’t getting. It was your job to figure out what that was. You had no idea what that was. I didn’t know what that was either. That didn’t stop you from telling me that you undertsood me better than I understood myself. You accused me of thinking I “had all the answers.” The only answer you had for me was conformity. You offered one solution, I was unwilling to accept it, so all my problems became my fault. Any pain I experienced was my own doing. I actually hated myself for it. Why did I keep doing this to myself? Despite the guilt, I fought to maintain my identity. I got angry. That made me a bad kid–a rebel.
Well I’m through with the anger and the guilt. From here, I can look back on it all and see clear as day that I succeeded despite you. The yeshiva educational system failed me. Not the other way around. Since you last saw me I have done all sorts of terrible things. I’ve smoked cigarrettes and experimented with drugs. I’ve stayed out late. I’ve been to dangerous places alone and nobody knew where I was. I’ve spoken my mind and expressed my beliefs and disbeliefs. I have, for as long as I can remember, been different. I still am different. If you want to see how your bad kids turn out, you can get to know me now. You never bothered to learn who I was then, but you sure knew who you wanted me to be. But, alas, you’ve failed. You’ve failed me and you’ve failed yourself. But I haven’t failed you because through it all, I’ve been a good person. I’ve been generous, caring, and true. I’m a good husband and a father. I learned all your laws, your bible, your talmud. I know math. I know science. I enjoy reading and writing. I’m an artist and a poet. I’ve been religious and an atheist. I’ve been a student in community college and two Ivy league universities, a farmer, a soldier and doctor. I know who I am. I always have. I have also always known who you wanted me to be. You wanted me to be you and I’m glad that I’m not.