The “average” is the message

Yesterday, I posted a link on my Facebook page that was an opinion piece written by a woman who titled the article “How Bais Yaakov Almost Ruined My Life.” Attached to that article, I also wrote a comment that seems to have hit a nerve. It led to a discussion that brought up many important points. I decided that beyond a three line post on Facebook, I would write an article about that here in order to broaden the dialogue.

A few lines from the author’s piece will suffice to illustrate her message:

It started when I was in first grade. I was an active kid with bright orange curls, and I’d never sit in one place long enough for my mother to even attempt to brush my hair. I was six years old, the youngest in my class, when my teacher called me to the front of the room. “This”, she informed the rest of the class, “is what a Bas Yisrael does NOT look like.” She then proceeded to braid my hair in front of everyone else as I did my best to hold back my tears.

She proceeds to give an example of “messages” she was given in her school:

As we got older, we were split into two classes. The “high” class and the “low” class. Premeditated or not, the “high” class all had fathers in Kollel and lived in the same religiously insulated community. My daddy was a doctor, and it didn’t matter that he finished all of Shas and had a chavrusah every night. My house was a mere ten minute walk from the neighborhood the other girls lived in, but that didn’t make a difference. I wasn’t “Bais Yaakov” and that was it.

She sums up her overall feelings and says:

In Bais Yaakov, you were either they way they wanted you to be, or you were wrong. Until I left the school – until I was sixteen years old – I actually thought that wearing short sleeves meant that you were irreligious. I thought that by skipping davening, I was “off the derech.” The girls who were wearing nail polish, jeans, even sandals – they were either already a lost cause or close to it.

Let me make one thing clear from the outset: What I have to say here is NOT about Bais Yaakov, nor is it about any one particular school at all. It is a “holistic” message to parents (and educators, but mostly to parents) about their child’s education.

Listen to your kids and hear what they have to say. I am not referring to the complaints of too much homework; the day is too long; the food in the cafeteria stinks….while all of those are issues to be discussed and dealt with, there are other, much more important items they may be TRYING to tell you and  that you might not hear.

When they speak about things that they are being told in school and messages that they are being given, PLEASE listen to them. What messages are they being given and what lessons are they being taught in the school? Is the message that they are hearing  that they must strive for “average” in the school, meaning, that as long as they conform, then they are the “good crowd” and anything that does not fit the school’s mold is “no good” ? Are they being taught Midrash Aggada as if it were fact and not, at times, meant to instruct as a parable? Are they being “scared” in service of Hashem? Are they being taught LOVE of Hashem or merely to act without thinking, like some form of drone?

And what of questions: Are your children being encouraged to ASK questions? Are they shunned by teachers when they do? Do their teachers ever say (as does Rashi!) “I just don’t know” ?

No, not only in Bais Yaakov schools—ALL schools. Sometimes the messages they are getting plant seeds of rebellion, doubt and oftentimes lead to a child going off the derech. NO SCHOOL IS IMMUNE to this. Wrong messages get out there…sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose.

(One example of a private message I received, and reprint here with her permission, sums of the danger in not knowing the messages your kids are getting in school. I went to XXXXX for High School in XXX.  I lasted about 2 months [although my mom wouldn’t let me switch out till 10th grade]. They actually sent me off the derech. I asked why in a halacha class — as in what sort of kavana I should be having — and was promptly called an apikorus [a heretic]. In front of the class. No attempt to find out what I was asking or why, just an instantaneous label. It took from 9th grade till age 20 to recover, and get back to any level of observance at all.)

As parents, part of the involvement in your child’s education is not only knowing what grades they got or when the next test is. MORE importantly, you need to know what messages they are getting in school that will make them a better ben/bat Torah. And if the reports you are hearing run counter to YOUR hashkafa, please speak up before it is too late and the damage is done.

There are MANY wonderful schools out there and I do not believe for a minute any one of them wishes ON PURPOSE to send someone off the derech. Yet, at the same time, it IS happening, and we need to face that fact and deal with it…now.

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.
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