Ninth grade can be an angsty time for teens. A new school, surrounded by new people, without the structure or friendships they’re used to. They feel lonely and depressed.
Or so we were told.
I didn’t have this problem. My main posse had come to high school with me, and as a confirmed introvert, my need to socialize was low. During lunch and breaks I usually pulled out a book and read.
One teacher, our 9th grade mechaneches, took it upon herself to crusade for us lonely and friendless types. She’d remind us on a daily basis that it was nothing to be ashamed of: we were all lonely and friendless. She urged us to approach one another and initiate conversation. She called these “neck exercises:” you were supposed to turn your neck, find someone sitting alone, and go talk to them.
She even went so far as to assign us a fellow student we were obligated to call that week. (No, that wasn’t an awkward phone call at all. “Hi I’m calling you to pretend to be friendly but really because its homework. How are you doing?”)
A few months into the year, she took 30 minutes out of chumash class (“the most important class you will ever take, except maybe halacha”) to lecture us on how divided and unfriendly our grade was – more than any other she’d ever seen. We were also, therefore, the saddest and loneliest.
I don’t know how anyone else reacted to this heavy-handed approach, but for me it did two things:
Firstly by the end of the year I started worrying that maybe I really didn’t have friends, and I hadn’t noticed? I would count my friends on my fingers and wonder if I had enough.
Second, it made me defensive against any overtures of friendship, because I assumed anybody who approached me was doing “neck exercises.”
I was regularly sitting alone and reading during breaks and recess. This meant I was regularly classified as lonely by neck-exercisers, and my reading would be interrupted by a chirpy do-gooder. This irritated me on three counts: (1) I didn’t want to be anyone’s chesed case (2) I wanted to read my book and (3) I didn’t want to be friends with any do-gooder, so by showing up, a student was wasting both of our time.
Sometimes I’d look around the classroom and try to spot someone I did want to befriend. But the school had screened well for a specific type, and the only people who didn’t seem to fit the mold were others, like me, who had come up from the elementary school. I hadn’t been friends with all of those students in elementary school, so they could be new friends. But according to the mechaneches, that didn’t count.
Then one day, I found her. My perfect shidduch. My new friend. She was called on to read a journal entry aloud in English class, and she read an ode admiring the lowly ant. Yes, the six-legged, ever-industrious ant. I was smitten. It was love at first listen. I went over to Devorah at lunch and said hi. She looked up from her book with an irritated and defensive mien. It was obvious that she thought I was making her my chesed case. Rebuffed, I retreated.
The best way to make friends is not to cold call random people who know you are calling out of a sense of duty. The best way is to bond over shared and mutually interesting activities. Devorah and I were thrown together several times over the year, working on shabbaton newsletters and similar projects. We became friends organically.
Even an aggressive mechaneches can’t ruin a match that’s meant to be.
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