Pride & Prejudice & Seminary

I used to love The Importance of Being Ernest, because it seemed like a farce about shidduchim; it was super-important to be something you weren’t because that is what was ostensibly desired. 

But the truth is, being a Bais Yaakov maidel is more like being stuck in a Jane Austen novel: perpetually trying to “fit in” in order to maintain or gain social status. Worrying about what the neighbors will think. And losing sleep over your eligibility. 

They start you young, and it doesn’t rub everyone the right way. Here’s some reminiscing from Leeba Weisberg. 

About halfway through 9th grade at Bais Yaakov of Barely-Out-of-Town, I noticed the older students acting strangely one afternoon. The 12th graders were usually the calm and collected ones — the mature students we lowly 9th graders were meant to look up to. But today they were chattering nervously, biting nails, slamming locker doors shut harder than usual. They were a uniformed wave of unsuccessfully repressed anxiety. Of course voices lowered to whispers as teachers passed. But I knew something was definitely up.

So I did what I always did when I sensed I was out of the loop. (Which was often.) I asked my friend Dina who had eleven siblings — most of whom had gone to our school once upon a time. She had an honorary doctorate in everything Bais Yaakov as far as I was concerned.

Dina grabbed my hand, pulled me into an empty classroom, hastily shut the door and said “You don’t know?!”

“No, I have no idea,” I responded, feeling even more clueless than before.

“The 12th graders are getting their seminaries acceptance letters tonight. Most of the best seminaries send them at the same time on purpose.”

“So what? Aren’t there lots of seminaries? If you don’t get into one you can always get into another one, right?”

Dina looked aghast. “But there are only a few top seminaries. And it matters a lot for shidduchim. Getting into the right seminary shows everyone what kind of girl you are and what kind of boy you want to marry. It affects your whole future.”

The thought had never occurred to me before. Did I even want to go to seminary? What kind of seminary? I was fourteen and still relieved that I had gotten into high school. I felt a little sick — like I had been punched in the gut.

For the last several years before high school, all the teachers ever seemed to talk about was getting into high school. Sure some of it was along the lines of “You better master that and study hard because you’ll need it for high school”. But far more was like “How can you let your socks slouch like that, Ruchy?!! You’ll never get into Bais Yaakov looking like that!” or “If you don’t start behaving yourself I’ll tell Bais Yaakov not to accept you!”. It was all “do this” and “don’t do that” in the name of getting into high school.

I had cleared that hurdle. I (mostly) kept out of trouble. I wore the long socks. I managed to seem moderately ‘aidel’. I studied well enough to pass the entrance exam and my yeshivish Hebrew was passable. When I was told at my interview that I was invited to attend, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was done. I was free. My life didn’t revolve around ‘getting into Bais Yaakov’ anymore.

And now, only a few months into my school year a new hurdle was set in front of me: Getting into seminary. Would it ever end? Getting into high school, then getting into seminary, then getting a good shidduch, then getting my children into the right kindergarten, getting them into the right yeshiva and on and on and on forever? Would I have to worry about fitting the mold until I was dead? Would I be closing the curtains to watch a movie at age 75 out of fear my grandchildren won’t get a good shidduch? Was this any way to live? Was it the way I wanted to live?

“Are you okay, Leeba?”

Dina was tapping me on the shoulder.

“Oh, I’m fine” I lied.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah….it’s just that I don’t know if I want to go to seminary. I might want to go straight to college or just start working or something.”

“Um…..” Dina looked a bit uncomfortable, like I had just said I thought four suns revolved around the earth.“Okay….just don’t tell anyone, okay?”

And we never spoke of it again.

Pride & Prejudice & Seminary

The Time I Accidentally Made the Principal Permit a Sleepover Party

This story is from Esther, who went back and taught at her very own elementary school after graduation. Even then, she still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the system. 

In elementary school, after a few debacles when girls used birthday party invitations to snub other girls, as pre-teens will do, a rule was created: either the entire class is invited to  your birthday party, or you don’t invite any classmates at all.

For those same social-regulating ends and for reasons of not pretending like a girl’s bas mitzvah is the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah, all bas mitzvah parties were forbidden. My mother, sister, aunts, and female cousins threw me a party anyway, but no classmates were invited.

It never really occurred to me to question the school’s right to limit our out-of-school activities.

A Bais Yaakov teacher is not just an educator of regular school stuff but is also a spiritual guide and judge. Her duty is to mold the bas Yisroel to be the best she can be, and that means having a say in every part of her students’ lives.

But the absurdity struck me when I was teaching eighth grade in my former elementary school.

In my second (and last) year of teaching eighth grade, one of my classes came to me towards the end of the year with a dilemma. They had been in the process of arranging a graduation sleepover for the whole class. Everything was arranged, and then somehow one of the principals found out about their plans.

She said “b’shum ofen,” in no way possible could they have an unsupervised sleepover. If they wanted to do this, they had to find a member of the hanhala who would agree to stay and supervise the entire night.

They had asked many teachers, of course sticking to the younger and unmarried ones, but no one even considered it. They were mostly amused that the girls expected a teacher to consider something like that. So they appealed to me to come at 11pm and stay until 7am, when the hostess’s mother would wake up and take over.

I agreed.

I went to the principal and told her I had agreed to supervise. She looked at me in disbelief and laughed at my naiveté. I just stood there, totally confused.

She sighed. “I only told them that because I didn’t think any teacher would agree to do something like this!”

“Oh. Um…I mean, it’s not a problem for me to do it, if they want to have their graduation sleepover…”

“Well,” she said, shaking her head in chagrin, “there’s nothing we can do now. I told them they could have their sleepover if they find someone, so we have to let them do it. It’s a shame. This sleepover should never happen. Who would have thought any teacher would agree!”

I almost pointed out that if she wanted that to have happened, she should have warned the teachers before the girls asked us. But then I realized that every other teacher had implicitly understood, as evidenced by their amusement at the thought of the request. Rather than further revealing my own misplaced hashkafos and priorities, I kept quiet.

At the sleepover, as you might imagine, very little sleeping happened. The girls engaged in all kinds of shenanigans, and my supervision was sorely needed. I confiscated two  cellphones and a Gameboy. And then pretended I didn’t see right through it when a couple of girls delightedly lied to me about what a DS is, once I had revealed my ignorance. I may not have known exactly what it was, but it was  some kind of electronic game, wasn’t it?

I should have confiscated it. But that was the principal’s “should,” not mine.  So I just left the room and “didn’t hear” their shrieks of “Oh my God, I can’t believe she doesn’t know what this is!”

Sometime around 3am or so, I got pulled into a conversation with three or four girls about the merits of eating glue. Don’t ask, I have no idea what was going on. One girl spun a whole yarn about how she used to regularly eat glue, only to reveal at the end that she is a disturbingly good liar. And I found out a few days later that one girl used her camera to video me. I lost a lot of dignity and had a lot of fun.

Most of my time that night was spent making sure the basement door stayed closed and the noise level didn’t reach too far above deafening, so the parents sleeping two floors above would stay that way. I spent some time convincing girls to move into the other room if they wanted to make noise so that the girls who wanted to sleep could have quiet, and then convincing the girls who wanted to sleep that they probably actually didn’t want to sleep at their once-in-a-lifetime graduation sleepover.

The next afternoon, at graduation practice, you could totally see the effects of the terrible sleepover. They were all sleepy-eyed, and girls who hadn’t spoken much to each other all year spent much of the practice time with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders. These “unruly teenagers” who the principal didn’t trust alone at a sleepover had used the opportunity to build their achdus and ahava for one another. She should have been proud.

The Time I Accidentally Made the Principal Permit a Sleepover Party