I feel like I’m young again – being moved to outrage, feeling the urge to get up onto my soapbox. I just wish I knew a way to do something about it.
This Malky Klein story, is tragic. The first I heard of it was my sister telling me about a shiur she listened to about her story and I found the details so incredulous and ridiculous I didn’t believe it, until I saw who the speak was, R’ YY Jacobson, very reputable, and not one to exaggerate and conjecture. I just couldn’t believe these puny reasons schools found to torture this girl.
But it’s not a new story – look around, talking to a few people, everyone knows someone, or has their own horror story(ies), myself included.
The system is messed up, I don’t trust it. That’s one reason why I teach, so girls can have one class that I’ll love them regardless of their grades or what the school thinks they are. I make sure to slip in at every opportunity what an awful student I was, how I failed my way through high school, messaging the girls, High School doesn’t define you as a person, you can be amazing and successful regardless of your grades or status in high school (never mind studies revealing that it’s the popular people who end up unhappier later on in life).
But it’s disingenuous really. Because I know that if I tried, I could’ve done it. If I cared even a moment, I could’ve been the top of the class. But I didn’t. And the area that I truly struggled in – math, did bring me down, did make me question my intelligence. If I was as smart as everyone said I was, why couldn’t I remember the steps to a formula.
People are suggesting things like creating different tracks, academic and vocational. They’re well-intentioned but naïve. Not just the American culture, but particularly the Jewish culture values intelligence above all. How many results do you get from Google when you put in “Are Jews Smarter” or some iteration of the theme. Even if they make two tracks, the academic track will be the prized one, and the academically challenged (not dumb, never dumb, learning disabilities don’t make a person stupid) students will be left second best again. Yes, they’ll be in a more welcoming less pressured environment, but they’ll still know they’re second in society’s eyes (and who would ever acquiesce to being in the vocational track, who would marry them, because everyone knows you need an IQ of 180 to be a good wife, mother and person).
People suggest less stress on academics – that’s a double edged sword. While it’s more inclusive to the left end of the bell curve, it disenfranchises children who do succeed academically, you enjoy the challenge, who need the stimulation, who derive their self-worth from their accomplishments the same way other measure their worth by their lack. (which is another problem for another day)
There’s no easy fix, what’s required is a cultural shift, a revolution of thought. The thought is out there, but it’s harder to instill, feels to feel-good to be true, and to some, almost antithetical to their Jewish values when they quote (I forget who) “10,000 go in, 1 becomes a gadol.” [referring to yeshivos] And I believe the Chazaon Ish who said, “Every child should be taught as if he’s the next gadol hador.” It’s blasphemous to many to deny these sage words, so we pressure every child.
As an English teacher, maybe I’m more sensitive to language and word choice, but there’s a lot of wiggle room and interpretation in those statements, that don’t leave to the obvious conclusion most people reach – Academic Excellence.
Focusing on Growth Oriented mindset. The research on it, is amazing, but yes, it takes more patience, and rephrasing and resisting language and culture we’re so used to, but it empowers people. And particularly in the Litvish culture, we focus so much on the intellectual aspects of Yiddishkeit, the learning, the intensity, the depth, the mind. We often forget the core – the neshama, the ahavas yisroel, the chessed, the character building. It’s second – part of the extracurricular program, not the curriculum.
How many times have I sat in teacher’s meeting, were they discussed jobs and positions to offer various girls, and invariably the girls at the top of the academic ladder were always chosen. If someone else was mentioned there was a long discussion of “can she handle it – balance the workload.” And from the goals they set for their students, those questions are valid, academics, college, professional opportunities come first. But if they looked at their students as people, without considering their earning potential (never mind that intelligence is not the biggest indicator of future success) they’d realize that who cares about “handling” the workload. Will the girl do a good job, will she positively influence others, what will it mean to her self-worth.
Culturally we need to move away from the intelligence is primary attitude. It’s overrated, studies show that. Not suggesting it doesn’t make a difference in people’s lives, but it’s A LOT less significant than the value people pin to it.
I don’t know how to implement any of this. I don’t know how shift the culture. I’m not even sure how to do in in my own classroom. But I know something needs to be done. Or Malky Klein will just be another name among many.