Shayna circa 2005-06,
I’ve been thinking about life in Modern Orthodox high school/prep school. And I want to talk about:
1. That 45% you got on your math test
How it felt like a huge, shameful disappointment to you and your parents and your teachers and your college advisor. But who knew you could fail and it would be so inconsequential in the long run.
You sit in math class struggling to keep your eyes open, biting your nails and doodling tiny hearts that make up one big heart. You go to the bathroom three or four times to escape. You wonder if anyone else notices how checked-out you are. Or worse —if everyone thinks you’re paying attention and trying really hard to understand and still failing because you’re so dense.
Let them think what they want. You’re not stupid or lazy or unmotivated. You just don’t like precalculus.
2. How getting dressed in the morning is loaded
You spend a long time getting dressed in the morning. You try lots of things on, alternating between baggy sweaters and fitted black V-necks. You’re trying hard to calibrate that impossible balance between sexy and cute. Then while running late to school and sweating beneath your winter coat in the freezing cold, you feel ashamed of how your vanity has interfered with your functionality.
It is so hard to recognize and resist the external pressures that cause you to see yourself in a slutty-chaste binary. You are not petty or insane for being effected by them.
3. It’s REALLY ok that you didn’t get into an Ivy League
It feels so important that you go to a school with a “name”. So important that you choose Sarah Lawrence over Binghamton because it felt closer to that WASPY, elitist experience you thought college should be.
How did this happen? High school is teeming with students in older siblings’ Harvard, Yale and Penn sweatshirts. College advisors proudly list the number of students who go to these schools each year. There are students staying awake all night, taking un-prescribed Adderall and literally pulling out their hair—all to make sure they get into one of these schools.
You feel shame that your “reach schools” are other students’ “safety schools”. But you shouldn’t because your sanity; your approach towards academics is both adequate and healthy. You are smart enough to know that food and sleep and relaxation are necessary.
4. You didn’t cause the weird class issues on your art class trip to Paris
It’s February in Paris, 2006. It rains every day. You watch your classmate smoke a cigarette out the window of the Novotel, inspired by a Godard film on the syllabus of your American history class. You don’t quite know how or why you are in Paris.
The trip is ostensibly to look at art. Cold and wet, you make your way through the Louvre with your crotchety, wheelchair bound art teacher who only allows your socialite classmate to push her through the museum.
On this trip you know which of your classmates’ parents donated money so that you were able to afford the ticket. You saw who was able to buy clothes on the Champs-Elysées, who had been to Europe before.
Any confusion you feel makes perfect sense because there is some weird class issues going on, and you didn’t cause them.
5. You’re not a prude OR a slut
It’s exciting to feel attractive and to begin to see yourself as desirable. And then there’s plenty that is confusing and strange like:
- When you take the elevator up to the 6th floor with a male teacher, get to class and then hear your name called into the office for a dress code violation. “Your shirt is too low,” the secretary says. You think you’re somewhat at fault for choosing the black v-neck—too far on the slut end of the scale.
- Sometimes attention from classmates is invasive, unwanted, and debasing: “you could be so hot if you…”, “Why don’t we get drunk and I’ll help you study for that test ; )” If you feel uncomfortable, nervous or nauseous, it’s not your fault, it’s THEIRS.
- Just because your first boyfriend is a kind of shy, bookish student in honors Talmud class, does not mean you have to trust everything he says. You’re afraid of being impolite and seeming prudish (again, too prudish vs too slutty issues!). Meanwhile, even as a kid raised in a religious home, he’s been socialized to push further with girls. Neither of you learned a thing about consent, or considered the topic of sexual progression to be so politically and emotionally fraught.
Trust your gut. You’re not alone in these feelings—you’re (unfortunately) not the first girl to be made to feel prudish or slutty arbitrarily. And later you’ll work towards debunking this prude-slut myth.
6. It’s ok to break the rules
High school is demanding—harder than college and graduate school and work. But you make good decisions like eating enough and sleeping as much as you can. And you make time for your friendships. Many of which were formed while skipping morning prayers to hide out in the bathroom stalls/under the sink and make up dances and write Rahel Haneviah, a satirical addition to the prophetic books. Teachers who catch you will ask why you’re rebelling and if you believe in God. But all you wanted was to hang out with your friends. And this was an excellent choice.
For more “Letters to my Teen Self” see here.
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