Monday, June 04, 2007

A Childhood of Potential

A couple of small asides, first... I've noticed, particularly lately, that among the new 'circles' of the J-blogosphere, for lack of a better word, are a number of really well-written, young [as in younger than my near-24 years of aged wisdom], bright, and clear-thinking college students. In addition to our friends Chana, SJ, Pobody's Nerfect, Fudge, and Moshe, who have been around a while, there's Scraps, The Apple, Erachet, Princess, and more. Lately, there have been a few posts that have touched on memories from schools past, particularly the different set of struggles faced by people who are smart, so... here's some of my own thoughts.

Growing up, I was one of those "straight-A" students who never had to try. I knew multiplication by Pre-K, and beat 30-year olds in Othello after watching them play one game... when I was 5. I distinctly remember one occasion in first grade in the Hebrew Academy, when we were practicing reading Hebrew words off a page of a large number of words, when the morah (teacher) used to use a timer with a buzzer. Most people got through about 1/3 of the page before the buzzer went off. One day, another teacher had come in to ask Morah Frumie a question while I started reading. I finished the page in seconds, with most of the buzzer time still remaining, and Morah Frumie proudly showed me off to the other teacher, who was astonished... and that's basically how things went for many years.

By third grade, they split a handful of my class off into its own group for math enrichment while everyone else learned fractions and the like. When we finished the (tricky) logical problems, we'd get to go to recess. This usually translated into me doing a good percentage while the others did a few, and then we'd all go to recess. I didn't really take math from 4th-6th grades; the few memories I have from any part of school was drawing, particularly football plays, lots of headaches, and helping to convince many a teacher that they were not in the right profession. Each year, they would place a number of us in a statewide math contest where we'd always place in the top 10%, often in the top few schools.

So far, so good, right? Well, no. I wasn't getting what I needed in terms of school and life, which was to be challenged, and I wasn't doing too well with a few of my friends, either. My best friend had gone to Israel for a year in 4th grade, leaving me in a bit of a rut in terms of friends; the change in the makeup of the two classes for our grade did as well. I got picked on a bit and was definitely cast as an outsider all-around, even though I still had plenty of friends; I lived in the wrong neighborhood (re: not wealthy or trendy, no designer clothes, and friends with those who were too yeshivish) for a lot of them and wasn't "frum enough" (re: no hat, srugi/leather kippa, polo or T-shirts instead of button-down) for the ones I lived around. My best friend had come back for 5th grade, but they left for good after 6th to Israel, while most of the people I hung out with after school were in the other class all day. Being smart didn't help anything, nor did having a huge overbite and lisp (thank God for braces later on) - it just meant that I was either relied on to bail people out or cast as a know-it-all or nerd to get picked on.

One of the parts I found odd was how so many friends would be truly good friends when it was just the two of us... but fantastically mean when other people around, because that was the 'thing to do' to try to be one of the cool kids - put everyone else who was similar to you down. Meanwhile, some of the cool kids themselves had no reason to put on a show (everyone liked them), and they were often the nicest to me, even if that still meant I wasn't getting picked to play in the 'top' basketball or football game unless someone else was sick.

By 7th grade, everything became a bit more extreme. It was the first time they truly split the class into two for anything by level, in this case, math. It was a strange class with a stranger teacher (stories for another time), but it was a class that was right up my alley. The teacher would often offer extra-credit points to students who could answer problems he came up with... and I was quickly banned from answering every other day, as I would be the first to answer each time, giving myself a 119 average. In Gemara, myself and one other guy battled for the best average, where he had a 99.4 and I had a 99.1 or so... except we both knew that he was trying as hard as he could and I was playing finger baseball or some such thing [and keeping stats!] in the back. (That certainly didn't dissuade people from thinking me a nerd. Ah well.)

A few months into the year, we took part in a statewide contest that was considered very big. This one was on an individual level, and our teacher had high hopes that a couple of us could break 30 out of 40 on the 30-minute exam which gets progressively harder from question to question. In a practice taken on an old exam, I believe I got a 32 while a couple friends had between 29 and 31. When we took it for real, I made two careless mistakes... and only one other mistake. My 37 was second in the state of Ohio and I still remember the euphoric feeling when a few 8th graders rushed in, picked me up, and carried me around on their shoulders in celebration. But that was it - a few minutes of fame, then back to being the quiet kid that people made fun of.

The next year, my parents finally got what they had been requesting for years: A special program to challenge me further. We had had one special science program after school in 3rd grade for a handful of guys, but otherwise, the school relied mostly on its own teachers to teach at a high level (which I do think they did, as compared to most other schools). I took history on my own in the hallway, our English teacher was good and challenging, our science teacher stunk and I used to basically point that out to her in class, and I took math at the high school 3 times a week one-on-one with a good teacher they had there [and he canceled on us about once a week, so it was more like 2x/week]. We would generally play basketball for 20-25 minutes (sometimes 1-on-1 or HORSE, other times with the high school guys - remember, G?), then learn math for 15-20 minutes. In just that short period of time, I knocked out both Algebra I and Geometry, which would help a lot once I got to WITS for high school.

But this post has already gone on too long, so...

To be continued...