Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Beis Yaakov Dilemma

The following is a guest post by a Beis Yaakov graduate, watching her sister struggle through the same school where she thrived. This post is meant to explore how schools should approach education.

"I hate that place I am never going back there again. EVER!" With that proclamation, my sister slammed the door. She ran to her bedroom, but not before I noticed the tears streaming down her face. "Poor girl," I thought to myself. "Every day it is something else. She is so miserable in that school." Unfortunately, I am not shocked.

When my sister was in 8th grade, I was a kid fresh out of school. I barely knew a thing about the world, yet I begged my parents to listen to my opinion, to take me seriously. "Rivky does not belong in that school." My parents couldn't understand it. "But the school was great for you and your sisters. Why shouldn't Rivky do well there too?" I tried so hard to explain. I told them about the differences between Rivky and her older sisters. I told them about the difference in the student body, the difference in the school's policies, and mostly, the difference in my sister''s style of learning. But they simply didn't understand. So Rivky landed in Bais Yaakov.

One year later, as Rivky finishes a terribly unsuccessful, and life-altering year as a freshman in Bais Yaakov, my parents see that I was right. Now they see that Rivky should have gone to a different school. Now they see that the structure of the school was completely different from what she needed. Now they see that the rules, rather than mold her into the girl they were hoping she'd become, have destroyed her inner self. They have destroyed the self confidence she had been working to build up. Now my parents are left to wonder how a kid who doesn't have any life experience, who doesn't have any chinuch experience, can be so dead right about something like this.

This begs a question. How could I, my sisters, and countless others have gone to BY, and turned out splendidly, when Rivky, and so many of her peers have been hurt by the very same school? Where does the difference lie?


I believe there are two approaches to running a school. You can come at it with an approach of: "Well, we have policies, we have rules, and we don't make any attempt to hide them. If you have a problem with the way we run our school, or with the chinuch we give, you are welcome to send your child elsewhere. If you do chose to send your child to our school, she must adhere to our rules and accept our lessons."

Alternatively, the school can say, "we wish the student body would consist of only students who belong here, but if a girl is in our school and has a hard time with the rules, we will nonetheless try to make her feel comfortable and to thrive, and provide an environment where she is able to reach her personal peak of avodas Hashem."

The first method works to an extent. Let's explore this phenomenon, with me, someone who would be considered a BY success story. I wouldn't say I loved Bais Yaakov. I'm fact, I would say that there were a number of times when I cried and told my mother I refuse to go back. But today, looking back at my high school education, I'd say it was good.

I remember my first day of ninth grade, when the Principal got up to speak at our freshman orientation. She started out with praise for her teaching staff. "Every member of our staff, both limudei kodesh and limudei chol, are extraordinary woman. It is commonly said that the Bais Yaakov office is like a shteible." I must admit...I was impressed. Perhaps that was the earliest sign that I belonged in the school.

As I got to know the teachers, I realized that she was right. Each member of the teaching staff was an unbelievable role model, someone we knew we should strive to be like. Their level seemed high, and quite unattainable, but I saw them as people who were so real, so sincere, I wanted to be like them. I knew with some degree of certainty that even if I would stay on the bottom rung, I wanted to climb their ladder.

I remember one particular incident which made an impression on me. One of our teachers related a story. "I was at a simcha, and someone asked me my name. So I told her it's Rabinowitz. She asked if my husband is the diamond dealer." At this point, Mrs. Rabinowitz paused. Her eyes lit up and she became more animated. "So I answered her, NO! My husband is not that diamond dealer! He polishes diamonds of a different sort." I looked up at the sparkle in her eyes, and I realized that this is her essence. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Rabinowitz have made the polishing of us, their diamonds, their entire life. I was awed. I was inspired. I wanted to be just like her. No, I couldn't relate to Rebbetzin Rabinowitz, the wife of the Rosh Yeshivah, the experienced mechaneches. But I could feel her love and warmth, and I wanted to climb her ladder of avodas Hashem.

It was with aspirations like those that I was able to accept the rigidity of the school. At some point during my four years there, the princepal came to the conclusion that it wasn't enough to have a rule stating that girls should cultivate a look that is in accordance with a Bas Yisroel. She saw loopholes being utilized in every way possible. The definition of the "look of a bas yisroel" leaves a lot of room for discussion. She closed the loopholes with strict rules. First, she instituted a no drinking straight from the bottle policy. Then she made a rule limiting the length of earrings. It wasn't too long before we even had rules about the color shoes we could wear. Yet we took it in stride. We were Bais Yaakov girls, it was a distinction to be proud of, even if we did have mandatory tests on very lengthy student guides. We were learning and growing, despite, or perhaps because of, strict rules about lengths of skirts, measured with a ruler.

But again, to repeat, I belonged there. I can't pin-point the reason. Perhaps it's because I was heading in that direction. Perhaps it's because I have an easy time subjugating myself to authority. Perhaps it's because of decisions I made. Perhaps it's because of my academic success there. But just as I am unable to pinpoint the reason that I fit in, I can't pinpoint the reason that Rivky doesn't. Perhaps if I had been able to provide my parents with a better reason, she would have wound up in another school. Perhaps it's because of Rivky's rebellious nature, of the way she rejects authority. Perhaps it's because Rivky has a hard time academically, and BY is a high pressured, mark oriented school. But whatever the case is, Rivky had four older sisters who went to Bais Yaakov, she appears to be the type of girl they are looking for, and so she got accepted.

Here is where we reach the second way of being mechanech students. While my parents have absolutely no right to expect the school to adopt the second policy, they should adopt it of their own accord. Let's face it. My parents made a mistake in sending Rivky to Bais Yaakov. But now Bais Yaakov has a girl who is sitting in their classes, listening to the very lessons I was so inspired by, and scoffing. She sees the rules as restrictive, she views the lessons as extreme. And the school continues. They have every right to say "well if you don't like it, leave." And she very well might. But as long as she is in their school, listening to their classes, taking their tests, following their rules, they have a responsibility towards her. They have a responsibility to try to do the best they can with her. And if rules and regulations are not reaching her, it's time to try another method.

The school has recently instituted some new, very extreme rules. While perhaps my reaction may have been: "I don't understand it, nor do I like it, but I will accept it," her reaction, as well as so many of her classmates, many of whom do not belong there either, is quite the opposite. Rather than panting to keep up, the girls are giving up. Girl's reactions range from, "This school is restrictive, they represent authority, so all authority is restrictive." to "There is no way I will ever meet the school's expectations." Students also think to themselves "well, I will be considered a bum here, no matter what I do, so I might as well live up to that." Student's reactions may even go as far as "school represents religion, so if the school is so restrictive, then religion must be that restrictive also. I hate religion."

This might sound extreme, but it's not far fetched at all. These are the sentiments I keep hearing from today's high school girls. Isn't it a shame? Shouldn't they be made to see the beauty of Yidishkeit? If the way they taught it to me isn't working, shouldn't they be looking for alternate routes? If those very same Rebbetzins that were so inspiring to me, are now turning the girls off, shouldn't the school get some younger teachers who can relate to the challenges of a new generation?

These teachers may be amazing, smart, and dedicated women who love to teach, but if they can't even figure out how to turn a cell phone on, how do we think they will be able to understand the lure of texting someone inappropriately? If they don't know what "email" means, how will they understand social networking, chatting, and other online time wasting devices? If they haven't bought any new clothes in years, how are they supposed to really understand the pull of styles that they put under a blanket category of "untzniusdik"? While it's nice to have teachers like that, to provide a role model, a visual illustration of what they expect us to strive towards, is it fair and realistic to expect today's teens to be able to relate to these teachers? Is of fair and realistic to expect these teachers to be able to relate to today's teens?

It would seem simple to me, that a school that is constantly battling their student body to adhere to rules more, to dress differently, to behave more appropriately, should realize that their method is no longer working. So why is the school's administration blind to all of this? Why is a young girl, with no teaching experience, see something that these experienced educators can not? I believe that the answer lies in the school's success over the course of the past 40-something years. If the school and their accompanying policies have been successfully educating the last couple of generations of the community's women, shouldn't the same policies continue to work today?

Sadly, the answer, I believe, is no. Don't ask me to figure out the reason why. Don't ask me what is different about the students now, as opposed to the students of a mere five years ago. All I know, is that the sentiments are different. While the common complaint in my day was "they keep making so many rules it's hard to keep up!", the common complaint seems to have migrated over the course of the few years since my graduation. Today's students are complaining more along the lines of "there are too many rules. There is no way I can follow all of them." Doesn't that call for a change in policies?

No, the school doesn't have to change their policies. But for the sake of even one girl's happiness, for the sake of even one girl's yiddishkeit, don't you think they should?