Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Childhood of Potential II

Part I
Note the footnotes at the bottom. They're tangents that still play a nice role in the story.

Around December of 8th grade, most of us were busy figuring out where we wanted to go for high school. I already knew that I wanted to go to WITS, ever since a wonderful weekend of fun when my brother graduated in 1992, four and a half years earlier. [Ez: Woah. Scary that this is all so long ago. I feel old.] Somehow, despite my lack of stature in the class, six others were to join me on this shabbaton in Milwaukee - one of whom had a brother graduating there but was doubtful about going himself, and five others who were simply very interested. By the end of the weekend, all but that one were reasonably sure they wanted to spend their next four years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 1

Near the end of that weekend, we were given a series of tests - Math, English, and Gemara. The first two I had no trouble with; the latter was given my a Rebbe who had a reputation of being particularly tough for these bechinos, including some kids who had come out crying. I do recall one of the guys I was with doing so, which was surprising as he was one of the smartest kids in our class; but I didn't think much of it. What I remember from that bechina was being surprised that he was in fact asking tougher questions on material we hadn't really learned, but still came out thinking that I'd done pretty well, particularly by quickly figuring the material out on the spot.

By the end of February, we'd all received our acceptances and everyone knew where they'd be going next year, which naturally led to senioritis. I recall our 8th grade Rebbe noting that his career in the HAC had come full circle - from a class of great kids nine year earlier [ironically, including my brother] who had spent half a year testing him before finally calming down and giving him one of his best semesters as a teacher, to our class, which he felt might be the greatest set of kids with potential he'd seen, have a great first semester before coasting once we'd gotten accepted to high schools. One particular incident sticks out in my mind, though, that has to do with me personally.

In addition to all the math achievements and overall achievement I'd had in the secular studies, I was doing very well in his classes as well. Despite sitting in the back corner, drawing, staring out the window, snacking on Groovin's food in front of me, going to the nurse's office for an hour a day due to headaches, 2 and otherwise doing nothing, I still had only once scored under a 90 on a test - an 89.5 when I missed a few days because I was sick. My Rebbe asked to speak to me near the end of the year - as he did with everybody - and, as was common, he invited me to come to his house on a Shabbos [he lived on the next street] and we'd take a walk and talk.

By now you can imagine my shock and surprise when within a couple of minutes he states,
"You know, I had to convince WITS to accept you. They weren't sure they wanted to."
I was flabbergasted. I didn't know what to think: Huh?! WITS? How was that possible? I was... I was the best kid in the class! I was smart! I was a good kid, never did anything wrong, never really got in trouble... My brother had not only gone to WITS, but he'd just spent most of the next five years in their Beis Medrash, had been the dorm counselor, had won the award they gave out for to people who exemplified middos (and I was nicer than him, ha!), and everyone knew that WITS liked taking brothers, barring trouble with the older one(s). How could this be?!

But I waited for him to explain.
"They know you're smart and a really nice guy, but they think you're lazy. You don't put any effort into anything you're doing. They were going to reject you based on that. But I told them that that was their job - they need to teach you not to be lazy. They need to challenge you - I can't do it here in this class, but that's their job, their responsibility for the next four years. I kept pushing for you, and they finally agreed to take you and try. But you need to do it - you can't be lazy there, you can't do what you've been doing here. You have the greatest potential, but you need to learn to try."
Welcome to the most hated and repetitive word of my life. Potential. 3 [spit]

To be continued...

1 Interestingly, four of us went, while one was rejected. The five of us are all very close, and that one did extremely well in the yeshiva he ended up attending, though he encouraged his younger brother to go to WITS when he got in a few years later. Now he's a reader of - and rare contributor to - this blog. The sixth one did very well where he had wanted to attend. The seventh was given an interesting choice by his parents, who struggled with the idea of him going away for high school; he was told to choose what he preferred, WITS or a local more left-wing Modern Orthodox high school that was not producing as well as many of its constituents had hoped. He debated for a while, then chose the latter - and proceeded to quickly change his style of dress, his actions, and just about everything about him. A few years later, he was out of high school but still got his GED, went to Israel and wasn't particularly successful (v'hamyvin yavin), and I believe he is no longer religious. It's particularly sad because I felt he was one of the nicest and sharpest people I have known, and I thought we were similar in a lot of ways back then. If there's anyone who had potential, it's him. Interestingly, I have no clue what he's up to now, but I still would not be shocked to one day see his name in headlines somewhere for founding some brilliant start-up company or the like. He's that type.

2 I had bad headaches starting in 4th grade and lasting pretty much until Israel, with a few here and there since then. I realized later on that they were likely migraines, and there's a nice possibility that I got them because I really didn't want to be wherever I was.

3 Since I've had some comments both online and off jumping to conclusions, I'll just note that the above reaction was my reaction in the past, not as of now, though I still can't stand hearing it. Thankfully I've matured beyond that point, and obviously, any point in this series.


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  2. Ezzie,

    This is a breathtaking post. I would never have guessed this about you. More importantly, you made it very real for the reader- just as you were shocked, I was shocked. I was thinking, "How could it be possible?"

    Anyway, this is fascinating. Pray continue.

  3. I'm fairly amazed, I have to say. Usually schools don't notice the laziness unless the grades are low.

    I had trouble getting into high school too, but I did my own fighting. I had poor grades from a very intensive program I'd attended in a public school in 7th grade. When I say intensive, I never wrote, in high school or college, a paper that had such heavy requirements as the paper I was expected to write in 7th grade...(and eventually got a D on, which was a large chunk of my grade for both English and History)

    And my high school has/had all kinds of reputation issues, but nobody questions their academics.

  4. this is really interesting. I went to the same school the whole way through and anyway the system here differs to the american system, where you can move to a particular high school at ninth grade. it's a totally different situation to being basically stuck at the same place, with the same people and with very little choice because of the limited schools here.

    i hear you on the "lazy, has potential" thing. that's where i had problems all of high school (even though all was fine in the end). it's amazing what happened at university when the course was exactly what i wanted to study.

    can't wait to hear the next installment!

  5. "I was flabbergasted."

    Really!? Flabbergasted? Y'know, I don't think I've ever been flabbergasted. Stunned, sure; staggered, from time to time; bewildered, astounded but never flabbergasted. Huh.

    "I didn't know what to think: Huh?! WITS? How was that possible? I was... I was the best kid in the class! I was smart! I was a good kid, never did anything wrong,"

    Ah, yes. Awash am I in the glow of the famed Goldish humility :)

  6. "his parents...told [him] to choose what he preferred, WITS or a local more left-wing Modern Orthodox high school that was not producing as well as many of its constituents had hoped. He debated for a while, then chose the latter"

    Seriously, who lets their son stay in Cleveland for high school; and who would actually choose it given the option not to.
    Gotta wonder about those kind of people.

  7. Chana - You'd have never guessed? How come? :)

    Trilcat - That's one of the things that amazes me as well. That they noted it in such a short weekend...! I still wouldn't say I had trouble getting in, though.

    Sarah - That's certainly true (the what you WANT to study part). But this was a bit more than that. I should note that girls in the US generally continue in the school they're in through HS, and/or have schools that are almost automatic to attend. In Cleveland, girls in the HAC generally go on to Yavne without even thinking about other options.

    G - Yeah, well, I've seen your dad look flabbergasted. Heck, I think I've seen you, too.

    Hey, I was in 8th grade. All 8th graders have egos. :P

    Yeah, you do have to wonder about those nutjobs. But you actually were pretty tight with his brother back in Mesivta, if I recall correctly... and Mesivta no longer existed.

  8. Ugh. I also hated that word, "potential". That elusive term for what I supposedly had so much of, but wouldn't actualize. What my younger sister had, and lived up to in areas where I didn't. It symbolized everything everyone expected of me and that I never really lived up to. I still hate the word.

  9. ah, i guess it's different with guys who want a school that has the right religious and secular studies for them.