Raised in a Reform Jewish household, I was somewhat apprehensive about my new job: teaching English at this ultra-Orthodox girls’ high school in a religious neighborhood in New York. Outside the building that first day, I saw a gaggle of stroller-rocking mothers, wearing long dowdy skirts and distinctly unfashionable wrap-around head coverings over wigs.
The principal had already warned me that my skirts had to cover my knees, and that certain books would be off-limits—particularly those containing violence or romance. “Most students here don’t have televisions.” he added. I realized that teaching at this high school would definitely be different.
The first day went well enough—my sweet little yeshiva girls sat quietly in their chairs. They also quickly figured out, however, how to take advantage of my liberal bathroom policy (“you don’t need to raise your hand to go to the bathroom; just leave quietly”), and by week’s end, half the class was hiding out in the bathroom.
Following my students into the girls’ bathroom one day, I was struck by a large message written above the mirrors: “No Loshon Hora.” I didn’t know what this meant, but had already fingered the one other English teacher. Norma, to be my guide in this new land. Loshon hora, she explained to me, translates literally as “evil tongue.” The message was an interdiction against gossiping. This seemed amazing to me—I couldn’t imagine a public high school with a sign “no gossiping” in the bathrooms. In my experience, gossip was virtually the raison d’etre of a 14-year-old girl.
When I first found out that many of my girls would be married by age 18—right after high school—I was shocked. Not only that, I was told, but their marriages were arranged! These nuptial patterns, I saw, caused many precautions in my girls’ lives. For example, they were careful never to write anything silly next to their photos in school yearbooks. What if a matchmaker saw, and judged them on the wrong basis?
Of the few girls who went on to college, most chose a community college so that they could stay close to home. This was painful to me—given my own achievement-oriented background—to see the best and the brightest not applying to Harvard and Yale. Still, though, they took their SATs extremely seriously. College notwithstanding, they were imbued with a strong desire to excel, and to learn for the sake of learning. From a teacher’s view, this was exceptional.
The girls were also very happy to see everyone, not just themselves, get A’s (this was very different from my experiences at public school). Their generosity, think, derived partly from the traditional Jewish method of traditional Jewish method of studying Talmud in pairs—there is this sense that you arrive at understanding with others, not alone. I was also aware, though, that the ultra- Orthodox culture puts the group before the individual, and that all of my students came from families with 6, 8, 10 children. Older ones help younger ones; everyone helps everyone.
The downside of having students though, was that many girls were particularly needy of attention. I had one eleventh grader, for example, who daily stood on her chair and started singing, smack in the middle of lessons. I found out she was the middle child in a family of eleven kids.
When the girls did—however rarely—act up. it was easy to appeal to their religious convictions. These girls valued thinking through what was “proper.” Peer-pressure tended towards placating authority (not rebelling), and the degree to which students took upon themselves the task of “raising standards” was notable. Once a student asked me to take a certain book off the reading list because “dirty” words were in it. Another time a student argued that there was no reason to read The Glass Menagerie because. “I don’t feel it will make me a better person.”
Secretly I rejoiced when the girls misbehaved, and I can’t imagine the luxury of feeling this at any other school. When they chatted, passed notes, called out. claimed they hadn’t heard the bell. I privately applauded. Once two girls were caught playing hooky at a movie theater, and I was delighted.
The literal meaning of prejudice is “pre-judge,” and over time I was struck by how guilty I had been of stereotyping and prejudging these girls. They could be complicated or predictable . . . and the experience of teaching them taught me, above all else, how hard it is to be truly open to new and flexible perceptions of people in minorities. The two truant girls at the cinema surprised me. but so did my class’s uniform interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” The last line, “that has made all the difference,” was self-evident to all 27 girls in the classroom: What Frost means— obviously, they said—is that traveling one’s own road can leave one lost and discontented.
That’s probably a road not taken that even Frost never pondered.
Helen Michaelson is a writer who lives in New York. She is the author of the play “Exact Measurements. “