I bumped into a demon from my past the other day.
It’s funny, the twists that life throws your way. I was taking a route I don’t usually take to the store when I rounded a corner, and there it was. My elementary school loomed in front of me. I could almost retrace every cranny on the red brick walls from memory; I even smelled the slightly sour odor of school lunch. Memories assaulted me and a bitter taste rose up in my mouth.
I was the girl who had inserted chalk into the eraser as revenge for a wrong the teacher had perpetrated. I was the girl who had been suspended, and then grounded for a month when my parents found out what had occurred. I was the archetypal “problem child”.
Every year the teachers started out with optimism, certain they would inculcate me with some sense of obedience, responsibility, or participation. But school wasn’t my thing; I couldn’t care less. And this particular school was absolutely not “my thing”; elitist, old-school stronghold that it was. I just didn’t fit the mold. In their minds, a smart child should be a studious one. Period. I eluded this stereotype, baffling them with my interest in learning but total apathy for anything school related, my desire to know coupled with lack of structure.
They wanted to change me without knowing which parts needed change, why I was so troubled. Because troubled I was. Life was no bed of roses in my family, and I suffered from undiagnosed ADD. So sooner or later I would inevitably end up in the principal’s office.
Ah, yes, the principal. Many were the encounters I’d had with this venerable individual. I bitterly recall the time another girl and I had been successfully dared by a third classmate into raiding the teacher’s secret prize stash. The principal was infuriated. When I told him of the girl who had dared me, I was told, “You liar. That girl comes from a respected family. She would never do such a thing.”
My punishment? Docked from the class field trip. My partner in crime’s punishment? Let off scot-free. Not to mention the original darer, she of the “respected family,” who also escaped any rebuke whatsoever. A child’s sense of justice had been irreparably betrayed.
Then there was the time he’d actually threatened me with corporal punishment. “Do that again and I’ll give you a slap you’ll never forget.”
This, in a Bais Yaakov!
After years of good behavior I was called into the lion’s den once more, sometime in May of eighth grade. “We’ve decided to accept you to our high school,” my nemesis revealed with condescending grace. How sweet. My classmates had all gotten their acceptance letters months before, while I was left in limbo. “But only,” he continued, “because you seem to have left your bad ways, and only on condition that you give your word never to repeat them.”
I gave my word. Even better, I went to a different high school. I didn’t need his favors.
When I recounted these episodes to my husband he detected the note of bitterness in my voice and interrupted my litany. “Enough! Just forgive him already. Does the old man have to roast in gehinnom because of you?”
“Whatever,” I casually responded. “It doesn’t really matter anymore, right? I just think these stories are cute. Little me, the troublemaker.” I broke into an impish grin that fooled no one.
Indeed, I had put it all behind me. After excelling in high school I went on to a top seminary in Yerushalayim. I graduated with honors, came home, got married after only a short wait to a serious masmid of a kollel husband, and was now involved in raising my beautiful yiddishe family. I had better things to think about than my bumpy lift-off in elementary school. After all, I had long overcome all that.
Or so I thought.
My pace slowed as the wash of unbidden memories came in torrents. I could almost picture my old principal stepping out to imperiously summon me to his office. I blinked and shook my head to clear it. Could it be? Yes, there, clear as day, was the man himself walking along!
The years hadn’t changed him one bit. He still wore that painstakingly benevolent, saintly look on his face. As he neared, I thought I perceived a change of expression, a faint smile playing beneath his patriarchal white beard. “Ah, yes,” he seemed to be thinking. “I dimly recognize that face…must be another student whom I gently guided through the elementary years, setting the stage for her to become the fine frum woman she is today.”
Hypocrite! I wanted to scream. It’s no thanks to you that I am who I am! I felt an extreme urge to erupt at him, to wipe that smirk off his face.
I was stunned by the intensity of my reaction, frightened of the hatred—yes, hatred—that so overwhelmed me. As if propelled, I let my gaze slide coolly past his and fix itself aloofly on some point above his head. Nose in the air, I marched past with an expression of the utmost disgust on my face, as though he were no more than a speck, or perhaps an object with an unpleasant smell that had gotten in my way. I saw his smile falter, become uncertain.
Good, I thought savagely. Take note that this former student is not gushing over with thanks. Let’s see you feel a little uncomfortable for once.
Once home, I paced the floor in a turmoil. The incident had disturbed me to the core, and I wondered what kind of person I truly was. Was I really so vindictive? Was I unable to forgive?
The feeling of pride still lingered, though. In a way I almost wished I had said those words: “Look what I have become . It’s not because of you, it’s in spite of you. I am a self-made woman.”