At the beginning of January 1985, I was a month away from turning 20 years old. My father had dropped me off at the college of my choice (as long as it was an in-state school he could afford) on a Friday so that I would be there bright and early for freshman orientation on Monday morning. Three years had come and gone since graduating high school…three very long years.
During my freshman year of high school, I informed my guidance counselor that I had absolutely no intention of attending any form of higher education. I loathed school my entire life and couldn’t wait to wipe my hands clean of all things educational. I was in luck – the guidance counselor informed me that it was possible to graduate in three years instead of four, but not without warning me of the difficulties I would encounter doubling up on classes over the next two years. I was in luck again – learning was not the reason I hated school so much. I always earned excellent grades with minimal effort and rarely caused my teachers or the administration any problems (except for the time I lied to my 4th-grade teacher about not really reading Dr. Doolittle, leading the 6th-grade sit-in against an impending teachers’ strike and getting caught smoking in the girls’ room in 8th grade). Well, I was a bit chatty (okay, so I was a lot chatty) and often joked around with classmates in hopes of being popular one day, but I was never an issue to be sent to the principal’s office or to get expelled (except for the time I was caught smoking in the girls’ room in 8th grade…and later twice in high school, once in the girls’ room, the other in the hallway…okay…so maybe I was a bit of an issue…).
Not being popular – that was the reason I hated school so much. Despite being a major extrovert, the social situations throughout my first nine years of institutional education were dismal, to say the least. Depressingly so, kindergarten was my best year. After the summer of 1971, it was all downhill from there. I never had a lot of friends, though I was the one to befriend someone less fortunate than myself, loyal to a fault. And the “friends” I did have were not necessarily the loyal type, me forever choosing the “friendship” of the dregs of society.
I was determined to begin life as an “adult” as soon as possible. So, I graduated in 1982 near the bottom of “my class,” which wasn’t really my class because my class was graduating the following year. I lied to my guidance counselor about career choices. I “planned” to go to secretarial school but didn’t (which I kinda regret because I would have made WAY more cash than as a social worker over the past 30 years). I fudged the career test (I got interior decorator – I would have LOVED to decorate other people’s homes on their dime – and mathematician…what?!). So, I did neither and continued to search for my next dregs of friendship society. Once again, I was in luck – my new boyfriend was the perfect dreg, along with his roommates, one of whom was a previous boyfriend who was dreggier than my then current dreg boyfriend.
Despite not going to secretarial school, I had learned enough in my high school secretarial courses to land a job as a clerk with a local insurance company. Still technically living at home, I pretty much lived 23/7 with my new dreg boyfriend, initially enjoying the freedom a 17-year-old “adult” could have, living the dreg lifestyle with his roommates as well as the other dreg friends that visited throughout the week. But then I grew bored. Life wasn’t fun anymore and my “friends” weren’t really my friends. I then decided to enter therapy in order to find out why I needed my dregs so much…
I have a vivid memory of threatening my mother about my future. When I was a little girl, I passionately informed her that, as soon as I turned 18, I would be leaving home. I told her (in hindsight too many times) that I couldn’t wait to move out and become my own person; to be responsible for my own self and do whatever I please – all this over an argument as to why she refused to buy me overalls (why the first thing I bought after my daughter was born…now you know mom).
So, in my 18th year of life, having found my therapy a “success,” my brother, who was already serving in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in Arizona at the time, agreed to take me home to live with him following the wedding of my eldest sister in 1983. Anticipating my new life far, far away from everything and everyone I knew, I fantasized about becoming the next Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks or Geddy Lee, three of my favorite singalong performers (pre-karaoke) in middle and high school. Within the first month I had found my new dreg boyfriend through a Want Ad looking to form a new band with female back-up singers. In reality, I wasn’t a singer. I wasn’t terrible, but I wasn’t great either – no dogs howled, nor did people cringe when I belted out a tune, so I was determined to become a rock star.
My new dreg boyfriend was the lead guitarist – and a very good one at that. Within our first meeting, I don’t think he cared whether or not I had a voice – we fell madly in love (i.e., lust) with one another…despite his being nine years my senior. Looking back, I realize he was the same age as my brother and, although legal, I was barely out of my teens. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my new dreg boyfriend had a very dark past involving crazy exes and a stint in the slammer…and an IV cocaine addiction that I was completely oblivious of until his sister opened my eyes to the warning signs. In spite of all this knowledge, I was a little girl “in love.” It was too late to turn back and allowed this man and all his dreg buddies to take me through a roller coaster lifestyle I knew existed but had never experienced full throttle…and alone. Even after becoming seriously ill and returning to my parents’ home within the first two months and returning to clerkship at several local insurance companies, I returned to Arizona, seeking out my own addiction – dregs. Thankfully, I would ultimately choose to leave after a year of insanity and move from one apartment of a friend and/or co-worker to another until I finally hit my rock bottom…I had just turned 19.
Having lived “in sin” with a man, my parents refused to accept me back home. I was homeless. I don’t think the thought truly hit me until I was in my twenties, married and living independently and successfully on my own. I don’t remember how long I was homeless, but I managed to barely scrimp enough cash together to fly back to New Jersey – I needed to be back where I knew everything and everyone. Before leaving, I contacted the ex-dreg boyfriend roommate of the latter dreg boyfriend and asked to stay with him until I could figure out my next move. Lasting only a few days, after another roller coaster ride of drugs, alcohol and mental illness, I called my middle sister, asking to let me stay with her, to which she obliged. This arrangement barely survived the weekend thanks to my ex-brother-in-law’s chronic complaints about me being there…that’s when I finally called my mother and begged her to let me come home…I was 19 ½ …
I don’t remember exactly what my mother said that day, but I do remember it had something to do with me getting my shit (my words, never hers, except when she seriously hurt herself in the kitchen) together and having to pay my own way. I also don’t remember how I got home, but I did and was happier than I had ever been in my life.
Once again, I was back working as a secretary in various insurance companies, earning my pay and trying to convince my parents that I was now ready to be an adult. At one point I considered going to nursing school, where I would receive two years free tuition and, in turn, commit to three years of employment at the local hospital. But, alas, I didn’t follow through on that plan either – another decision I regret to this day. I would have made far more money than I ever did in 30 years of social work or as a secretary.
So, here I was on the cusp of my 20th birthday, returning to my former lifestyle and becoming bored real fast. I had nothing to show for myself except how to deal with the dregs of society, their drug addictions, their alcoholism and their mental illness.,,but the one thing I had forgotten was that I was smart. So, I spoke to my father about sending me to college. He agreed, but not without major reservations. I could only apply to in-state colleges, excluding Rutgers, which just wasn’t easily affordable and to which I wasn’t worthy of at the time. Considering a significant trust factor, my father pleasantly and agreeably drove me from college to college, helping me decide the best fit. I also agreed to pay for my first semester, which ended up only being a little over $2000. If I proved my worth, dad would foot the rest of the bill until I graduated. The only nagging feelings that held me back were my still current loathing of school and the fear that the dregs would once again find me in my new hiding place.
The good news is that it was best that I paid for the first semester. Once again, I managed to find the few dregs existing on campus and found myself sinking once again…but not without a fight. I had just turned 20 and knew it was time to truly get my shit together. During my first semester, having claimed a photography major (my current fantasy becoming a photojournalist for National Geographic), I fell madly in love with anthropology after enrolling in a human evolution course. I immediately changed my major to anthropology/sociology with the desire to work with Native American populations (an interest transpired while living in Arizona). And, having lived almost ten years with some fairly anomalous people, I discovered I had acquired an ability to look objectively at humanity, regardless of their “quirks.” Anthropology would teach me how to utilize those “skills” in a much more serviceable manner.
Although my father would refer to my major as “earning a degree in Basket Weaving,” I proved myself worthy of full tuition after receiving all A’s and working 20 hours a week at the college performing arts center that first semester (later doubling up my coursework while working 30 hours a week). I would later receive my bachelor’s degree after only three years, loving every minute of it and managing to stay clear of any and every dreg that came my way. Sure, there were a few heartbreaks along the way, but these were healthy, typical relationships that most young adults go through. After graduation I became a social worker, guiding the dregs of my society rather than signing up with them. I would later meet my husband of 30 years (the most excellent lead guitarist I’ve ever known) and have our only child…YOU…
Yes, my daughter, you have been through a lot too. For so many years you were bullied by your peers. They left you crippled with anxiety and crushed your confidence in every thought and action. You also hated school as much as I did and managed to get very good grades despite your lack of trying. You never caused any problems (except for the occasional student-teacher conflicts that were merely a prediction of what was to come). You weren’t popular either, but you managed to always steer clear of the dregs of society and found your true (albeit nerdy) friends in high school. You never smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol (accept in our presence) or did drugs and obeyed authority to the fullest regard.
We (mostly) willingly wrote checks for applications, entrance exams and admissions fees and pleasantly drove you to some of the colleges of (mostly) your choice. I just wish you had been more up front about your intentions of not going (some day you can pay us back). However, you had the determination to make a much braver decision in your life – after years of telling us how much you wanted to leave home and be your own person, at age 18 ½ you packed your bags and moved far, far away from everything and everyone you knew – all by yourself.
Before leaving, you were the first openly gay student at your high school, blazing a trail for many to follow in your footsteps. You did this all by yourself.
You were the first female student in the history of your high school to have a siyyum – twice…all by yourself.
Despite being told “not to bother because you’re not smart enough,” you were accepted into eight of ten colleges and wait-listed for the other two, every single one giving merit and academic scholarships, including American and Drexel – all by yourself.
After your own fact-finding, you managed to go to university in another country where English is not the native language and complete the entire year – successfully, all by yourself.
Only six weeks at university, and after four years of your own research and planning, you made Aliyah at the age of 18 ½ – successfully, all by yourself.
Three months later, at age 19, you received your passport and became an official Israeli citizen – all by yourself.
Knowing you would have to serve in the IDF after university, you explored the options you had as a lone soldier and managed to get yourself accepted into Garin Tzabar – all by yourself.
While studying at university, you figured out how to bank, obtain insurance, find a doctor (for free) and a pharmacy to help with medication and a lawyer (for free) to help with legal issues pertaining to Aliyah, along with locating and dealing with all the other agencies and individuals involved in the process and attending all the required monthly seminars and Shabbatons with Garin Tzaber – all by yourself.
At 19 ½, you willingly returned to Israel last year, knowing you would be drafted – all by yourself.
You found a place to live, pay rent for an apartment that you maintain all by yourself, purchase food and other household items that you need and somehow undertake every other facet of being an adult – all by yourself.
You have never been homeless. You have been, and will always be, welcome in our home.
Despite not having any family members living in Israel, you have found a beautiful support system and several host and adoptive families that will last a lifetime – all by yourself.
Even when the chips were down and you found yourself drifting in limbo waiting to draft, you found a job at the kibbutz school teaching English to the children of the place you (and we) now call home – all by yourself.
You triumphantly fought against going to michve alon, even when everyone around discouraged you – all by yourself.
You drafted and attained your first choice in job training all by yourself.
Despite the recent decisions made by your commanders, you advocated for yourself and managed to get a second chance because you’re smart and worth it too. Your life’s dream of making Aliyah and joining the IDF has come true. This is something most Jews on the planet will never be able to say in their lifetime.
And here you are, 20-years-old, with so much more positive accomplishments under your belt. These are your accomplishments. These are the things we are proud of – these are the things you need to be proud of because they are yours. So, the next time you think you’re a “failure,” read this letter and start writing down the accomplishments that will continue into your twenties and beyond. The best is yet to come…
I can almost see it
That dream I’m dreaming but
There’s a voice inside my head saying
You’ll never reach it
The Climb – Miley Cyrus
המציל נפש אחת כאילו הציל עולם שלם
He who saves one soul, it is as if he saves a whole world