Some people accept change naturally when it comes in their direction. Others refuse to change. They stagnate until they have overstayed their welcome. Then, once it is clear that they no longer belong where they are, they move. But not out of their own volition; rather, they move for survival.
Some say I haven't changed since I was a pollywog. Sure, I've gained a bit of weight; the hair has thinned on the top of my head and reappeared on my face, in my nose, and on other body parts I don't show to the general public; and I have less energy than I used to. But how much have I really changed?
I like to break up my life into several phases: From birth to 4 was the Brooklyn days. If I continued down that trajectory, I would have probably been through reject yeshiva after reject yeshiva and then become one of those Kids at Risk that every religious Jewish parent was fressing about. The Kids at Risk crowd in Jewish Brooklyn was a much rougher crowd than the ones in New Jersey; so unless my parents raised me like Lotney 'Sloth' Fratelli from "The Goonies", (which I am told was not uncommon back in the day), I probably would have fraternized with plenty of yeshiva stoners. Maybe some Rebbe would have reached out to me and straightened me out; then I'd be the next loudmouth kiruv klown du jour. More likely, I would have become a hocker selling used cars or beepers/cellphones.
That trajectory was broken when my parents decided to move to Fair Lawn, NJ. Now Fair Lawn was a nicer place to raise a child. It was a community, not a cacophonous hodgepodge of Jews who can't stand each other but all somehow on the same block. The joke about Jews in Brooklyn is that you could have 10 prayer groups/synagogues on your block and you still walk a mile to pray on Saturday. But Fair Lawn was different. At the time there was only one Orthodox synagogue in the community. And this was the community that my parents moved into.
And this starts phase 2 of my life: the early Fair Lawn years. Now the school systems there were still learning to adjust to kids such as me. The first school my parents sent me to would not have put up with me for long. In general, they were a bit elitist about education. I know a few other students who most probably needed special ed who went through that school. They did not do well at all, and that school did not work with them. I switched into that school around April, so they only had to suffer me for two months. During those months, it was decided that I was too immature to move on to kindergarten, so I would have to be held back a year. My mother didn't want to hear it, so she pulled me out of that school.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Now my parents found that in general, the people who ran this new school were more compassionate. However, even they could only be so charitable. In kindergarten, I soon proved to be such a nuisance, that it was not conducive for me to remain in the class. So halfway through the year, I was demoted to pre-k. Luckily, the Pre-K teacher was my camp counselor the previous summer, and we had a good relationship. I daresay she was possibly the first teacher I ever had who somewhat understood me. So I fared well in that class.
But the next year, it was back to kindergarten. Eh, still no success. I can only speculate what wasn't working for me back then. Perhaps I was bored. After all, I already knew how to read; I've been reading since I was 4 years old. And they were still learning A-B-C's! So of course, I was bored. But then, even when learning something new, I was more interested in what was going on outside the window than inside the room. After a battery of tests and shrinks and others, I was diagnosed ADD (something that was starting to gain vogue at the time, but that's another story for another time).
And what to do with and ADDdy who won't follow the rules? The school I was in had a fledgeling special education program. At the time, there were no Orthodox Jewish school with a cutting edge special ed program. For that, you had to go to public school. Many Jewish parents wanted their children to receive a Jewish education but to also be receiving the accomodations they need. So these parents got together and formed a program that was on par with what the public schools had. When I joined, this program was only a few years old. Most of its students were pretty severely disabled, significantly lower functioning than me, and even a few years older.
And so, it goes without saying: my parents were pretty apprehensive about sending me to the lions of special education. It was a condemnation. I now had a mark on my head--I WAS DIFFERENT. I can not function in a normal people world. And to make it worse, at that point, there were not many cohorts who were my age/on my functioning level. What would happen to my social development? And would I ever be able to go to college or hold a normal job?
In the words of the great Master Yoda, "clouded, this boy's future is."
I end this post with a flash-forward: I was 21 years old. It was the summer of 2001. I was involved with an organization that provides services for Jewish disabled teenagers and young adults. Some of their consumers were former classmates of mine. I was an advisor for them. And these former classmates were generally congenial about that. Ethan [name changed] clearly wasn't.
When I first switched to special ed, Ethan was a classmate of mine. He was a few years older than me. But the nature of his disabilities was very different than mine. To top it off, he was rather hypersensitive. He always was, and years later, he was no less hypersensitive.
That summer, I was going to be a counselor on a trip to the West Coast with this organization. Ethan was going to be a camper. But for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, he cancelled at the last minute. I suspected it was because of me. I never confirmed that.
But my suspicion was slightly confirmed when the trip ended. Ethan called first my parents and then me. He wanted to know why I get to be a counselor and he doesn't if we both were once classmates. I did not know what to answer him. For once in my life I was at a loss for words. I asked my father if he could ask our former principal what I should tell him. I knew she would know the answer. She was always good with these situations.
Her answer: "he knows the answer to that question." That's it.
So my father reported back to me. He knows the answer. My response: "That's funny. He knows the answer? Because I don't!"
And my father said "that's it. That's the answer right there."
Staring me in the face all this time. The answer was "I don't know."
The answer still is "I don't know."
I don't know why I was born the way I was born. I don't know why Ethan was born the way he was born. And I don't know why I ended up walking down one path while he walked down the other.
But I constantly find myself asking the same question Hillel and Shammai battled over for many years. Are we better off having been created or not? In the end, they came to a compromise: we're better off having never been born, but now that we're here, let's count our deeds.