Saturday, July 9, 2011

"You Can Be Anything that You Want to Be, If You Try Hard Enough"

...Or maybe not.

When I was in ninth and tenth grades, my family lived in a small town far from any substantial frum community. I spent those years in a public school that had only five Jewish students, of which I was the only frum one.

In tenth grade I made friends with the girl who sat next to me in math class. Leila, a Muslim immigrant who came from Pakistan at the age of five, was one of the few students in the school who could relate to my religious observance, and I was one of the few students who understood her. We discussed topics such as modesty and dietary laws, and I was there to support her when her father caught her with a picture of a boy with his arm on her shoulder. The other students would not have been able to understand why her father cared.

One day Leila was quite upset. She described to me how she had spent hours writing and rewriting an essay for her honors' English class. She was distressed because she felt that no matter how many times she would try to rewrite it, the essay would still be terrible. Leila was an intelligent girl so I was sure that she was exaggerating, but I offered to look over her essay and help her rewrite it.

After our math class we went to the library to look at the essay. I was shocked. Using the word terrible to describe the essay would be an understatement. The essay was so bad that I could not understand what she was attempting to write. It was clear to me that she really had tried, but that for some reason she had no grasp of grammar. So I sat with her and helped her rewrite her essay, and then did the same at least once a week at lunch for the rest of the year.

One day I asked her, "Why are you in honors' English if writing is so difficult for you?" To me it seemed that remedial English would have been a more appropriate placement. She explained to me that her immigrant parents wanted her to fulfill the American dream of going to an ivy-league university, so that she could get into a top medical school and become a doctor, so her parents insisted that she stay in the honors'-level English track. She told me that she wished that her parents would let her take courses that were more appropriate for her.

Her parents had absorbed one of the most common beliefs of modern American society, that a person can be anything that he or she wants to be by trying hard. This belief seems to transcend religious and cultural boundaries, and Leila's parents simply could not understand that their daughter could not do well in honor's English, no matter how hard she tried. Leila was quite good at math and may well have done fine at a middle-of-the-road state college, and then possibly have gone to medical school, by taking an appropriate English class that would have taught her the skills that she needed to succeed. Alternatively, if she really could not learn how to write well enough to graduate college, she may have been able to find a trade that suited her. If Leila had been my daughter, I would also have had her evaluated for learning disabilities. By pushing their daughter to go in a direction that was not appropriate for her, her parents were setting her up for failure.

This attitude is seen particularly strongly in the frum world. The frum world defines success quite narrowly, yet argues that everyone can achieve that measure of success if they try hard enough. While some "elite" sectors of the secular world are guilty of having the same attitude, in most secular households success is defined broadly enough that everyone can succeed at something. When success for a man is defined as being able to learn gemara for hours per day, is it any surprise that many people end up feeling like failures? Many people simply cannot do that, even if they "try hard". If success for a girl is defined as being a good mother to a large family, is it any surprise that many people fail?

People are different by nature. Everyone is unique, and effort is often not enough to compensate for having inherent difficulties in a particular area. No matter how hard I try, I will never be a good baalebusta. Hopefully one day I will achieve the level of "mediocre". So why should I spend my life working towards something that I will always be bad at, rather than working towards a goal that will enable me to excel?

I unfortunately lost touch with Leila and do not know what happened to her. I, however, am determined to do what Leila would have done if she had the choice. I am going to follow the direction of my innate abilities and find a way to succeed at something.


  1. One of the major issues with living someone else's dreams is that you get out of touch with your real feelings and ambitions. It takes a long time to realize that you have the right to believe, think, fell and act the way you want - because your wants were always subjected to those of others.

  2. UK: well said.

    The myth that anyone can succeed if they "try hard enough" has been used quite effectively to stigmatize those who don't rise to the upper economic class in our country. In the Frum world it works equally well to cast those who are best suited to be earners , no matter how well educated they might be, into the lower social strata.

  3. >The frum world defines success quite narrowly

    I will not mention the irony of you defining the frum world narrowly as if all subgroups and citizens of this amazing world operate on the same value system.

  4. It sounds like you're an empathic, sensitive person. You can be an awesome parent by empathizing with your children and being able to see them as human beings. That's more important than any matching clothes, neat house, good-tasting cholent, or playdate you set. Unlike normal baalabuste bullshit, it actually matters.

  5. I think you are wrong. The frum world has two narrowly defined classes.

    1. The learners
    2. The guys with tons of $$.

    Each class gets lots of kavod. Everybody else is made to feel as if they have no right to live.