(Kveller via JTA) — I realize to an outsider that the constant conversations about where Sophie would go to high school seemed excessive, if not totally crazy. After all, when I was 13, I just went to the high school I was zoned for in Queens. At that time, my parents had given up on sending me to a yeshiva or Jewish day school; they could not afford it. So I attended public school, which I liked. I also attended Hebrew school twice a week, which I hated every minute of.
Somehow, years later, after a good deal of experimenting on the observance spectrum, I found myself best classified as Modern Orthodox and, married to a man with a complex religious history, we are now raising three kids who attend two different Jewish day schools.
Sophie, my oldest, had always been my most challenging child. Born with a rare birth defect affecting 1 in 10,000 births (gastroschisis), in which her stomach failed to close up correctly, she was in the NICU for two months and required surgeries and feeding tubes, and lots of attention. Once she was a year old, she was like any other child — fiercely independent with fiery red hair and long eyelashes. She hit her milestones early, much to our pediatrician’s surprise, and was a voracious reader by the time she was in kindergarten.
We enrolled Sophie in a small Jewish day school, where she did well for a few years. There was always some kind of commotion though — in school or out — and parenting an ultra bright and impulsive child was exhausting. A diagnosis of ADHD, along with the classification of being “gifted,” came when she was in third grade, and her teachers clearly did not know what to do with her apparent boredom coupled with her difficulty interacting with some of the kids in her classes.
Two years later, the addition of medication, therapy, and a switch to another Jewish day school seemed to make life better and easier for her. Things with Sophie were good, really good, except that Sophie never had a ton of friends. She definitely saw herself as a square peg being shoved into a round hole, and she was not able or willing to round herself out. She owned her differences, had her own sense of style, did not engage in small talk or gossip, and made no accommodations to fit in. She wanted to discuss ideas, theories, life. She was a college student in a middle school student’s body.
Through lots of therapy, research, and countless discussions with teachers, and others who interacted with Sophie, my husband and I became comfortable with the intense, bright young woman she was. We began to discuss high school with her when she was in the seventh grade and committed to search for a place in which she could find other bright and quirky kids with whom she might feel akin. We had found camps of this kind for her and noticed how she thrived when she was among her peers.
However, this meant that Sophie might not go to a yeshiva high school. A school with a duel curriculum is already different in many ways, and although we live in New York with a plethora of choices for day schools, these were not the schools with the concentration of both bright and quirky kids for the most part.
My husband is concerned with exactly how we would supplement a secular education with Jewish learning and Hebrew language. Will it be enough for her? How many hours a week could we realistically tutor her? To his credit, he knows his daughter and is ready to do what is right for her. I feel mixed about the possibility of Sophie not going to a Jewish high school. On the one hand, I can really see her melding nicely in a place where there is natural diversity of race, religion, neighborhood, and lifestyle.
I see her just being another different kid just like all the kids there — not sticking out like a sore thumb. But then I remember that the world is a different place than it was when I was her age. The core values that we have as parents and as Orthodox Jews living in a secular world are different in part from many who are not observant. Soon enough, she will tune out much of what my husband and I say, and her peers will have a greater influence on her than we will. A yeshiva high school is at least a known entity, and we would know some of the parents of her peers.
Whichever choice Sophie makes for high school will have some challenging consequences for her. She will decide on a school that educates kids who are either her intellectual peer group, like the school where she walked out discussing a math theory that I had never heard of with her interviewer, or one in with she can use her Hebrew language skills and continue her religious studies. But she won’t get both.
My husband and I will support her no matter which she chooses, for when you have a kid like Sophie, you are keenly aware that it is she, and not you, who will do the choosing.
(Jessica Rozenshteyn is a mom of three and lives with her husband and children in White Plains, New York.)