Author Lizzie Zakaim, second from the right, with some of her friends at Paramus High School in New Jersey.
Summer seemed like a privilege. A privilege I had all but used up. All the signs that it was over were there — I didn’t wake up to 85 degree-weather, my shoes were crunching leaves and the first day of school, Sept. 5, glared at me from its spot on my calendar.
On my first day of school I woke at 6 a.m. I was intimidated, yes, I was shaky and my head was pounding, yes, but I was excited. I wanted to be where I was, starting my first year at Paramus High School in Paramus. N.J. I wanted to start something new — not to be a legend. As amazing as my day school experience was, that school was a bubble of safety; a bubble I was ready to pop.
My anxiety was through the roof as the bus pulled into the school parking lot. I walked into a huge building with no idea where to go. The crumpled, damp map in my hands proved partially helpful. I got lost plenty of times and wished I wasn’t there when it came time for gym, but I made new friends and adjusted slowly. My first day was the rough, unavoidable start. After that, each day got easier and easier.
For 10 years I attended Yavneh Academy in Paramus, N.J. Since kindergarten I had the same grade of 80 or so kids. That wasn’t a bad thing at all. I loved knowing everyone and everyone was familiar with me. When people said they hated school I pretended to sympathize, all the while getting a warm feeling in my stomach because I loved my school. From kindergarten through eighth grade I looked forward to Mondays and dreaded Fridays.
Eighth grade, my graduating year, was the highlight of my time at Yavneh. In seventh grade I looked forward to the potent smell of new school supplies, a fresh locker to slam and the freedom to sit with my friends at lunch. The whole grade goes on a three day trip to Niagara Falls. I love to act, so most important to me was the class play about the Holocaust. Eighth grade seemed like just another year until my parents announced my future: I was going to a public high school.
They said that tuition for a yeshiva high school wasn’t worth the money; it was equivalent to one year of college tuition. I wondered how my parents could base my education around money. I thought they were being cheap. The word public was frightening, poisonous and I was so-called “lucky” enough to be infected with it. My move was all I could think about throughout the year. It haunted my thoughts. What should I expect? Did I know anyone? Would I be a loser? What would other people think?
My Yavneh friends were not ecstatic about my high school situation. They were going to be together at The Frisch School, a co-ed yeshiva high school in Paramus, N.J. I had never heard of anyone graduating from Yavneh and attending a public school. My friends said that of course they would keep in touch with me and it would be no big deal. In fact a couple other people in my grade were rumored to be going to public school, too.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I was growing more tolerant of the idea when I was within the walls of Yavneh, laughing it off with my friends and quickly changing the subject. But outside of school, when members of my community asked me what high school I planned on attending, my palms would get sweaty and I could hear the pounding in my temples. All these parents planned on sending their kids to Frisch, I thought. They would be judgmental of someone stepping out of the familiar and going to an unknown school.
“Well, I want to go to Frisch but it’s my parents’ choice really,” was my response from September until around April. It wasn’t a lie, I did want to go to Frisch. I wanted to be with all of my friends on the first day of school and my parents weren’t giving me a choice, so it didn’t matter really what I wanted. I wasn’t committing to anything.
Eventually the time came in May for all the day schools to interview students whose applications were accepted. I couldn’t lie about an interview that didn’t exist so I had to spill the truth. Besides, I wanted to give a definitive answer, just not mine: “No, I’m not going to Frisch because my parents don't want to pay for it and yes, please judge away.”
People were disappointed; disappointed enough to have me arrange a meeting with my Yavneh guidance counselor. I did it mostly to play along because after all, I didn’t want to go to Paramus High School, right? Another perk was getting out of class, which made me almost look forward to the meetings. But the content of them started to bother me.
The counselor said it was only right for me to go to Frisch; I needed a Jewish education — not a Sunday school that wasn’t religious enough for me. Hebrew school was for kids who never attended day school, and I had 10 years of a private, Jewish education. As I sat there watching her talk to me I realized that what I feared came true: People didn’t understand my parents’ decision. But I was starting to.
Going to a public school couldn’t be as bad as watching people I trusted not respecting, and not trusting, my decision. As my last year at Yavneh drew to a close, I wasn’t anxious. Suddenly, stepping out of the norm and popping that day school bubble was invigorating. I was going to do something different that sounded fresh; I needed a clean slate.
Now when people ask me what high school I attend, I proudly tell them that I’m in public school at Paramus High School. I’m continuing my Jewish studies too. Once a week, I study privately with a rabbi. We talk about the laws of Shabbat and where they originated. He is a good teacher who makes the material interesting.
I keep in touch with my friends from Yavneh. Either I sleep at their houses for Shabbat or they’re at mine. During the summer I saw some of them at the pool. I keep in touch with the people I enjoyed at Yavneh, and I’m not afraid to say that I go to a different school. Instead of cringing, I revel at their reactions while my self-satisfaction blossoms inside me. I no longer feel infected by the idea of public school. In fact, it’s not as poisonous as I thought.