“Just make a mark and see where it takes you,” my sixth-grade social studies teacher read to us on the first day of middle school (from a book whose name I can no longer recall). Our homework that night was to make a poster out of that quote. My so-called poster was an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper typed in Times New Roman, size 12 font. All of the other students brought in large poster boards decorated with handwritten, bubble letters and construction paper cutouts. Even the boys in my class, known for their lack of enthusiasm, seemed interested in making a good first impression in middle school.
My good impression didn’t happen in middle school. Looking back on the last seven years of my life, middle school was a time when I actively hid any attempt at making a mark. I lacked the confidence I needed to stand out in any way. Faced with bullying and depression, I felt that I stood out enough without trying to make myself stand out even more by appearing different. As cliché as it might sound, I wanted to be as invisible as possible in middle school. If I kept my head down and gritted my teeth, I might be able to survive until high school, which I perceived as a four-year-long bridge between middle school and freedom: college.
I entered high school knowing only four people who would eventually become my classmates. I was lost (and I don’t mean in the sense that I got lost on the two-block walk from the subway station to my school). I was scared of what high school would bring. Other than the promise from teachers that it “wasn’t the same as middle school,” I had no idea what to expect.
In four years, everything changed completely.
High school has been as much about learning history, English and Talmud as it has been about learning that I can make a mark — a mark that I was too afraid to make in middle school. High school gave me the opportunity to find exactly what I wanted to say and how to get my words out there to other people. High school afforded me the opportunity to become comfortable with who I am: an advocate, a writer and a person.
My impact has come primarily through writing, which I’ve always enjoyed. My proudest moment in middle school was when my first prose piece was published in Teen Ink, a creative writing website for middle and high school students. During middle school, I wrote mostly prose and attempted poetry; it was a way for me to imagine other worlds that might exist. While other students had sports or singing, I had writing, and I channeled my energy into my school’s creative writing club, where I wrote story after story.
In high school I began to fall in love with journalism and writing about my own experiences. Instead of telling stories that I made up, I began telling my own stories and the stories of those around me. While my middle school writing had been therapeutic — cathartic, even — my writing in high school was about making my mark. It was about getting my thoughts out there for others to read and comment on.
I began writing for publications inside and outside of school. First, Fresh Ink for Teens then the Huffington Post’s Teen section. In high school I discovered passions I never knew existed, and I was given the tools to channel those passions and create something constructive from them.
I was also given the experiences and the opportunities that I needed to write about. Doors opened to me in high school. I took part in valuable programs such as Write On For Israel, where the foundation was set for all my advocacy work. Write On For Israel is a Jewish Week-sponsored program that engages, educates and trains high school juniors and seniors on the Mideast, preparing them to be pro-Israel advocates on campus.
I found in myself a passion for Israel advocacy, Judaism and social justice. I wrote about my experiences in an effort to understand them and saw how they intersected. Putting together “Novel Ideas from ‘The Chosen,’” led me to understand the importance of a Jewish state and my role was an American Jew (Fresh Ink for Teens, June, 2012).
I wrote about religious pluralism not only to foster a deeper understanding of the religion of which I am a part, but also to understand how I fit into this massively diverse web that is the Jewish community (“All I’m Asking Is For A Little Respect,” Fresh Ink for Teens, November, 2012). I talked about my experiences in communities more diverse than the one I grew up in and realized that there are multiple ways of being Jewish: mine is but one.
High school was also where I found the courage to come out of the closet. I found out what happens when my community stops supporting me and what can happen when I find an accepting, open-minded community that does and encourages me to question the world around me, despite my being queer.
During that process I became closer to Judaism. Faced with the possibility of ostracism from the Modern Orthodox community in which I was raised, I began to fight for my right to be an observant Jew who is committed to the traditions and ways that I value. In so doing, I wrote about my journey and found a community of people who were equally dedicated to creating a space for people like me: queer and Jewish. We hope those who come after us will never have to question these two parts of their identity or face losing an entire community, as I did.
“Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. … I want to leave a mark … but … the marks humans leave are too often scars,” I read in John Green’s novel, “The Fault in our Stars.” High school was a process of self-discovery as to how to make the mark that in middle school, I feared would end up a scar.
I’ve learned how to advocate, how to write and how to leave my mark using these tools. High school gave me the opportunities and the resources I needed not only to find myself, but to pursue what mattered to me. I learned the value of making a mark on the world around me: I can help others while helping myself.
Through my writing I was able to synthesize two important parts of my identity: being queer and being Jewish. I share my experiences in the hopes that I can make the world a better place for those who face the same challenges. I pray that I have, somewhere, made a difference.