“My Principal Wouldn’t Let the Other Girls Talk to Me”
A courageous letter from a girl who was deliberately ostracized, to the principal who nearly ruined her
This post is being published on behalf of a specific client, at her request. This emotionally powerful, raw and honest note was written by a thoughtful, intelligent woman to her former high school principal. She wanted to share her feelings with this educator in order to resolve her issues and get some closure. Bravely signed with her actual name, it was sent in the sincere hope that the principal would hear her perspective on what had happened, and then explain or apologize. The response, however, was not what she had hoped for. So after much deliberation she decided to publicize the letter, realizing that it could potentially help others who had suffered in the same way or were going through a hard time of any kind.
Her message to them is that they are not alone. The letter is now being published under a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the involved parties, but I agreed to put my real name on it, as pure anonymity has a tendency to compromise credibility. While the names may have been changed, the facts about what occurred are quite real. It was her initiative and choice to share these words. Unfortunately, this heartbreaking story is far too common, and many others will probably relate to it.
Dear Mrs. T.*,
Hi, this is Chani*. I’m not writing to you as an angry former student who wants you to know how miserable high school was for her. I am writing as a mature young woman who wants very badly to forgive you, but cannot seem to forgive and forget. Let me explain.
I was an innocent 14-year-old girl when I entered high school. I worried that I wasn’t as smart as the other girls, because I’m not particularly academic by nature. I also couldn’t get myself to behave like all the other girls. That’s because I had ADD (which I figured out a year later with the help of my parents.) Still, when I was in the ninth grade, I tried very hard to please you and my teachers. I tried so hard to be a “good girl.” But I just couldn’t do it on my own.
After being sent out of class several times due to lack of concentration, you called me into your office and issued a threat. You angrily told me that you were going to call the parents of the girls in my class and tell them that their daughters shouldn’t be friends with me. You also said that because of me, other girls were going to struggle with Yiddishkeit and go off the derech. Now, as I said, I was only a young and insecure girl who just couldn’t sit still and focus. In my mind, I hadn’t done anything wrong. But instead of trying to figure out what the problem was and why I was acting this way, you thought that the way to help me was to knock me down and tell me that I was a bad influence and a bad person. It was hard enough that I couldn’t be a good student, but now it looked like I also wouldn’t be able to have friends.
Well, guess what? Your plan worked. You kept your word and advised the other girls to stay away from me. Not only was I blamed by the school and my friends’ parents, but I also sank into a depression. I hated myself, to the point that I wanted to die. I now understand that so much of that suffering was because of you. I try very hard not to blame other people for things and take responsibility for my own life. But after four years of being depressed and suicidal and going from therapist to therapist, I now realize that if you had only tried to help me things could have been very different.
In the tenth grade I didn’t have a single friend, because you didn’t allow anyone to talk to me. I was all alone, all the time. Shortly after the school year began my mother took me to a doctor who diagnosed me with ADD and prescribed medication to help me sit through class. Let me tell you, I hated that medication. Yes, it helped me focus. It helped me a lot, but it also made me so unnaturally quiet and devoid of appetite that I didn’t want to take it. But I took it anyway. That’s how desperate I was to please you.
In the eleventh grade, I still had no one talk to. I’d even tried befriending some of the other girls on your “bad list” (you’d warned people to stay away from them too), but apparently you’d already told them to avoid me. You didn’t let anyone be my friend, even the other girls you disliked.
That year was my last year in your school—but not because you wanted me to leave. I was the one who left. I was able to finish high school in a healthier, kinder place, where I was able to start afresh and make friends, and no one was constantly putting me down.
Mrs. T., a lot has happened since then. I’m a lot happier and healthier and making progress. I got married, had a baby, and I’m working towards a fulfilling career. I’ve been able to move beyond being that hurt teenager. I keep hoping that I’ll be able to forgive you but I can’t. It’s hard to forgive someone who never apologized, and doesn’t even realize that she hurt you.
After a while I went to a professional who was able to pinpoint the problem immediately: I’d been struggling with depression throughout my high school years. And the more you knocked me down and overlooked the real problem, the more it worsened. I am still wondering why you didn’t encourage me to be a good student and find my strengths. Why did you isolate and humiliate me instead of trying to build me up?
The reason I am writing to you now is that I truly believe that underneath the cruelty you have a good heart and want to help people. I am sure that you encounter other students like me in your school every year. I am hoping that by me telling you about my experience, maybe theirs will be better.
I really hope that someday Hashem will help me forgive you wholeheartedly. In the meantime, I am learning how to forgive and be kinder to myself.
After Chani read her letter to me in session I asked her if she wanted to share it with the principal as well. She thought about it, and then apprehensively decided that she did. Mrs. T. called Chani after she received the letter. She told her that teenagers don’t always understand that mechanchos have to say and do difficult things in the name of “chinuch.” In fact, Chani should appreciate what she’d done for her, and be grateful that she’d gone to the trouble of finding her phone number and calling her. This was clearly not the response Chani was hoping for, but ever the respectful student, she politely thanked her for calling. This experience left Chani feeling hollow; she’d been hoping that by confronting Mrs. T. she would achieve some resolution, the opportunity to understand and be understood. Instead, she again felt dismissed and disqualified.
We then discussed the idea of sharing her story beyond her principal for her own validation, but also and more importantly, so that other young women would know that they weren’t the only ones. It would also serve the purpose of allowing educators to hear what many other teens and young adults might be too timid or broken to say. And the problem isn’t confined to kids who develop obvious issues or those who abandon religion. Many young men and women ostensibly go on to lead stable, upstanding and mainstream lives, but still quietly suffer from the mistreatment emotionally, bearing scars that aren’t visible from the outside.
Although Chani was concerned about her privacy and the risk that her experience would once again be trivialized, she also felt that this was something that needed to be said. So she opted to share anonymously through her therapist, who didn’t need to remain anonymous, and could also vouch for the veracity of her story and her pain. She initially asked me to submit it for her to one of the Jewish publications. We did and were told that it would be published in an upcoming issue. She waited and watched for months, nervous yet excited, but it never appeared. I followed up to ask what had happened. I was then informed that it was pulled because it was “hashkafically concerning.” The writer was deeply disappointed, so I offered to feature it in my blog, as I find the idea of it being hashkafically concerning, hashkafically concerning.
This is Chani’s take-home message: If you are in a school where you are being villainized or ostracized for your struggles, or if this happened to you in the past, know that there is hope. Not fitting into your high school’s mold doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad Jew. Speak to someone you trust, a person who believes in you, whether a parent, friend, mentor, or counselor. Many students suffer in school settings, but then go on to find their inner worth and blossom in other ways. Please don’t give up on yourself. There is life beyond high school. Things can get better and you can find happiness, even if you haven’t found it yet.
And if you are an educator who is inclined to come down hard on your students for not talking, walking, dressing or behaving the way you want them to, please remember: these are young people at a vulnerable point in their lives. They probably have struggles you don’t know about. They need love and support, not censure. Verbal abuse, isolation and criticism don’t make teens want to work harder or be more spiritual. Adults who believe in them, smile at them and work with them can make a difference. You have the power to make or break them, so please choose wisely.